Why We Watch: Jason Kidd's Furrows

Jason Kidd plays basketball with a generosity and grace that seems to elude him off the court.
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For all the legitimately “heady” moments strewn across 17 superlative seasons – the hundreds of big shots, a Nerds box of triple-doubles, innumerable passes threaded through vanishingly narrow angles—Jason Kidd’s game winning three-point-and-one against the Brooklyn Nets last month certainly didn’t seem to rate terribly highly.

Lucky—that’s what it was. And pretty goddamn stupid, too, considering that Kidd actually got away with not one, but twoleg-extending kicks on the shot—a mid-air split so graceless and ridiculous it was a wonder that his body managed to calibrate itself long enough to get off the shot—either of which could’ve easily been called the other way. Neither was, and Kidd’s illusionist gambit instead capped an 18-point, six-rebound, six-assist throwback performance that helped the Knicks remain atop the Atlantic fold and kept his onetime charges a byline below. The Nets haven't been quite the same since.

So it was lucky, and stupid, but also: it was heady, and it was savvy. Jason Kidd has been at it hard enough, and has been paying his wary, laser-sighted attention long enough, to identify the rare moments when rules take a back seat to context. He understands because he’s been running these lacquer-sheen stages since a good grip of his opponents were rocking diapers and running head first into table corners. He also understands this because Jason Kidd is blessed with a real-time genius that’s both wild and weirdly structured. On the court, he thrives in the moment. Off it, those split seconds have betrayed him. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

***

If the mercurial Melo is the Knicks’ undisputed MVP, then Jason Kidd has become arguably their most indispensable player. Game after game, the Bockers’ brow-furrowed maestro unfurls found money from his medic’s bag of tricks—pinpoint perimeter swings, sneaky baseline boards, pump fake foul-draws seemingly owed to a magi’s spell. In and by so doing, he has resurrected a career that last year had become something of a gilt basketball hangover.

It took him more than a decade to figure out how to shoot, which at first looked like a failure but wound up being perfectly timed to earn him five more years of NBA paychecks and springtime runs. His most oft-utilized sleight—a thespianic behind-the-arc pump fake—resulted in a scar and a fist-sized flesh knot in the span of a week earlier this year. He responded to the latter by lifting a helmet from the Rangers’ locker room and wearing it during halftime shoot-around—a kid’s reaction to the pitfalls of a kid’s game, enacted by a player more closely removed from his first Social Security check than many of his peers are from their hospital basinets. Viewers and pundits crack wise about old man moves, but their laughter, to borrow from Vonnegut, is conducted purely in self-defense.

And Kidd genuinely seems to be enjoying himself, with a level of throwback production to match. If the season ended today, his 17.7 player efficiency rating (PER) would be his best in five seasons. He’s hitting at 44% from deep, one the better marks in the league and the best of his career. That .187 win shares per-48 would be his highest mark since Bill Clinton was President, and second-highest of his career. The season doesn’t end today, of course, and Kidd will have plenty of time to regress and tire and wonder if he really wants to spend the next few years getting his head caved in by Andre Drummond. For the moment, though, he is playing alarmingly and dazzlingly Jason Kidd-like basketball.

***

It was just a few months ago, and just a few weeks after signing with the Knicks, that Kidd was been taken into police custody after getting snockered in the Hamptons and running his white, NBA-issue Cadillac Escalade straight into, wait for it, a (fucking) Cablevision telephone pole. No one was hurt, and Kidd was eventually released on his own recognizance. Rather than a public apology, all we received—NBA viewers, Knick fans, anyone who unknowingly shared those narrow roads with a blind-drunk basketball player that night—was a cynical, course-par press release stating, in so many words, “My B, y’all.”

Three years and $9 million for a guy already settled into a post-retirement cocktail haze? To mentor Jeremy Lin on what, exactly, the fine points of power-guzzling Manhattans? But then the Knicks brought back Raymond Felton and Lin was cut loose and the incredulous rhetorical questions raised an octave: here was a backcourt with an eating problem and a drinking problem. Could we camp out in a Coleman tent for season tickets, or do we just have to keep fingering “refresh” on our iPhones? What had seemed a savvy and relatively low-cost signing looked abhorrent enough for Knick fans to wonder whether a Phantom-masked Isiah might be pulling strings in a Quaalude haze from a deep Garden bunker.

But it wasn’t just this most recent, eminently stupid offense, committed before the ink on one of the most lucrative assistant player-coaching gigs in NBA history had soaked through James Dolan’s puffin skin paper. For Kidd’s is a past equal parts statistically quantum and personally checkered; as generous and giddily improvisational as he is on the court, Kidd has mostly been kind of a loutish wreck off of it.

