Their telephones have been quiet for nearly six months, and their home postal deliveries no longer look like military mail calls. They travel to classes unimpeded by well-wishers, and none of their fellow students wear shirts with their pictures on the fronts. For the last six months they have not had to dodge mini-cams lying in ambush for them. In short, they have enjoyed a wonderful anonymity, a blast of pure oxygen after high school careers choked by fame and expectation. They breathe deeply.
There, wasn't that refreshing? Six months of normal life. Now it's over. California's Jason Kidd, a 6'4" point guard who was just about everybody's national schoolboy player of the year last season, was unveiled earlier this month at Night Court, Berkeley's traditional season-opening midnight practice. Ordinarily this scrimmage attracts scattered insomniacs, but this year it was attended by 5,000 fans. Later that afternoon on the other side of the country, in Washington, D.C., the wraps were taken off 6'10" Othella Harrington, another in Georgetown's series of exotically named big men, all of whom are expected eventually to prosper in the NBA. So the two most highly prized recruits in the country have returned to the toxic haze of celebrity. The phones are ringing again.
This happens every fall, of course, but few observers can remember such a double dose of hysteria—the big guy on the East Coast and the little guy out West. It's almost as if the college basketball world decided it needed to pick more than one freshman phenom this year. It picked two and assigned them to opposite coasts. Basketball must have figured, It's a big country.
Kidd has garnered the most accolades of any player in the country, yet he doesn't shoot with distinction. Kidd has captured the sport's attention with the more subtle skill of passing. Yes, Magic Johnson made a few magazine covers with his no-look passes, but not many high school players have excited fans with this relatively arcane specialty as much as Kidd has.
November 23, 1992
"He's in a class with the elite," says San Jose State coach Stan Morrison, who admits he was transfixed while watching more than a few of Kidd's games at little St. Joseph Notre Dame High in Alameda, Calif. "As a passer, he's right up there with Magic, with Cousy. The only thing is, he's a better athlete. He's got this explosive first step. Really, he's a fullback with a basketball. As a passer, he makes everybody so much better."
Cal coach Lou Campanelli, who somehow won the recruiting war for Kidd when it appeared that the coveted guard was headed for either Arizona, Kentucky, Kansas or Ohio State, thinks Kidd's skills are so special that even the casual fan should be able to recognize them. "He does things on the fast break that bring you right out of your scat." says Campanelli.
Kidd led St. Joseph, a school of 600 students, to the last two state titles, against California's largest schools. In the process he attracted a following that, described properly, risks ridicule. Cal assistant Jell Wulbrun wants to say this about as much as he wants to admit he was abducted by aliens. "But the truth is," says Wulbrun, "except for Joe Montana, Jason has been the biggest name in the Bay Area the last two years."
Is that possible? Never mind all those Jason Kidd T-shirts St. Joseph sold at $10 apiece to benefit its athletic program. The Bay Area demand to see Kidd play was so great last season that five of his games were moved to the Oakland Coliseum. At Cal, this season's team is being marketed more for Kidd's arrival than for last season's 10-18 record (shrewd move), and the school figures to reap an attendance bonanza. So far the Golden Bears have shifted five of their home games from 6,578-seat Harmon Arena on campus to the Oakland Coliseum, which holds 15,000. Cal's opener, with Sacramento State, a 4-24 team in 1991-92, has been rescheduled for the Coliseum. The day Kidd announced that he would attend Berkeley, the university's ticket office got 500 phone calls.
This is all for a Kidd who can thread the needle. He can do more, of course. For all the talk about his poor jump shot—"He's a better scorer than shooter, put it that way," says Campanelli—he still finished his career at St. Joseph with 2,661 points, making him the No. 6 schoolboy scorer in state history. "His forte is taking care of other people," says Morrison, "yet I saw him at a basketball camp in Las Vegas, and in the first game, he went 10 for 10. In the second, he went something like nine for 10. Coaches were jumping off the blackjack tables to see him. It was alarming. Jason would make the pass and, somehow, get under the basket to dunk the rebound. Larry Bird doesn't do that."
Kidd's defensive play is weak overall but sporadically brilliant. "It must be instincts," says Morrison, "because I never regarded him as being that strong fundamentally. But I've seen him, while guarding the entry pass, jump and catch the ball. Saw him do it twice. He's very disruptive."
This is the kind of play that got Golden State Warrior coach Don Nelson to thinking that Kidd could skip college and play in the NBA right away. "Second round, maybe," is where Nelson guessed Kidd would have been drafted this year.
