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The Ball's in His Hands
Johnette Howard
November 11, 1996
Jason Kidd, the Mavericks' precocious point guard, must prove he has the steadiness to lead a fragile team
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November 11, 1996

The Ball's In His Hands

Jason Kidd, the Mavericks' precocious point guard, must prove he has the steadiness to lead a fragile team

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In essence, what Kidd went through last season was a rite of passage, the continuing education of a star. Kidd is a 23-year-old, 6'4", 210-pound wunderkind. After just two NBA seasons he's on the verge of becoming the best point guard in the league. In 1995-96 he averaged 16.6 points and 9.7 assists (second in the league) and was an All-Star. He already has 13 triple doubles as a pro, and his genius for play-making has been compared to that of Bob Cousy and Magic Johnson.

But there's still a lot that Kidd doesn't know about super-stardom, about what it takes to turn a team into a winner. So he sometimes thrashes along with no script and no net, thinking he will succeed on sheer talent and the force of his will. And in the NBA that's not enough—as Kidd now knows. "I didn't know how to get the team to respond to me," he dolefully admits. "I didn't know how to come at somebody without them thinking I'm trying to degrade them."

That is also not unusual for today's young stars. Like Kidd, most high draft picks have left college early and are immediately dubbed franchise players despite their narrow range of experience. And there are so many colliding interests, it's often hard to tell who's really running things behind the curtain—the agents or the teams, the sneaker companies or the league office, the players or the personal publicists whispering in their ears. The entire massive enterprise has become akin to an upside-down pyramid balanced on the head of a pin. Kidd says the weight of it all can seem ponderous and often bewildering.

"I'm not complaining, it's just that sometimes it's hard to know where it all fits in," he says. "There's life, there's basketball, there's winning. In today's [NBA] there are so many games going on outside the game. And so much money. Well, where is basketball? Does basketball come first? Or does basketball come second? You can play with a guy, and no matter how many points you score or how much you do for the team, he doesn't care about you. And losing only makes it worse. You go home sometimes and wonder, What's going on? What's really going on?"

Like many of his peers, Kidd has heard since he was an early teen in Oakland that he's a player for the ages. But unlike most of the others, he exhibits no feigned boredom, no insolence. He comes across as polite to the point of self-consciousness ("Nice to meet you. Nice to see you. How was your trip?") and nonconfrontational to the core. Former teammate Popeye Jones, now with the Toronto Raptors, calls him softhearted, and lifelong friend Andre Cornwell says, "Ask Jason how we met. I stole his lunch money in third grade."

Ask Kidd what he likes to do away from the court, and he'll quickly mention golf—and more golf. He has a passing interest in hip-hop and R&B music and a burgeoning car fleet that includes a restored '64 Impala and four Mercedes. But mostly Kidd just plays basketball. His rookie year was a joyride, as the 1994-95 Mavs took an electrifying leap from 13 to 36 wins. Jackson, then in his third year, and forward Jamal Mashburn, then in his second, each scored 50 points in a game; Kidd tied Grant Hill of the Detroit Pistons for Rookie of the Year honors.

But in '95-96 the team backslid and bickered. Jackson and Mashburn each felt the other was taking too many shots, then Mashburn was lost after 18 games with a season-ending knee injury. Jackson, still feeling the effects of a severe ankle injury suffered the season before, said he began the season only about 85% healed. Soon Kidd and Jackson, previously close, were quarreling, with Kidd upset with what he saw as Jackson's selfishness on the court.

Jackson had been the Mavericks' brilliant new star before Mashburn arrived—but then Kidd eclipsed them both. "I realize I'm just another piece of the puzzle here," Jackson now acknowledges. But Kidd says, "I think Jimmy had trouble handling that at times."

"What hurt most," Jackson says, "was the charge that I was selfish." Instead of being appreciated as a gamer who hurried back from his injury, he says, "It was, 'Jimmy's hurting the team.' "

That team went "in the tank"—Kidd's words—by the end of December. Kidd's disenchantment snowballed as his grievances against Jackson, which he aired publicly, piled up. And during a Feb. 15 game in Utah, Kidd says, he hit his breaking point: "We were winning by something like 20 points at halftime [actually, 12], but there was almost a fight in the locker room. Jimmy and [backup point guard] Scotty Brooks were going to fight because Scotty didn't throw him the ball. Then we went out and lost. I was fed up."

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