Gary Payton: 'People don't know, [Jason Kidd] was the first LeBron'

ByOhm Youngmisuk ESPN logo
Monday, September 3, 2018

Long before the social media era, when anyone can find the next basketball star's mixtape with a simple click, Jason Kidd was creating a buzz as a bona fide phenom even before delivering his first college basketball assist.

"People don't know, J was the first LeBron [when it came to the attention surrounding one player] coming out of high school," fellow Oakland Bay Area native and Basketball Hall of Famer Gary Paytonsaid. "He was good. Really, really good. In the Bay Area, that's what all the talk was about -- J-Kidd."

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Kidd was considered the next great basketball phenomenon. The teenager with a mouth full of braces but a 6-foot-4 NBA-ready body was drawing national attention and comparisons to Magic Johnson and Bob Cousy.

Kidd was also being compared to another legendary local passer on the other side of the Bay.

"Joe Montana was doing the things in the '80s, winning Super Bowls," Payton said. "I had left [for college] in '86 and then J came in and all of the sudden, they [Montana and Kidd] were the biggest things in the Bay Area at the time."

Fittingly, Kidd will have Payton with him on stage to present him when he is enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday night. It was Payton who mentored Kidd in Oakland, but it was also The Glove's brutally tough love and psychologically demoralizing practice sessions that often sent Kidd to the brink of quitting basketball as an underclassman in high school.

Finding himself at the mercy of The Glove's legendary suffocating defense and soul-crushing trash-talking, Kidd said he was unable to score a single basket against Payton, who is five years older, during games and drills for two years.

"Oh, there were tears," Kidd told ESPN. "My parents would ask me, 'What's wrong?' I would be like, I think I should pick a different sport because I am not very good at it. He wouldn't let me score. [And] he would tell me you are not going to score ... that I was soft and that I wasn't good enough. And for a kid in high school that was built up to be this great high school player, it was very humbling and hard to swallow.

"So, it was borderline quit or man up and keep coming back to try to figure out a way to score."

Payton's tough-love tutelage helped fuel Kidd's early success. Kidd led St. Joseph (Alameda) High School to a 122-14 record and two straight state championships. He won the Naismith Award as the country's top prep player and was Parade's and USA Today's High School Player of the Year after averaging 25 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds and 7 steals as a senior.

The demand to see Kidd play forced St. Joseph, a Catholic school with under 500 students, to often move its games to the Oakland Coliseum Arena (now Oracle Arena) to accommodate crowds that averaged 12,000.

As a teen, Kidd played pickup with the likes of Payton, Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond and Tim Hardaway, had his jerseys and posters sold at his high school games, and was featured in Sports Illustrated as one of the nation's most highly recruited players with a photo of him lying on his bed full of recruiting letters and programs.

After he finished his high school career with a second state championship, the opposing team's coach joked to the Los Angeles Times about asking Kidd for an autograph.

A decade before James was featured on a Sports Illustrated cover as "The Chosen One," considered perhaps the best prep player ever, Kidd was one of the most hyped high school prospects the game had seen.

Not only were many of Kidd's games moved to the Coliseum Arena to accommodate the thousands who wanted to see the point guard play, but Kidd was one of the few prep players to play before a nationally televised audience at that time.

"The first time I ever heard of him was when I saw him play on TV in a high school game," said Rod Thorn, who is also being enshrined in the Hall of Fame on Friday. "He had an incredibly mature body for a high school player. He looked like he was older than the kids he was playing against. But the speed and the body was what stood out."

Thorn would cross paths with Kidd a decade later, when, as New Jersey Nets GM, he sent Stephon Marbury to Phoenix in exchange for the former Cal point guard.

Kidd had shared a crowded Suns backcourt with five-time All-NBA selection Kevin Johnson and fellow 2018 Hall of Fame inductee Steve Nash. But it was Kidd's arrival in Phoenix that propelled the Suns to the playoffs in 1996-97, starting a streak of 17 consecutive postseason appearances for Kidd -- tied for third all time behind only Utah's Hall of Fame tandem of John Stockton and Karl Malone's 19 straight postseasons, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

"He was a guy who saw things before they happened, he knew who was going to be open," Thorn said. "He could guard the toughest player on the other team.

"He could get the ball from foul line to foul line so quick, maybe [only] Allen Iverson was a little quicker. Great rebounder. As good as any guard I've seen. ... He is as smart a player on the court as anybody that I've been around."

However, Kidd's time in Phoenix came to an abrupt end in 2001. He was arrested in January of that year and pleaded guilty to charges of domestic abuse involving his then-wife Joumana. Kidd avoided jail time and remained with the Suns through the end of the 2000-01 season but was later traded to New Jersey for Marbury that summer.

After learning of the trade while he and his family were in a Taco Bell drive-thru in Phoenix, Kidd decided to make the most of the move even if he was heading to a franchise known more for calamity than championships.

