Jason Kidd and the Nets' Magical 2001-02 Season: An Oral History
Looking back at the breakthrough season led by the soon-to-be Hall of Fame point guard
Going into the summer of 2001, the Nets were coming off a 26-win season, their third straight with a winning percentage below .400. But the team that took the floor for the 2001-02 season was wildly different. Kenyon Martin's rookie season had been shortened by a leg fracture. Kerry Kittles missed the entire 2000-01 season after knee surgery. GM Rod Thorn dealt the seventh overall pick in the draft, Eddie Griffin, for three other first round selections: Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins and Brandon Armstrong. Center Todd MacCulloch was signed on a free agent. But it was the July 18, 2001 trade that changed everything: Thorn acquired point guard Jason Kidd by sending Stephon Marbury to Phoenix.
With Kidd running the show, the Nets doubled their win total to a franchise-record 52 and made the franchise's first NBA Finals appearance. With Kidd's Hall of Fame induction coming up on Friday, we're taking a look back at that game-changing year with those that chronicled the year and shared the court with Kidd.
Ian Eagle (TV play-by-play): I think the team was searching for an identity. It lacked leadership. It was a transition phase, no doubt. Byron Scott was a new head coach. They just weren't relevant at that point. As that season ended, nobody was really talking about the Nets.
Fred Kerber (beat writer, New York Post): They were just a bad team. They won 26 games. They didn't defend. They didn't score. They didn't rebound. Other than that, they were really solid.
Rod Thorn (Nets GM): We were interested in Jason, they were interested in Steph and we ended up trading a couple other guys with Steph on to them. It was relatively quick. They were interested in Steph, we were interested in Jason. So it was just a matter of putting the pieces together after that. I felt we improved our team. We won 26 games if I'm not mistaken my first year. We had some good players. We just didn't fit. We were a poor rebounding team. We were a poor passing team. We were a poor defensive team and we didn't have good chemistry. If you're not very good in those categories, chances are you're not going to be very good, and we weren't.
Jason Collins (Nets center): I grew up in Southern California. JKidd grew up in Northern California, but we played for the same AAU basketball team. I remember being a 12-year-old kid playing in the Las Vegas tournament. It was April, around spring break time. JKidd, the older division they played and I remember watching him and how fast he was. His talent was incredible. I remember thinking it would be so cool to play with someone like that.
Kerry Kittles (Nets guard): We were the same year of high school. I think I saw him at Nike camp back when I was in high school because he had a lot of accolades coming out. The speed stood out the most. Really, really fast with the ball. Changing directions and still going in a straight line. That's what really made him so special. Going fast, but changing directions, but not getting off the direction of where he wanted to go.
Eagle: I was seeing him twice a year and a little here and there on TV. I knew how talented he was. But I don't think the instant reaction was the Nets are all of a sudden going to be contenders. There was still a lot of trepidation as to how it would all play out. They also had three first round draft picks. Rod Thorn was trying to revamp the roster and Kidd was the centerpiece of that.
Kidd was coming off three straight years of leading the NBA in assists and being named to the All-NBA First Team. But his Phoenix Suns had lost in the first round of the playoffs two of the three years. He joined a team with an uninspiring NBA history and a roster with plenty of uncertainty.
Kerber: He was talking about how the first practice went and he knew where so-and-so wanted the ball. He knew where (Keith) Van Horn wanted it. This guy wanted to catch it at his knees. Another guy wanted it high. I asked him how long it took and said about a half-hour. He pretty much knew the whole team that first day.
Kittles: He had this really uncanny ability of taking a quick snapshot of the possession as soon as it started. He knew where his guys were and he knew where the defense was going to go. From that point on, it was like he won the possession mentally.
Eagle: He's one of those players that television doesn't do him justice. I had never seen anyone play with the kind of fire that he had. And he wasn't necessarily a player that emoted all that often on the court. He kept things in check. But as the stakes got higher you saw that passion and desire come to the forefront. It was a complete transformation for the franchise. I've also never seen one individual have that large of an impact that quickly. He lifted the level of play of everybody around him. The speed, precision and sheer ability was mind blowing. It's as if I had a front row seat to something special every night. There was a chance you would see something you had never seen before with him on the court.
Collins: You could see when you're playing with JKidd, OK, we're going to have fun this year. Because Byron loved to run. Byron was coming from the Showtime era, Magic era fast break. He had that point guard that could run the break. We are going to run the floor. We are going to keep crossing. We were trained you sprint and you sprint all the way through and you're crossing. It made it fun again. JKidd was such a good passer and he was so unselfish he made it fun to play basketball.