The nature of a passer—who's a giver, not a taker—is such that he rarely boasts about his exploits. Kidd is no exception. He does have a few big-time affectations, though, Bo-Speak being one of them.
"When I get older," he says, reflecting on the recruiting process, "maybe I'll understand what Jason went through." On the attention he has received, he says, "Beginning in my sophomore year, there was this need to see Jason play basketball." His individual goal is to get 26 assists in a game. Beyond that, he's all team talk.
And what are 26 assists, after all, but 52 points for his teammates? When it comes to the team, he permits himself a little boasting. "Cal, Final Four, two years," he says. "Realistic goal."
The Bears' two recruiting classes before Kidd's were both pretty good, which he knew from hanging around Berkeley's gym, where he played pickup games with many of the varsity players. Those summer experiences probably had more to do with his signing with the Bears than anything else. At Cal, Kidd found players "who can handle the passes and finish," he says.
In fact, a passer never really knows how good he can be until he is surrounded by complementary talent. That's a lesson Kidd learned at various all-star games and summer basketball camps, particularly the McDonald's All-America Game in April in Atlanta, where he teamed up with Harrington. "It was a thrill to play with someone like Othella, who could dominate the game every minute he was in," Kidd says, 'I told him he'd have the ball a lot, and he just laughed. But he did get the ball a lot."
Harrington also enjoyed their brief meeting, and he took the opportunity to outshine Kidd in the McDonald's game, scoring 19 points, grabbing 21 rebounds and winning the MVP award. Of the two, though, Kidd will probably continue to create more headlines—"just because we're entering an era when the role of the big man is less important," says Southern Cal coach George Raveling. "The game is being dominated more by the guards." Then again, what if Harrington only becomes as well-known as Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo or Alonzo Mourning, his three most illustrious predecessors at Georgetown?
Like Kidd, Harrington will soon get his chance. Nobody at either school pretends that these two freshmen will have to work to earn their positions. "He's got to fit in," says Georgetown coach John Thompson, who ordinarily likes to oversee the gradual development—social, academic and athletic—of a wunderkind. "We have a need at Georgetown, not just a want. There is a large vacancy here [since Mourning's departure]."
Nonetheless Thompson has coached enough heralded big men to be a bit cautious about Harrington. He knows that being big is not the same as being grown up. Upon signing Harrington, Thompson said, "I'm going to have to use the trick I first learned with Patrick. I'm going to have to write '18 years old' on a piece of paper and keep it in my pocket to remind myself that this is only a youngster. I haven't seen any freshmen that have not acted like freshmen. You know what I mean?"
At Murrah High in Jackson, Miss., Harrington averaged 29 points, 25 rebounds and six blocked shots last season to lead his team to its second straight state Class 5A championship. What's more, he is driven to improve himself. In seventh grade, says Harrington, "I just wasn't that good."
Indeed, at that point he was a much better trumpet player than basketball player. The Doc he seemed more likely to replace on the national stage was Severinsen not J. "He was a real, real big kid," recalls his mother, Millicent, who is a supervisor at an insurance company in Jackson. "Very awkward."
"But the next year," says Othella, "I worked every day after band practice, jumping benches, playing on the playground, just working out." He improved dramatically, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds as an eighth-grader at Chastain Junior High. His future was set during his sophomore year, when he gave up the band. "I could have seen myself playing with a band," he says, "but I was more focused on basketball."
Harrington's game soon became as distinctive as his name. He played it above the rim, assuming the worst of his teammates. Just as Kidd presumes every pass will lead to two points, Harrington developed the notion that every shot is a rebound. They're both right about half the time.
Although Harrington was almost the last highly recruited player in the land to declare his college preference, he never harbored any serious doubt about attending Georgetown. He had grown up watching Ewing play on television and had long assumed he would follow in those huge footsteps. "He's been talking about going there since the seventh grade," says Millicent. "The one thing I've always admired about my son—when he says he wants to do something, he does it."
Still, Millicent, who with her sister, Mattie Dykes, thought up the name Othella, worries about his single-mindedness. "He puts so much pressure on himself," she says. "He'd come home after he'd had such a pretty game, and he'd sit down and critique it. He could've done this or that better. That's the one thing I didn't like. I wanted him to enjoy it more."
However, like Kidd, Harrington is now playing in an even more demanding arena, one in which the happiness of others threatens to become more important than their own. Unlike most of us, freshmen phenoms only have a few months to lead a normal life. For these two, that time is over.