07/29/08 - 12:25am
What makes point guard Jason Kidd so unique is a bit mystical, or musical, depending on your bent.
"I can't explain it to you," forward LeBron James says. "I don't know what Jason does, I don't know how he does it. If I could explain it to you, I'd be like a prophet or something."
"He sees things," guard Dwyane Wade says of Kidd's sixth sense. "When you're on the court and you see him do something, you think he had to see that like three minutes ago."
Last month at a practice in Las Vegas, U.S. Olympic men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski compared Kidd to a jazz pianist who makes the rhythm section around him better, who plays at some obscure club at 3 a.m. without caring if anyone's there to listen. "It's his mind, his instincts, the feel and the daring," Krzyzewski says.
It may surprise some NBA fans that Kidd, at 35 the oldest member of the 12-man Olympic team, is the starting point guard ahead of Chris Paul, 23, and Deron Williams, 24. But being the best isn't necessarily about stats, quickness, age or outside perception. What makes Kidd so important to success in Beijing is "crazy, deeper stuff," Krzyzewski says.
"Being the best means that you have the ability to have the biggest impact in the creation of an environment to win, and Jason has that," Krzyzewski says. "With the experience of that many years in the NBA and internationally, coupled with the passion to continue to do it, teamed up with talent around him, I don't think anyone on our team has a better equation. Obviously Kobe (Bryant) and LeBron (James) are better players, but that entire impact, he's as important a guy as we can have."
Kidd, who is entering his 15th NBA season, was traded from the New Jersey Nets to the Dallas Mavericks last February. He's played on USA Basketball teams since 1993 and is shooting for his second gold medal after winning one in 2000.
High basketball IQ
Inside Kidd's shaved dome, there must be algorithms of passing angles and variables of equations burned into his synapses. "His mind is his best talent," Krzyzewski says. "And his ability to instinctively react to situations on the court is at the highest level, as high as anyone who has ever played the game."
Krzyzewski compares Kidd's basketball IQ to Magic Johnson's, who was Kidd's idol growing up in California.
Kidd defines instinct as "being able to be creative in a split second." When an opponent takes a shot and Kidd's team gets the rebound, he already has analyzed the situation and processed how to move the ball up the court the fastest way possible.
"When somebody shoots, I take a picture of where everyone is out on the court and then go from there with my whole thought process," Kidd says. "There's maybe 100 things I'm going through, a checklist that all happens in two seconds. First is to get the ball, second is, where is the defender? Where are my teammates? Is my teammate tired? If I throw it too far will he quit on me? What type of pass is called for? Is it a bounce pass? Is it a chest pass? If all that isn't there, then what play are we going to run?
"That (answer) comes where you're probing and trying to find something and that's where your creativity and daring come in because maybe you're going to do something that most people would never think about doing. It becomes a chess match, not with the opponent but with yourself because you're trying to figure out what's the right thing to do in that split second."
Playing with Kidd has been an adjustment, in a good way, for the U.S. stars. "We don't play with point guards like him," Wade says. "I've never played with point guards like him."
When Kidd started practicing with the group, there were plenty of turnovers because his teammates hadn't caught up to their point guard's vision. "He just sees the game differently," Bryant says. "He grew up being a passer, understanding the angles. He makes very quick reads, very quick decisions. It's a different role for me and makes the game easier. Some of the shots you get you tend to be uncomfortable with because they're so damn easy. You're used to having guys on your arm all the time. With Jason, you get wide-open looks. He puts the ball right on the money."
During shooting drills last summer, Kidd turned to Carmelo Anthony and asked, "Where do you want the ball?"
Anthony, not quite sure what Kidd meant, gave him a puzzled look. "What do you mean?"
When players realize that Kidd (6-4, 212 pounds) can deliver the ball to their sweet spot, Krzyzewski says their reaction is: "You mean, I'm going to have room service and you're going to cut my meat too? You're going to give it to me in a certain position?"
So where does Anthony want the ball? "Wherever he gives it to me," Anthony says.
The team leader
Though the "crazy, deeper stuff" defines Kidd's game, so too does this: 44-0, his record competing at the senior international level. At the 2000 Olympics, he helped the USA win gold. Four years later, he missed the 2004 Games because of an injury to his left knee and the U.S. stumbled to a bronze.
At one of the team's first meetings, when USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo pointed out that Kidd has never lost an international game, Kidd responded, "And I'm not starting now." To preserve Kidd's perfect record, the team would have to go 8-0 and win gold in Beijing.
During Olympic qualifying last summer, he took only 10 shots in 10 games but was named USA Basketball's Male Athlete of the Year, leading the team to a 39.5 average margin of victory.
"What's fabulous for our team is if you put Kobe, Carmelo and LeBron in the game, you need a point guard who's really just looking to facilitate and that's what Jason does," says assistant coach Jim Boeheim. "Other great point guards have a scoring portion of their game, some of them have it as a large portion of their game, whereas Jason never needs to take a shot."
This approach fits the team-oriented aspect of the international game, with the emphasis on passing and selfless play. "The next level is for them to get on me to shoot the ball because they've become passers and it becomes contagious and that's the fun part," Kidd says. Krzyzewski isn't worried about Kidd's scoring line. "In a half-court setting, he will and he can score," the coach says.
Because of the respect that teammates have for Kidd, an expected Hall of Famer, he is accepted as their leader. "Players today as good as they are and as much publicity as they get and the egos they obviously have because they're LeBron, Kobe, Carmelo, it's important that they have someone they can look up to. Other than dead people they don't look up to too many people," Boeheim says.
Kidd jokes, "They respect their elders." The cracks teammates make about his age -- some call him "Pops" -- and that has become part of the team's banter. In Las Vegas last month, the players gathered around a TV and watched Marvin Gaye perform the "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. Krzyzewski wanted them to envision being on the gold-medal stand.
Given the vintage footage, Bryant couldn't resist the chance to tweak Kidd about his age. "J, I was looking during the national anthem to see where you were standing. Was that your first year in the league?" Bryant said.
Kidd plans to play a few more years in the NBA and then explore business opportunities. (Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn, enamored with Kidd's vision beyond the court already has invited him to learn more about the industry.). Kidd also is interested in pursuing a path as a NBA general manager.
But, first things first: The chance to win gold, and put the disappointment of 2004 behind, awaits. "I just love to play the game. It's a kid's game that we as adults get to play," Kidd says. "I would love to put this record (44-0) on the line with this team and if they can end my career in international play being undefeated that would be great."