Kerber: He came out and said basically we're going to be a .500 team and everybody looked at him like, 'are you kidding?' This is the Nets. If they go .500 they'll hold a parade somewhere because they were just that bad. The Knicks were the team in New York and he made what we thought was a ludicrous statement that that wasn't going to last for long, we'll be the No. 1 team in the area before too long.
Kittles: It was like a fresh start for everybody. It was like Kenyon Martin's first year, you could just toss it up and throw it away. All the guys that were returning, it was like a new start for everybody. We were excited.
Chris Carrino (radio play-by-play): I don't know if we ever thought that it was going to go from 26 wins to 52 wins, but I think in the preseason when you saw Jason and what he was able to do and how he was going to make everybody better that there was something about this team that we hadn't seen in a long time. I remember introducing myself to Jason on media day and mentioning it's my first year too and he said, 'I guess we're going to go through this together.' I was a 31-year-old guy. I was the youngest play-by-play guy in the league. And I was going to get a chance to take the full ride in my first year.
The Nets opened the season with a 103-97 win over the Indiana Pacers, outscoring them 35-18 in the fourth quarter of the come-from-behind win. Kidd had 14 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and four steals. The announced attendance at the Meadowlands was 8,749. They went on to win seven of their first eight games.
Thorn: The first time I knew we were going to be a lot better was in exhibition season, when you could just tell. Our team was meshing well. Kenyon coming back gave us a really good player. And Keith Van Horn was a very talented player. All of a sudden we had some talent and we had a good team.
Kittles: We were fast. You turned the ball over or it was a long rebound and that ball was coming and we were out and running the lanes and sprinting the lanes. It took teams by surprise. We knew in training camp it was going to be hard to play against us.
Kerber: Opening night against the Pacers and there were under 9,000 fans. For opening night. It's still the Nets. And they won. But Jalen Rose was kicking their butts and midway through the fourth quarter, early in the fourth quarter, Kidd said, OK I'll take Jalen Rose. Rose may have scored one more basket from that point on. Four or five points. His scoring was really kept down. And Jason, who did everything offensively setting people up, he showed defensively he took on the best scorer and shut everybody down.
Collins: The preseason and the beginning of the regular season, we were playing so fast and a lot of teams in the NBA were used to the slowdown style. Now that's the way the game has evolved. In the preseason we played so fast we weren't just winning games. We had some blowout wins. That gives you confidence. In the regular season when you start going the other thing that helped us was our depth. Our practices were great. I didn't realize how great our depth was until I played more years in the league.
Thorn: To start the season, my feeling was I'm hopeful that we can make the playoffs. After we played a couple weeks in the season I felt pretty confident barring injury that we would make the playoffs. Now it was, how high can we go in the Eastern Conference? Our team was just so much better. We were competitive every night and when you really know you're getting better is when you start winning pretty consistently on the road. We were pretty good at home, but we started holding our own and winning our share of games on the road. So that's when you know your team is getting better.
The Nets went on to win a franchise-NBA record 52 games, capturing their first NBA division title. They led the league in defensive rating. They were remarkably balanced: Martin led the team with 14.9 points per game, followed by Keith Van Horn with 14.8 and Kidd with 14.7. Kidd led the team with 9.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game and averaged 7.3 rebounds. Ironically, it was the only time in a six-season span that Kidd did not lead the league in assists.
Thorn: We had a team. We didn't beat you with one-on-one basketball. We beat you by moving the ball, by getting fast breaks. We were very good in a fast break situation. Jason was such a great passer and we had finishers. Kittles and Kenyon and Jefferson in particular were terrific finishers on the break. Defensively we just got so much better basically because of Jason and Kenyon, who were much better than average defenders. And Kidd was one of the top defenders in the league and Martin became one of the top defenders in the league too. We got a lot better at the areas you needed to be pretty good at in order to win.
Kerber: The players started believing because Kidd believed. He was the center of everything. Everybody drew off Jason Kidd. His belief, his toughness, his will, whatever you call it. To us he was this slow-talking, kind of quiet guy, but I'm sure in the locker room and to these guys he was a different persona. He was just amazing. The difference was night and day. It just kept steamrolling and they won 52. They doubled their victory total, which was ridiculous.
Carrino: The thing about that team was that nobody wanted to give them credit. During that season, I think the prevailing feeling was this is just a fluke or the East is bad. Similar theme now. But nobody really wanted to believe it. I don't know if it was whether or not because Jason was still in a redemption tour. Nobody wanted to believe that one player at that position at the time could have that impact. This was not today's NBA that is the age of the point guard.