Between 2001 and 2007 Kidd and his now ex-wife, Joumana, were involved in a series of domestic spats, some of them violent, all of them headline-grabbing, the most infamous being a January 2001 squabble that ended in assault charges and mandatory anger management courses for Kidd, by then one of the most recognizable faces in the post-Jordan NBA. Kidd, citing "extreme cruelty," filed for divorce in 2007, to which Jouwana responded with a countersuit claiming numerous instances of physical abuse.

Even when his multi-dimensional brilliance was propelling New Jersey to the franchise’s sole Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003—the final tally: two wins in 10 games, one sweep, and a pair of decisive defeats at the hands of decade-dominators L.A. and San Antonio—Kidd’s off-the-court travails continued to haunt, with various incarnations of “wife-beater” following him from arena to arena. He was one of the best players in the NBA in those years, but he was never one of the most visible or lucratively marketed. His play was seamless, but his narrative was sprouting weeds and showing cracks.

The player that New Jersey dealt to Dallas in 2008 for the ascendant Devin Harris and assorted flotsam had become a shell, albeit a magnetic one. How much that owed to the franchise beginning its long, lousy slink into Brooklyn and how much was owed to Kidd’s own diminishment was unclear. When the Mavericks upended the Heat to win the franchise’s first NBA Championship, they were powered by an unreal Dirk Nowitzki, but bound by Kidd in leavening basketball beauty.

This was the new Jason Kidd: a craggy virtuoso, heavy-legged after too many minutes, but still capable of idiosyncratic brilliance. He left $15 million of Mark Cuban’s money on the table to come to the Knicks, for reasons he didn’t illuminate. He was never really into illuminating things like that in the first place. The recognition was clear, though: no longer the engine itself, Kidd was resigned to being the grizzled mechanic—the trustworthy kind whose earnest dignity shone in oil on his face and the occasional free air filter; the kind from whom an up-sell is almost always a gift.

***

If Kidd was signed as a part-time player and full-time magus, that role vanished along with Lin. The win-now Knicks had entrusted the keys to Raymond Felton, forever just one high-calorie temper tantrum or Feltdown—Blazers fans had to invent the term—away from sweaty obsolescence. Instead of counseling a cultural phenom and potential prodigy in Jeremy Lin, Jason Kidd would instead be playing basketball. Lots of it, probably.That Kidd could so gracefully step back from the player-coach periphery and return to play solid and intermittently sublime basketball was and is surprising. On the other hand, he’s Jason Kidd, and Jason Kidd is one of the best players at his position in a generation or more.

Kidd served immediate notice in Dallas; played his most explosive ball in Phoenix; engineered his finest court-marshaling feats in New Jersey; and returned to hoist gold in Texas. All the while, he’s wielded a measured, mostly floor-bound game that served as a noble antithesis to the instincts of individuated flash that came to define the way the position’s played.  It’s likely that his current attempt at slaking a four-decade championship drought—in the game’s spiritual home, no less—will be his last gambit.

It’s something of an American truism that the more escapist your craft, the quicker the moral redemption. Jason Kidd is not a President, Congressman, or CEO of anything more than his own innocuous brand. Having his kind of transgressive ghosts—all that alleged abuse of others and self—in any of these contexts would’ve meant years of quiet penance. But Jason Kidd plays basketball, and it’s different for him. We forget the packets of police logs in part because time’s a clever thief and in part because the thought of such a joyful player doing something so joyless forces us to forget. He just keeps on along the journey from collegiate phenom to instant impact rookie to Olympian All-Star to he’s a wife beater to doomed Hardwood Hannibal to champion to he might have a drinking problem to surprising twilight bulwark for one of the NBA’s best teams.

He has problems, and he’s transcendent. He’s released, over and over, on his own recognizance, and then he plays basketball like virtually no one ever has. Reconciling the two is not necessary. Kidd is flawed, he fails, he is forgiven or he isn’t—it’s not ours to give, anyway—and then he plays basketball with a grace and graciousness that seems a secret to him everywhere but the hardwood. Jason Kidd redeems himself, rewrites and escapes himself, and we watch. That’s the deal.

Jim is a regular contributor to Knickerblogger, the True Hoop Network's Knicks affiliate blog. His work also appears regularly at the New York Times' Off the Dribble NBA blog and ESPN. A lifelong hoops lover, Jim has always insisted on wearing glasses during games, a life choice that has earned him the occasional chant of Ram-bis and cost him hundreds of dollars in repairs. He currently leads his old man league in techs and three pointers attempted. Follow him on Twitter @JPCavan.

Illustration by Jesse Blanchard.


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