THE BALL'S IN HIS HANDS JASON KIDD, THE MAVERICKS' PRECOCIOUS POINT GUARD, MUST PROVE HE HAS THE STEADINESS TO LEAD A FRAGILE TEAM

November 11, 1996

It was the opening day of training camp, a day the Dallas
Mavericks were touting as the dawn of a new era--which was
stirring, even epochal, until a reporter reminded guard Jimmy
Jackson that he was playing for his fourth Mavericks coach in
five seasons, and Jackson let out a gust of a sigh.

Across the court at the team's new training facility, new owners
Ross Perot Jr. and David McDavid were seated on padded benches.
New coach Jim Cleamons, a former Chicago Bulls assistant, had
just conducted his first practice, a spirited session behind
closed doors that barely muffled his shouts of enthusiasm. A few
minutes earlier, when the doors were opened to the media and a
small horde of reporters shuffled in, scrutiny was immediately
brought to bear on Jackson and point guard Jason Kidd, in-house
adversaries last season, as they participated in fast-break
drills.

Their feud, over what Kidd perceived as Jackson's ball hogging,
was a bitter sideshow--during one six-week stretch they didn't
speak to each other--in a season gone awry. After a 5-1 start,
Dallas finished 26-56 and missed the playoffs for the sixth
straight year, coach Dick Motta was fired, and owner Donald
Carter unloaded most of his interest in the team. Then in late
June, during Cleamons's first week in Dallas, Kidd met with the
coach to get acquainted and talk about the Mavs. Cleamons
thought they had an understanding as to what the coach expected
of his young star. But the next day Kidd stunned the Mavs' new
management team by issuing a public ultimatum: Either he or
Jackson had to go. A few days after that, in an equally stunning
pronouncement, Kidd backed off, saying, "We have to work through
our differences." What was going on?

In late September, just days before training camp opened, Kidd
sat in a San Jose restaurant with some friends and business
associates and predicted, "Camp is going to be hot. It won't
take long to tell if things are really going to work out or not."

Kidd was told that Jackson said he had left several phone
messages for Kidd during the summer in an attempt to settle
their differences. Kidd's voice suddenly broke like that of a
boy still going through puberty. "I'd like to know what number
he was calling," he shot back.

"Phone works when I call," Nike marketing executive Lynn Merritt
cracked.

"If Jimmy says he tried to reach Jason," Kidd's agent, Aaron
Goodwin, chimed in, "that's just crap."

On this first day of camp, though, after Kidd and Jackson had
run a fast-break drill, there was Kidd loudly congratulating
Jackson for a nice pass. Then, with practice over, the two
guards jogged side by side. Was there a thaw after all, or was
this a stunt for the minicams? "I said what I said," was Kidd's
reply. "Now we have to move on."

Four weeks passed without incident, and last Friday in the Mavs'
season-opening 92-91 victory over the Denver Nuggets, Kidd, who
had a game-high nine assists, and Jackson, who led both teams
with 28 points, worked to set up forward Chris Gatling for the
game-winning hoop with 7.1 seconds to play. "Whatever the rift
was," said Cleamons, "we have dealt with that, and there is no
evidence of any [disagreement] between them." For the moment.

Granted, the sound of egos colliding like boxcars or an
entourage circling its star is not a rare phenomenon in pro
sports. And the Jackson-Kidd spat might be less noteworthy if it
didn't threaten to bring down the Mavericks for a second
straight season or lump Kidd with other mercurial basketball
talents who have clashed with management and/or teammates and
rocked entire NBA franchises.

In essence, what Kidd went through last season was a rite of
passage, the continuing education of a star. Kidd is a
23-year-old, 6'4", 210-pound wunderkind. After just two NBA
seasons he's on the verge of becoming the best point guard in
the league. In 1995-96 he averaged 16.6 points and 9.7 assists
(second in the league) and was an All-Star. He already has 13
triple doubles as a pro, and his genius for playmaking has been
compared to that of Bob Cousy and Magic Johnson.

But there's still a lot that Kidd doesn't know about
superstardom, about what it takes to turn a team into a winner.
So he sometimes thrashes along with no script and no net,
thinking he will succeed on sheer talent and the force of his
will. And in the NBA that's not enough--as Kidd now knows. "I
didn't know how to get the team to respond to me," he dolefully
admits. "I didn't know how to come at somebody without them
thinking I'm trying to degrade them."

That is also not unusual for today's young stars. Like Kidd,
most high draft picks have left college early and are
immediately dubbed franchise players despite their narrow range
of experience. And there are so many colliding interests, it's
often hard to tell who's really running things behind the
curtain--the agents or the teams, the sneaker companies or the
league office, the players or the personal publicists whispering
in their ears. The entire massive enterprise has become akin to
an upside-down pyramid balanced on the head of a pin. Kidd says
the weight of it all can seem ponderous and often bewildering.

