Jason Kidd would throw a lob pass clear over the backboard, or a no-look pass six feet beyond the reach of a New Jersey Nets teammate, and Lawrence Frank would scream at his point guard in the early moments of some nondescript game in January.
What the hell are you doing?
Only Kidd knew exactly what he was doing. He was intentionally committing a turnover in the first quarter so Kenyon Martin or Keith Van Horn or Kerry Kittles would run faster and jump higher in the fourth.
"I just want them to know that I'll throw them the ball at any time, at any moment," Kidd told his coach.
As an assistant under Byron Scott, and then as Scott's replacement, Frank accepted the tradeoff. He was actually allowing his quarterback to throw an incomplete pass, or an interception, at a relatively benign moment in a game in exchange for Hall of Fame greatness and selflessness down the stretch.
"Some of those lobs Neil Armstrong couldn't have caught," Frank said by phone, "and I knew Jason did it on purpose. But it was all part of his genius. He wanted to show everyone that he will reward them if they run, if they go hard, and you saw the cumulative effect it had on the entire group."
Kidd won a championship in Dallas on his second go-around with the team that drafted him, became a playoff regular in Phoenix, and ended his career Monday as a 40-year-old member of the New York Knicks. But it was in New Jersey, of all places, where Kidd showed everyone he was Wayne Gretzky without the skates, a visionary who saw the playing field two moves ahead of everyone else.
He was traded by the Suns to the Nets for Stephon Marbury in the summer of 2001, and on arrival he promised 40 victories. As New Jersey had long been a practical joke of a franchise, everyone laughed along. The Nets had won one playoff series since the 1976 ABA-NBA merger, and had lost at least 50 games 10 times in the previous 15 seasons.
Frank flew out west to see Kidd in the first days the airports reopened after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and found a man expecting big things from the Nets, who had gone 26-56 the year before. The assistant coach was taken aback. "It was hard to fathom after the year we had," Frank said.
At the Nets' team dinner before the start of training camp, Scott spelled out his mission statement to his players before his new point guard rose to speak. Kidd was generally a man of few words in this type of setting.
"But he told the players, 'I don't care what went on here before. We will make the playoffs,'" recalled Rod Thorn, the team president who had made the trade. "Guys were looking at Jason like, 'What the heck are you talking about?'"
Kidd led that team to 52 victories and a trip to the NBA Finals. For an encore, he led that team to 49 victories and another trip to the NBA Finals.
"His first practice with us, he missed the first few minutes for his physical," Frank said. "And then he shows up and comes out of nowhere and dives out of bounds to save a loose ball. Everyone in the gym knew right then it was a whole new ballgame. His intensity in practice, and in preseason games, was something we'd never seen before, and the way he approached every day put so much peer pressure on his teammates."
At the modest height of 6-foot-4, Kidd was a walking triple-double in Jersey, a pass-first, pass-second playmaker who reveled in his ability to dominate a game without scoring 20 or more points. He had a middle linebacker's threshold for pain and punishment, too.
Kidd suffered a grotesque gash above his right eye in a head-to-head collision with Charlotte's David Wesley in the first half of a 2002 playoff game, a cut that required 15 stitches. "There was blood everywhere," Frank said, "and Jason just got stitched up right in the middle of the locker room, no trainer's room, and came back out in the second half."
In Game 4 of the following round, the conference final against Boston, Kidd was asked to rally his team after an epic collapse in Game 3, when the Celtics took a 2-1 series lead by erasing a 26-point deficit. Boston fans were ready to ambush Kidd, who'd been traded by Phoenix after he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault for striking his wife at the time, Joumana, during an argument.
With Joumana in the Fleet Center stands with their 3-year-old son (the Kidds kept their marriage intact after Jason sought counseling), and with Jason blowing kisses to his wife and son on the foul line, Celtics fans chanted "wife beater" at the Nets' star.
Kidd finished with 19 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists in the victory, and was lifted off the court by delirious teammates.
Two years later, with New Jersey trying to return to the Finals for a third consecutive year, Kidd played with what Thorn called "a hole in his knee that was as big as a silver dollar." The Nets had been swept by the Lakers in the '02 Finals, and had been beaten in six by the Spurs in the '03 Finals, and Kidd was hell-bent on finally winning his long, lost ring.
"Twenty games left in the season they wanted to shut him down," Frank said of team doctors. "They told him, 'You're done, you need microfracture surgery,' and any other player would've had the surgery."
Kidd chose alternative therapies instead, and helped the Nets sweep the Knicks in the first round and extend the eventual champion Pistons to a seventh game in the second round. "Sometimes we had to put Jason on Rip Hamilton," Frank said, "and he was out there chasing Rip through baseline screens on one leg."
Byron Scott, Showtime Laker, called his former point guard "a shorter version of Earvin Johnson." But if Kidd was Magic minus five inches, he was also Magic minus Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, and Scott. He never had the supporting cast required to win it all, a truth that nearly compelled him to sign with San Antonio as a free agent in 2003.
Nets ownership promised Kidd it would pay for talent upgrades, then sold to Bruce Ratner, who stripped down the team on the way to his big real-estate score in Brooklyn. So Kidd eventually demanded a trade to the Lakers, and then to the Mavericks. He called in sick with a migraine before a game against the Knicks, a move some team officials privately called a "boycott."
Thorn remembered that Kidd played through that hole in his knee, played through cracked ribs. Thorn remembered how he regretted leaving the league office and taking the Nets job one year, only for Kidd to make him Executive of the Year the next.
"He made us a believable franchise," Thorn said. "He brought the Nets back from oblivion. We went from a very selfish team to a very unselfish team because of Jason, and every night he'd throw a pass where I'd say, 'How did he ever see that guy?'"
Kidd retired with more assists and steals than everyone in the history of the game not named John Stockton. He finished with 107 triple-doubles, with more rebounds than any guard ever grabbed, and with a reputation as a game-changing defender.
As a player who entered the league without a reliable jump shot, Kidd somehow finished third on the all-time list of 3-point baskets made.
But age and gravity finally won out. In his one and only postseason with the Knicks, Kidd started shooting at a basket that looked smaller than a golf cup, and realized he needed to call it a career.
In the end that career was made across the river, in New Jersey, where the point guard was so good at his job that he could intentionally throw away the ball.