But not even the Nets -- a franchise that had won only 26 games the season before Kidd arrived in 2001 and had made the playoffs only once in the previous seven seasons -- could threaten Kidd's playoff streak. He made New York tabloid headlines by vowing in training camp to take the Nets to the playoffs and exceeded his promise with a 52-win season and the Nets' first of two consecutive NBA Finals appearances.

Kidd finished second to Tim Duncan in MVP voting in the 2001-02 season before losing to Duncan and the Spurs in six games the following season in the 2003 Finals. He was pursued by those same Spurs in free agency following the 2003 Finals, but re-signed in New Jersey, where he would go on to lead the team to four more playoff appearances.

While Kidd could glide from rim to rim on warp-speed fast breaks and deliver jaw-dropping three-quarter-court bowling ball-like passes for highlight assists, Kidd's incredibly high basketball IQ and ultracompetitive nature could also lead to bumpy times with some of his coaches. Considered a coach on the floor, Kidd didn't always see eye to eye with former coaches such as Jim Cleamons, Scott Skiles and Byron Scott.

"This is a point guard that averages [nearly] 10 points a game, but you don't want to piss him off because you know life is going to be miserable across the board for everybody," former Nets teammate Richard Jeffersonsaid. "I don't think in the history of the game there has ever been a guy to dominate more games without scoring."

Kidd knew full well his reputation for being difficult at times for coaches. He gained a better appreciation for that during his time as a head coach for the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks, who fired Kidd halfway through this past season.

"I think that [reputation] is mistaken for wanting to win," Kidd explains of some of his past relationships with coaches. "Understanding what it takes to win and being a player in that moment, emotions are high, and my intent was to help my team win. But sometimes it is taken the wrong way.

"You are competitive and you have the vision because you are on the court and [head coaches] have the vision sitting there," added Kidd, who has coached his teams to the postseason in three of his four-plus seasons. "Now I have a better understanding of what a coach is trying to do. ... The coaching [reputation] thing has always been something [that has followed me]. ... It is being a competitor and wanting to win."

Drafted second overall in 1994 after a successful two-year run at Cal, Kidd teamed with Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn to form "The Three J's." The Dallas Mavericks improved by 23 wins in Kidd's first season, and he shared Rookie of the Year honors with Grant Hill, who is also going into the Hall of Fame on Friday. The two friends are one of three sets of Co-Rookie of the Year winners in NBA history.

"It was great. It was a circus, [but] it was awesome," Kidd said of starting his career with prolific scoring wings Jackson and Mashburn. "At the time, it was incredible to be with those two guys who could score and make the game so easy."

However, that award also represented the high point of Kidd's time in Dallas. For all their potential, "The Three J's" played only 80 games together -- going 29-51 -- and were broken up when Kidd was traded the day after Christmas in 1996 after the Mavs got off to a dismal 9-16 start. The trio had been undone by egos, chemistry and immaturity issues and a franchise that was being sold to new ownership.

"I just wish we were more mature mentally about the game," Kidd said. "We were just too young understanding what it took to win. We found out real quick that you can be up 15 in the fourth quarter with six minutes left and lose by 15. ... Being young and mentally immature, we weren't ready on that side of the ball to handle it."

Now that his Hall of Fame legacy is set, Kidd was asked to set the record straight on one of the NBA's all-time juiciest rumors: R&B songstress Toni Braxton tearing apart the Mavericks' trio and coming between Jackson and Kidd. In 1996, Braxton was promoting a new album appropriately titled "Secrets." She only seemed to fan the flames around the Dallas beef by saying she doesn't kiss and tell when asked about the rumored love triangle.

"Not true," Kidd said. "It was never true. Never met the woman. It was never true. It just somehow took on legs of its own and she breathed life into it and I guess that didn't help [with the] kiss and tell, whatever she said.

"I don't even know if Jim Jackson went out with her," Kidd adds of Jackson, who along with Mashburn denies the Braxton tale. "People always ask me about that. I never met the woman and never thought I was going to meet the woman, but somehow this story came about and it just took off. Did not know her. No date."

Kidd says he has no regrets about his playing career, thanks in large part to former teammate Dirk Nowitzki. Kidd always believed he had to hitch himself to a dominant big man to win a championship. With the former MVP's help, Kidd finally hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy in 2011 after returning to Dallas.

In his final season, Kidd helped the Knicks win 54 games in 2012-13 -- the most wins the franchise has had since 1999-2000 -- before retiring with 1,988 3-pointers, the ninth most in NBA history.

"Over the course of his career, he went from a non-shooter when he came into the league to a tremendous 3-point shooter," said Thorn of the player who was once nicknamed "Ason" for his lack of a J (jumper).

Kidd also ranks second in NBA history in both assists and steals, and his 8,725 rebounds are the most by a guard.

Not bad for a kid who once contemplated quitting basketball amid nightly tears because he couldn't score a single basket against Payton.

"I guess I wasn't smart enough to think about quitting," Kidd said. "If you would have told me that I would eventually be going to the Hall of Fame while going through those workouts, I would say you can't be seeing the right person. This can't be true.

"But it just shows what I went through with him, to come away mentally stronger, physically become tougher, not to be soft. That helped me become a Hall of Fame player."

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