"I'm not complaining, it's just that sometimes it's hard to know
where it all fits in," he says. "There's life, there's
basketball, there's winning. In today's [NBA] there are so many
games going on outside the game. And so much money. Well, where
is basketball? Does basketball come first? Or does basketball
come second? You can play with a guy, and no matter how many
points you score or how much you do for the team, he doesn't
care about you. And losing only makes it worse. You go home
sometimes and wonder, What's going on? What's really going on?"

Like many of his peers, Kidd has heard since he was an early
teen in Oakland that he's a player for the ages. But unlike most
of the others, he exhibits no feigned boredom, no insolence. He
comes across as polite to the point of self-consciousness ("Nice
to meet you. Nice to see you. How was your trip?") and
nonconfrontational to the core. Former teammate Popeye Jones,
now with the Toronto Raptors, calls him softhearted, and
lifelong friend Andre Cornwell says, "Ask Jason how we met. I
stole his lunch money in third grade."

Ask Kidd what he likes to do away from the court, and he'll
quickly mention golf--and more golf. He has a passing interest
in hip-hop and R&B music and a burgeoning car fleet that
includes a restored '64 Impala and four Mercedes. But mostly
Kidd just plays basketball. His rookie year was a joyride, as
the 1994-95 Mavs took an electrifying leap from 13 to 36 wins.
Jackson, then in his third year, and forward Jamal Mashburn,
then in his second, each scored 50 points in a game; Kidd tied
Grant Hill of the Detroit Pistons for Rookie of the Year honors.

But in '95-96 the team backslid and bickered. Jackson and
Mashburn each felt the other was taking too many shots, then
Mashburn was lost after 18 games with a season-ending knee
injury. Jackson, still feeling the effects of a severe ankle
injury suffered the season before, said he began the season only
about 85% healed. Soon Kidd and Jackson, previously close, were
quarreling, with Kidd upset with what he saw as Jackson's
selfishness on the court.

Jackson had been the Mavericks' brilliant new star before
Mashburn arrived--but then Kidd eclipsed them both. "I realize
I'm just another piece of the puzzle here," Jackson now
acknowledges. But Kidd says, "I think Jimmy had trouble handling
that at times."

"What hurt most," Jackson says, "was the charge that I was
selfish." Instead of being appreciated as a gamer who hurried
back from his injury, he says, "It was, 'Jimmy's hurting the
team.'"

That team went "in the tank"--Kidd's words--by the end of
December. Kidd's disenchantment snowballed as his grievances
against Jackson, which he aired publicly, piled up. And during a
Feb. 15 game in Utah, Kidd says, he hit his breaking point: "We
were winning by something like 20 points at halftime [actually,
12], but there was almost a fight in the locker room. Jimmy and
[backup point guard] Scotty Brooks were going to fight because
Scotty didn't throw him the ball. Then we went out and lost. I
was fed up."

It didn't help that Kidd and Jackson had quit speaking to each
other. Other issues slipped in and took hold. Jackson thought
Motta sided with Kidd. (Motta, now a Nuggets assistant, declines
comment.)

Oblique but persistent published reports said the two guards'
squabble was partly over a "mystery woman" later identified as
pop singer Toni Braxton. Shaking his head now, Jackson says,
"People actually come up to me now and ask, 'What's she like?
What's Toni like?' And I say, 'Brother, I don't know. I don't
even know the woman.'"

Kidd says, "I was supposed to meet her last [Dec. 4 and 5] when
we were in New York. She was in the studio, recording. But I
didn't go." Nevertheless, a Dallas Morning News columnist,
citing unnamed team sources, wrote that Braxton called Kidd
after they missed each other in New York and said she was sorry
he wasn't feeling well--but it was nice of him to send Jackson
in his stead. When Braxton was reached for corroboration, she
coyly said, "A girl will never kiss and tell, you know that."
The columnist reported that Jackson was unavailable for comment.
Soon the unrefuted story was picked up by publications from Vibe
magazine to the National Enquirer.

Kidd's father, Steve, a retired TWA supervisor who lives in
Oakland, saw his son suffering through the team's
disintegration. "It was eating him up," Steve says. "When I was
visiting him and the team lost or something else happened, he
wouldn't even eat dinner. We'd go straight home after games.
He'd go to bed, go to sleep and hope it'd all be over when he
woke up."

