Friday July 3rd, 2009

His heart and on-court courage have been praised for so long now that, in an odd twist, we don't actually know whether Jason Kidd has real heart and courage.

Sure, the 15-year veteran plays hard, fights for rebounds, takes clutch shots, makes key decisions, runs a team with the confidence of Magic Johnson and the savvy of Walt Frazier. Sure, he's a lock Hall of Famer.

But here we are, in the summer of 2009, about to finally learn who the 36-year-old Kidd really is. Over the past few days, the unrestricted free agent has met with the Dallas Mavericks and the New York Knicks. To most observers, there isn't much of a choice: Unlike the Knicks, the Mavs are contenders who can offer their point guard a three-year, $24 million contract to remain in Big D. New York, meanwhile, would only put forth $18 million over the same time period. The Mavs have Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry. The Knicks have Wilson Chandler and Larry Hughes. The Mavs' locker room features state-of-the-art everything, paid for by an owner desperate to shower his players with love. The Knicks' locker room is, well, a locker room. New York's owner, James Dolan, is a merging of Darth Vader and Daddy Warbucks.

And yet, despite Dallas' myriad advantages, Jason Kidd's decency -- heck, his legacy -- hinges upon him signing with the Knicks.

Divorced since 2007 from his ex-wife, Joumana, Kidd's three children all live in the New York area. Back in the day, such factors didn't matter much in our opinions of male professional athletes. In 1988, the Red Sox's Roger Clemens was praised by teammates and the media for missing the birth of his second child in order to start a game against the Angels -- in early May. Wrote Richard Justice in the Washington Post: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, but when it was over, the legend of William Roger (Rocket) Clemens had grown a little more."

Similar accolades were thrust upon Steve Garvey, the seemingly wholesome Dodgers first baseman, who chose Game 2 of the 1974 World Series over the arrival of his daughter, Krisha. When Garvey's wife, Cindy, was asked by a nurse whether she wanted to watch the game during delivery, she angrily screamed, "He didn't come to watch me!"

Thankfully, times have changed. Nowadays, men are expected to be more than mere breadwinners, there at day's end (if at all) to spend five awkward minutes with Junior before shooing him off to bed. Men change diapers. They push strollers. They attend parent-teacher conferences and wipe spit-up from atop the Diaper Genie. The athlete who skips a child's birth to, say, be in the lineup for Pistons-Clippers isn't a hero -- he's a dope. Once upon a time, professional teams never let their employees take off for family matters. Now, you'd better take off for family matters. With life-affirming frequency, a larger number of athletes are audibly complaining how their schedules keep them from the important moments -- Halloween trick-or-treating, 6-year-old birthday parties, lost first teeth and missed first steps. In the light of multi-million-dollar contracts, it's hard for the general public to muster much sympathy. But there is some.

On the one hand, it would be unfair to condemn Kidd for sticking with Dallas. The organization gave up a lot to get him (he was a part of the dreadful Devin Harris trade with New Jersey), and Cuban has continued to sing his praises. If anyone in the league deserves a title, it's Kidd (who reached two finals with the Nets, but still longs for the big trophy).

On the other hand, however ... well, who cares? A trophy is a piece of metal, destined to rust and, eventually turn to dust. Kidd's basketball legacy is secure -- whether he dominates the league or morphs into Sedric Toney, his status among the all-time greats is secure.

But what about his status as a human being? As a father? One day, before he knows it, Kidd's kids will be fully grown. They will look back at their youths; at the good times and the bad times; at life with a famous father.

Perhaps they will remember a man who won an NBA title.

Or perhaps they will remember a champion.

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