Eagle: At that point I had been doing the Nets for eight years, and as the season progressed I couldn't believe how many people were suddenly interested in what was happening on the court, random people coming up to me at restaurants, at the mall, on the street, asking about Kidd, asking about the broadcast with Bill Raftery and myself. It was a metamorphosis. All of a sudden, fans were taking interest and he was the centerpiece. He was the impetus.
If the Nets surprised with their results, they stood out with their style. The Princeton elements of their halfcourt offense were a break from the isolations and two-man games. Kidd pushed the ball in transition while Martin, Kittles and Jefferson soared to the rim for dunks off lob passes.
Kerber: I've been covering the NBA or watching the NBA for the better part of three decades. They were the most entertaining team I think I've ever seen. There's the Showtime Lakers with Magic. But these guys were just fun to watch. He gave the guys the ball where they could do something with it. When they ran, they were as good as anybody.
Eagle: The roster was tailor made for it. Kenyon Martin. Kerry Kittles. Richard Jefferson. They were all at their best in transition, and Kidd had this presence about him that nobody wanted to let him down. And he was on a mission. I think it was a crossroads for him in his career and he fully recognized that. He was completely aware that he was in the biggest media market in the country and this was his opportunity to open some eyes around the NBA.
Kittles: The minute the possession changed over, he and I were in sync and we were gone. He knew when I was spotting up and he knew when I was filling the lanes. I didn't have to put my hand up or call for the ball. He said, 'I know where you'll be and I'll find you.'
Carrino: Jason did everything differently. He made everybody a scorer. The way they pushed the ball in transition. The way they defended. It didn't have the star power of the showtime days, but Byron Scott was the coach and he knew defense and the running game. Get up the floor suited Jason and suited that team and that's how that team won.
In the playoffs, the first-seeded Nets drew a first-round matchup against the Reggie Miller-led Pacers, just two seasons removed from an NBA Finals appearance. The Pacers won the opener despite Kidd's 26 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. After the Nets won the next two -- a Kerry Kittles 3-pointer with 22 seconds left was the go-ahead basket in an 85-84 Game 3 win -- the Pacers won Game 4 by 23 points to set up a decisive Game 5. It went to two overtimes. Kidd scored 31 points with eight rebounds, seven assists and four steals as the Nets won 120-109 to clinch their first playoff series win since 1984.
Carrino: The most important playoff series in that whole run, maybe the next decade, was that first round series against Indiana. Indiana was not your typical eight seed. They were a team that had gone through a lot of injuries in the course of the year and then got healthy and were able to get into the playoffs. They were a team that probably could have contended in the East if they'd been healthy all year.
Eagle: The victory was like a weight being lifted off the shoulders of the entire organization. It was validating. It was euphoric. And for Jason Kidd, it was another reminder of just how dominant he could be. He took over the game.
Kerber: The single greatest game I ever saw. It used to be the Eastern Conference finals, the Dominique-Bird shootout that was always the greatest game until Game 5 against the Pacers. That double-overtime. Richard missed two free throws. Reggie hit a shot from beyond halfcourt. That win was so important because that validated everything. If they had won 52 games and then got bounced in the first round by the eight seed it would have been, 'same old Nets.'
Thorn: It was one of the best games that I can remember in my time with the Nets. It was an absolutely tough, hard-nosed NBA playoff game. We were very fortunate to come out on the high end.
The only real drama in the second round against the Hornets came when Kidd suffered a bloody gash on his head in a Game 3 loss. The Nets won the series in five and then it was on to the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics. A stunning fourth-quarter collapse in Game 3 left the Nets down two games to one heading into Game 4 in Boston against a ramped-up crowd eyeing the historic franchise's first return to the NBA Finals since 1987. They came back to win the next three games and the series.
Thorn: We've got a 20-point lead with 10 minutes left in the game and they end up winning the game. What I remember about that game, the noise was so loud in Boston Garden that you couldn't hear. You couldn't make yourself think it was so loud. They come back and win the game and (Antoine) Walker and (Paul) Pierce jumped up on the scorer's table and the crowd was going crazy. It didn't look good.
Carrino: It just was getting away and there just was nothing they could do. I never as a visiting team ever felt a more intimidated environment than that fourth quarter of Game 3 in Boston.
Eagle: They were absolutely written off following Game 3 and the collapse. I had never seen an arena louder than the TD Garden that night. And the resolve that not only Jason Kidd exhibited but their head coach Byron Scott also had. He was interviewed the next day and he was asked the question, 'How'd you sleep last night?' and his answer was, 'I slept like a baby. We're going to win Game 4.' Reporters chuckled, and he was 100 percent serious. They handled the adversity impeccably, and again Kidd had this look in his eye that indicated to his teammates, follow my lead.
