The All-Star Kidd
Showered and heading for the parking lot, Rex Chapman decides to stop and check out who's out on the floor. He takes an abrupt left and a few moments later he's at center court watching an impromptu game.
The last person he'd expect to see taking part was Jason Kidd. The recent visitor of seven NBA cities in 11 days with the Suns, he took a three-day detour through New York for the All-Star Game before returning home. Fresh off a four-hour plane ride from the Big Apple, Kidd and his Nikes had just touched down in America West Arena for the first time in 17 days.
Nobody would have said anything if Kidd was the first one out of the building on the night of Feb. 9. But there he was on the arena floor, playing a little one-on-one with Suns assistant coach Frank Johnson.
The two were testing their perimeter play, creating quick shots without driving closer than 16 feet to the basket. Kidd had the ball in what apparently was a next-bucket-wins situation.
He took three steps to his right, faked left, dribbled through his legs and elevated for an 18-footer. With a sound between the range of a thud and a clank, the ball bounced off the opposite side of the rim.
"See, Rex," Johnson says. "He doesn't have that one yet."
Kidd responded before Chapman's lips reached a full-fledged grin. "Yeah," he says. "But I'm getting there."
Right now, Jason Kidd is not your typical All-Star. To him, the last step in creating a shot isn't the flick of his wrist. It's a perfect pass. To him, good defense isn't a bonus. It's a part of the game. Sounds like a commercial. But it doesn't make for a very good one.
The high-flying, high-scoring types like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Shawn Kemp can have all the glory as far as Kidd seems concerned. He says he considers himself to be a part of the same NBA youth movement that they are. But, presented with a chance to play with all of them at the All-Star Game in New York, he kept his game in utter contrast. It really wasn't a surprise.
"I just didn't have a chance to shoot," Kidd said upon his return.
Didn't have a chance? Somehow, the rest of the All-Stars found 221 chances. Kidd found one. But Suns fans can overlook that because Kidd is a proven leader.
The Suns themselves, on the other hand, refused to look the other way. As far as they were concerned, Kidd should have broken away from the all-around game that earned his reputation as one of the best floor leaders in the NBA. The Suns wanted their teammate to live a little at All-Star Weekend, to be selfish for once - maybe make a run at the MVP. Yeah, right.
Having left Madison Square Garden earlier this month as the only All-Star without a point to his name, he received a playful cold shoulder from his teammates upon his return.
"They wanted me to shoot," says Kidd, whose passing game was born on the Oakland playgrounds while running with older players who demanded the ball. "I didn't want to disappoint my teammates, but that's how the All-Star Game goes sometimes."
Kidd has now appeared in two of the midseason classics, the other in 1996 with Dallas. He also played in the 1995 NBA Rookie Game in Phoenix. His All-Star Weekend assist total: 29. His All-Star Weekend point total: 14. So goes the game of Jason Kidd, and who can really question his success?
Leaving the scoring up to the Michael Jordans and Grant Hills of the NBA seemed fine with Kidd during his trip to the Big Apple - as long as they didn't do it while he was guarding them. Millions of NBA fans watched as Kidd matched up with - and held his own against - Jordan, Hill, Tim Hardaway and Penny Hardaway in a matter of a few New York minutes.
"You can get embarrassed at any moment," the Suns guard says. "For me, I just wanted to make sure they didn't embarrass me. And that's hard, because they're all All-Stars. It's not fun."
Don't get Kidd wrong. All-Star Weekend is fun, even if you're as tired as he was after the long Phoenix road trip. Thankfully, the Suns were playing in New Jersey on the final date of the trip, so Kidd had a short flight to Manhattan.
The only problem was, the threads that would help him fit in in New York were in Phoenix. As much as Kidd hoped he would be selected to the game by the Western Conference coaches, he didn't pack like an All-Star for the Suns' road trip.
"My wife brought my clothes," he says, "and I sent my other clothes back with the team. Luckily, she brought me some good stuff."
Properly attired, Kidd and his wife, Joumana, took in some of the weekend's events with Gary Payton and his wife, Monique. Payton and Kidd, both from Oakland, have been friends since childhood, when Payton's father coached Kidd on an All-Star team.
The NBA planned several events for the players, like a Friday night jam session hosted by MTV.
"That bash was exciting," Kidd says. "There were tons of parties going on, but you couldn't make them all. You just tried to pick and choose which ones you were going to and then went to bed as early as you could, because in New York they never sleep."
On Saturday, Kidd passed up every offer he had for a night on the town. He was too tired.
Kidd was so tired that in the two days leading up to the big game he told the press he wouldn't mind warming a seat on George Karl's Western Conference bench. But Kidd saw plenty of action - 19 minutes to be exact.
After entering the game with a minute left in the first quarter, he dished out two assists to Mitch Richmond within 20 seconds. Kidd finished the day with nine assists, second-most to Payton's game-high 13. His ally-oop pass to Eddie Jones was a highlight for the sports networks that night and his between-the-legs pass to a streaking David Robinson was another keepsake for the Kidd highlight reel.
"It was fun," he says, "because you get to do things you normally wouldn't do. Certain things you wouldn't see in a regular game come out in those types of games, and that's what makes the excitement."
