One day when Jason Kidd was growing up in the hills outside Oakland, his father, Steve, saddled one of the family's three horses and boosted his son aboard for a nice, easy ride. But Jason was more interested in seeing how quickly a horse could go from zero to 60. "All I wanted to do was be John Wayne," Jason says. "I wanted to get that gallop going the way he did in the movies. I figured, if you can't go fast, what's the point? But my father told me I wasn't ready to just go off at full speed right away. I was never too interested in riding after that."
No one ever told Kidd, now Cal's spectacular sophomore point guard, to slow down on a basketball court, which may help explain why he fell in love with the game and why his career in it has advanced at such an accelerated pace. He was so adept that by the time he finished eighth grade, he was receiving recruiting letters, and by his senior year of high school, some observers thought he was ready for the NBA. But instead of skipping college, Kidd has skipped briefly through it, moving so fast that he's already almost gone.
Just last March he led the Golden Bears to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, sealing a win over Louisiana State with an improbable flip shot in traffic—a "pretzel shot," LSU coach Dale Brown called it—and dueling Duke's Bobby Hurley as Cal ended the Blue Devils' two-year championship reign. Now, as Cal heads into the tournament again, all indications are that this will be Kidd's collegiate swan song. Although he remains publicly uncommitted, he is virtually certain to forgo his last two years of school and make himself eligible for June's NBA draft.
Even though he has been a regular part of the nightly TV highlight packages, Kidd is still something of a mystery, lacking the public persona that most college stars of his caliber acquire. Chris Webber was the leader of the trash-talking Fab Five at Michigan; Shaquille O'Neal was the intimidating giant with the golden smile at LSU; Purdue's Glenn Robinson is the ferocious Big Dog. But fans know relatively little about the person behind Kidd's passes, liven the nickname his teammates came up with last season, the Jewel, hasn't stuck.
"Maybe my image is that I don't have an image," he says. "Or maybe it's just that I'm the quiet one. I don't mind that at all. I'm not saying I don't get hyped up on the court sometimes, but I've never been one to talk trash or try to intimidate people. I guess when people talk about me, they have to talk about my game."
They rarely talk about his upbringing in a middle-class Oakland home with his father, a supervisor for TWA; his mother, Anne, an assistant programmer with Bank of America; and his sisters, Denise, 18, and Kim, 9. Jason sometimes seems mature beyond his 20 years, in part because his parents impressed upon him the responsibility that comes with being the oldest child. When Jason was 15, his parents left him to baby-sit Kim, but he wanted to ride his new moped, so he put Denise in charge. His parents returned earlier than expected and were waiting when he got home. "I said goodbye to that moped," he says. "And I didn't go out for a longtime after that."
If Kidd's background has been left in the shadows, it's partly because the media's access to him has been limited. He was so besieged early in his freshman year that at his parents' request, Cal allows Kidd to be interviewed only after games. And if his image is hard to pin down, it's partly because Kidd is a throwback, a player who isn't particularly demonstrative, who isn't constantly searching for his next dunk. As flashy as his no-look passes can be, there's something conservative and even subtle about his game. "He'll bring the crowd up out of their seats with some of the remarkable things he does," says former Cal coach Pete Newell. "But he'll also shift his body to keep a defender from getting over to contest one of his teammates' shots, the kind of thing that doesn't get the fans" attention but makes one scout elbow another in the ribs and say, "Did you see that?' "
Kidd has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Mere statistics—he averaged 16.8 points, 9.1 assists (best in the nation), 6.8 rebounds and 3.1 steals per game in the 1993-94 regular season—don't do him justice. He missed 10 of his 12 shots in the Bears' 62-56 win over Washington last week, for instance, but he took over in the game's final moments with a pair of steals and a perfect underhand alley-oop to forward Monty Buckley for a dunk. "When it comes time for the game to be won, he'll win it," says Cal coach Todd Bozeman. "He's one of those players who can dominate a game without scoring, the way Magic Johnson and Larry Bird could, the way Bill Russell used to."
Kidd usually dominates with his passing, a skill he started to develop in the third grade. There were so few fourth-graders interested in playing basketball at his elementary school that the third grade was canvassed for volunteers, and though soccer was his sport, Jason gave it a try. Thereafter he frequently found himself in pickup games with older players. "I was always one of the youngest ones, and for a longtime I would be one of the last ones chosen," he says. "So I learned how to pass. I figured the bigger kids would want me on their team if they knew I was more interested in getting them their shot than in putting the ball up myself."
He sometimes turns the court into his own personal lab. experimenting with ways to deliver the ball. Against Washington he had the ball on a last break, drew two defenders to him as he dribbled across the lane and simply left the ball for a trailer, Anwar McQueen. That ploy didn't result in a basket, but Kidd learned something: "I try different things with different people to see what they can handle. I'll try to file that pass away in my mind, and next time I might make a little adjustment, maybe wait a little longer before I lay the ball off. so Anwar will have a clearer path to the basket."
Kidd jokes that the reason he became such an accomplished passer is "because everybody says I can't shoot." But he can't hide his annoyance over criticism of his mediocre jump shot. "Let them keep writing that I can't shoot," he says, 'it inspires me. I know my shot needs work, but I also know that when we need a big bucket, I want the shot—and I usually make it."
Kidd doesn't plan to stop shooting this year until he has led the Hears to the Final Four, which will be a tall order because injuries to key players like forward Alfred Grigsby and guard K.J. Roberts have reduced Cal to seven scholarship players. Still, with another probable first-round NBA draft choice, junior forward Lamond Murray, on his team and a wide-open field. Kidd could make what appears to be his last NCAA tournament a memorable one. If the Bears saddle him up, Kidd might be ready to break into a full gallop.