Carrino: Byron was always very cool. I knew the rest of the staff and Jason were instrumental in sitting everybody down after that Game 3 and saying, 'don't worry about it. We're going to come back and win Game 4.' And they did. They controlled Game 4 and went back home and won Game 5.
Collins: When you have a guy like that who can sort of steady the ship when things start getting very intense or tight, you could look at JKidd and JKidd was like, 'I'm ready.' That sort of calm would resonate throughout the locker room. OK, we can do this, because we have a guy on our team who can go out and get a triple double.
Kerber: He wasn't going to let them lose. He always did the right thing. He always made the right play or the right pass. Defensively he was terrific. Whenever they would be down, he just always found a way. Going back to when they got him, somebody told me -- somebody I really respect -- he played in the West so you saw him but you didn't see him all the time. Someone said you're going to appreciate him so much. I said, I know he's good. They said, he's so much better than that. I said, yeah, he's an All-Star. They said, you have no idea. He's better than that.
The triumph in Boston sent the Nets to the NBA Finals in franchise history. But waiting for them were the Los Angeles Lakers of Shaq and Kobe, primed for a threepeat after surviving a seven-game conference finals series against the Sacramento Kings.
Carrino: It was tough. It was a quick turnaround. Had to go all the way out to the West Coast. Even Jason, no one has been through that. Having done it twice now, I know how much more prepared everybody was in the organization; the players, the staff; the second year. The first year, nobody knew what kind of circus to expect. Everything is just different. When you get to the arena. When you're on the floor an hour and a half before a game, it just doesn't feel like anything you've experienced all year long. It's just a circus. As confident as they were against everybody else in those playoffs, it just seemed like this was going to be really tough.
Kittles: They were great. They were a well-coached team. They had veteran players. Too often we speak about the superstars, and they were superstars, don't get me wrong, and they were dominant players. But what made them a special team was all the guys around them. That team was just well-balanced. They didn't really have any weaknesses. And they knew how to play off the superstars.
Eagle: They went up to a bigger weight class. Their style could not overcome the star power and sheer strength of Shaquille O'Neal. They just didn't have answers. Probably should not have been swept. But after being a bit overmatched early in the series, it became a foregone conclusion that the Lakers were going to win the championship.
Thorn: We couldn't do anything with Shaq. Shaq was so big and talented and quick and strong and we could not do anything with him. You add Kobe to it. If you look at the series, three of the games were close. The second game they beat us handily. They were just better. I wish we could have won a game or two, but they were just better.
The 2001-02 season represented the first of six straight playoff appearances for the Nets. They won the Atlantic Division four times in five years and returned to the NBA Finals in 2002-03, losing to the San Antonio Spurs in six games. Kidd made the All-NBA First Team as a Net in 2002 and 2004, and the Second Team in 2003. He led the NBA in assists in 2003 and 2004, represented the Nets in five All-Star Games and made the All-Defensive Team in all six of his full seasons with the team. His Nets career ended with a trade to the Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 19, 2008.
Carrino: Kidd came along and he was the guy that put all the pieces together. That team with Kidd and those Finals teams were always sort of greater than the sum of their parts. That's always because Jason Kidd was that glue that put it all together. He lifted everybody. It was a bunch of really good role players and Jason made it all fit.
Eagle: He's such a unique and special talent. And he had his fingerprints all over the game. If they needed him to score, he would do that. If they needed him to rebound, he would do that. If they needed him to share the basketball, he would do that. Whatever was required, he did it. And he did it with a singular focus. He brought a different mentality to the game.
Kerber: You look at teams and one of the things somebody told me, it's a step-by-step progression. Usually a team going from bad to good, the first thing they do is start winning at home to get to .500, start winning on the road, you get to the playoffs, you start to advance in the playoffs. Because of Jason, the Nets just bypassed the first five steps and went right to the Finals.
Kittles: We just laughed at the passes he would throw. I remember he threw a pass -- we were playing at Detroit -- and somehow we're in transition and he must have stopped just past halfcourt and I was running the right wing and he threw a pass through some defense or somebody's legs, but it was a low bounce pass that I was sure would go out of bounds, but the ball hit the ground and had backspin on it and I caught it and laid it in the basket. Who puts backspin on the ball?
Eagle: The recurring theme for me that season was his fortitude and he just seemed like a man on a mission. I knew the job as a play by play broadcaster could be enjoyable. His play took the job to new heights, finding ways to describe what he was doing, and being the conduit between these unforgettable moments and bringing it to the fans, you can't simulate that. You can't prepare for that. It made me better as a broadcaster. Kidd made everybody better, including me.