The weekend was that much more special, Kidd says, because Michael Jordan was named MVP after playing in what may have been his last All-Star Game.
"It was a great honor to be in a situation like that, to be on the court with Michael," he says. "I can always look back at that tape and say I played with the greatest basketball player that ever played the game. It was just a thrill to be around the greatest players, to have some fun and to watch Kobe and everybody else do their thing."
Funny Kidd should mention the Lakers' youngster, because NBC certainly did. Four on-air interviews may have seemed like a bit much to some, but Kidd says he understands why the fans and media are giving Bryant so much attention. With Jordan's retirement apparently imminent, a natural tendency is to look for a replacement. And with the careers of stars like Hakeem Olajuwan, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley winding down, there's plenty of room for up-and-coming stars.
"They have to concentrate on somebody who has the ability," Kidd says, "and Kobe has the ability. They just want to see if he can respond. That's just something they're concentrating on, and I think that's a huge responsibility. But I think he can handle it. He played good. He was trying to get the MVP."
Bryant, the youngest All-Star ever at the age of 19, almost did it. He scored 18 points in 22 minutes, while Jordan tallied 23 points in 32 minutes.
Bryant wasn't the only young player to play impressively, however. Rookie Tim Duncan pulled down 11 boards. Hill and Eddie Jones scored 15 points each, Nick Van Exel added 13 and Kevin Garnett 12. Kidd agrees - the youth movement is on.
"I think we've got a great group of young guys coming in that are playing great right now and are ready to make a move," he says. "I think that's going to help the league."
But does Kidd consider himself among the youthful superstars who will carry the NBA?
"I'm one of those young guys," he says. "I just want to go out there and have fun, and if I'm part of that youth movement, that's going to be great. When you look at the Magics and the Isiah Thomases, hopefully I can be mentioned up there with those guys."
Kidd's teammates and his coach, Danny Ainge, believe he has what it takes to become one of the NBA's best all-time point guards.
Quickness has never been a concern for Kidd. He leads the fastbreak as well as anyone. And his assists? Well, let's just say his dishes are of the gourmet variety. He's second in the NBA with more than nine assists per game.
Playing good defense is second nature. At the mid-point of the season, Kidd was holding opposing teams' starting point guards to just 8.9 points and 4.1 assists per game, That, to go along with a 36.6 shooting percentage.
There's no question, Kidd is an All-Star. So many aspects of his game are so strong right now. He leads all point guards in the NBA with 6.5 rebounds a game and his 2.24 steals per game are among league leaders. It's hard to imagine that Kidd could add other dimensions to his game. But if he wants to take the next step, he knows he needs to keep improving.
No matter how many assists Kidd might get, how many rebounds he snags or how many steals he adds to the box scores, the same question keeps floating around: What about the points?
"If Jason could be more consistent with his shooting..." Ainge says before pausing. "There's been nights when he's a very good shooter and when he gets more consistent with that, he'll be a superstar. Even without that, he's still a star."
"Sometimes, I think the only person holding himself back is himself," the assistant coach says. "I think he holds himself back sometimes by not taking a more aggressive role as a leader and sometimes offensively. Hopefully that will come.
"He thinks the best thing for him is to take care of everyone around him, and players appreciate guys like that who are looking more for someone else rather than himself. But I've often stated that being more aggressive will open up even more things for other guys and his game will take off if he does that."
"I would like to score a lot more," Kidd admitted before the All-Star break, "But there's a time and a need for that. On this team, I don't have to do that, so I concentrate on what I do best."
And that had been living up to the standard of the "Ultimate Creator," a description that NBC commentator Bill Walton used to describe Jason during the All-Star Game.
Since then, Kidd seems to have taken a new focus. It seems he may have decided to fill the biggest void in his game. It seems he might be a little tired of having the loose end of his game mentioned again and again.
The new priority for the Suns guard: working on his shot.
"It's something that I'm focusing on," he says. "Especially coming into the second half of the season, I want to score more. And if I want to score more, I've got to practice shooting more."
The day after his one-one-one with Johnson, Kidd stayed around after an afternoon practice and stroked long-range shot after long-range shot. A couple hundred worth probably. That night, he went out and scored a team-high 21 points in an 88-86 win over Sacramento, the first game after the break.
"His game goes to another level if he hits a jump shot and makes them defend him," Johnson says, "because so many teams have defended him by playing him back and playing the pass. That's what we've always talked about."
Apparently, Johnson is getting through. And so are others who say Kidd doesn't shoot enough. Johnson wasn't the one who initiated that impromptu shooting contest the day after the All-Star Game, Kidd was.
Really, it's a no-lose situation for the Suns' point guard who turns 25 next month. Whether he goes back to playing the role of ultimate creator or keeps balancing that with a newfound will to score, he's an All-Star. But he could be realizing that All-Star status isn't enough to be mentioned with the Magics and Isiahs.
"There's a big difference between an All-Star and a superstar," Ainge says. "And I think that when Jason learns to shoot the ball better and becomes an effective offensive player, that will raise him to the next level."
Who knows? A few commercial deals may yet await.
Reprinted with permission of Fastbreak magazine, the official magazine of the Phoenix Suns.