What was going on? Kidd says, "It's not my nature to say things
or get into people's faces or confront them." But the Mavs had
no other vocal leaders or veterans to demand accountability.
Kidd set aside whatever misgivings he had about his readiness
for a leadership role and bulled ahead, speaking out, critically
but vaguely, and learning as he went. The results were decidedly
mixed.

"That was the only time he seemed young to me," says Jones.
"Jason said things that needed to be said. But he didn't always
say them to people's faces. He didn't know how."

Over the summer Kidd's dissatisfaction grew to include the Mavs'
new management team. "There were a lot of promises thrown in my
face which I never saw [kept]," he said.

Asked if he knows what promises Kidd is referring to, Mavericks
minority owner Frank Zaccanelli, Perot's righthand man, says,
"No. I sure don't."

"That's not true," Goodwin hotly retorts. Then he relates a
story about a day last April when a private helicopter touched
down on a golf course outside Dallas and Perot and McDavid
clambered out, ducking beneath the chopper's beating blades and
hurrying across the wind-flattened grass for a summit meeting
with Kidd.

Both sides agree it was at Donald Carter's insistence that Perot
and McDavid visit Kidd before they completed majority purchase
of the team. At this meeting, in the clubhouse at Stonebriar
Country Club, it is Kidd's contention that the prospective
owners made an extraordinary unsolicited gesture. Goodwin, who
was not present, says, "They told Jason he'd be consulted on
whatever new coach they hired. They told him he'd be informed of
personnel changes in advance. They mentioned talking about a new
contract for Jason. And they said, 'If you want Jimmy to go,
he'll go.'"

Asked if he or Kidd had ever requested such powers, Goodwin
booms, "No. Of course not. It's not basketball protocol. They
come to him in this helicopter with all this flamboyance, making
promises and saying, 'You're the Man. We want to talk to you
before we do anything.' Here he is, this 22-, 23-year-old kid.
And then they don't do it! They got [center Eric] Montross in a
trade. They traded away Popeye Jones. They hired Jimmy Cleamons,
who had a relationship with Jimmy Jackson dating back to when he
recruited him for Ohio State. [Indeed, Jackson had been on the
trading block until Cleamons was hired on May 31.] Fine. But
there weren't any calls [to Kidd]. Well, what do you expect
Jason to think? He turns around and says, 'They're not doing
what they said.'"

Zaccanelli, who also was not at Stonebriar but who supplied
answers on behalf of Perot and McDavid to questions about the
meeting, says, "If that's what Jason and his people took away
from that meeting, then we had a huge communication gap. We
acknowledged there were problems; we all agreed we needed to fix
them. And I really believe we've moved on."

Or maybe not. "Now," says Goodwin, "there's a lesser chance of
Jason returning to the team when he can leave than there was
before the new management bought the team."

Considering that Kidd has seven years left on his original
nine-year, $54.2 million contract, the greater concern for
Dallas may be whether any real rapprochement between Kidd and
the Mavs has taken place. And in the past few months Kidd--in
what's become a pattern for him--gave conflicting signals.

Just days after Kidd retracted his June trade ultimatum, he
broke a promise to Cleamons to make himself available by
conference call for a clear-the-air team meeting on June 29.
After that, Kidd and Cleamons didn't speak for nearly two
months. When they finally met again on Aug. 19 in Dallas, Kidd
emerged saying bygones were bygones.

So what's going on? "I'm excited about the moves the new
management has made," Kidd said as camp opened, rattling off the
acquisitions of Montross, Gatling and veteran point guard Derek
Harper. "[But] I felt a lot of smoke was blown in my face by
management. I don't feel Jimmy needs to be traded. Or that I
need to be traded. But again, the question is, Do we want to
win? I'm not just directing that to Jamal or to Jimmy. There
were too many separate agendas last year."

When the season began last week, the Mavs' three young stars
were promising to be "professional"; Jackson and Kidd, along
with Harper, were elected co-captains by their teammates. Kidd
and Jackson talked several times during camp, and each expressed
some regrets. And Cleamons, a firm and philosophical man, should
bring considerable wisdom to the situation.

Now the ball is again in Kidd's hands, literally and
figuratively. "I've talked the talk, I've got to walk the walk,"
he says. Given Kidd's frequent flip-flopping, it's hard to know
if it's more dark foreshadowing--or an innocuous
observation--when he looks back on what he's learned and says
that part of becoming a leader is realizing that "there's going
to be some friction."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESS Brilliantly consistent on the hardwood, Kidd has been erratic in his off-court pronouncements. [Jason Kidd] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH In '95-96, Kidd, driving on the Lakers' Nick Van Exel, was second in the NBA in assists. [Nick Van Exel and Jason Kidd in game]
COLOR PHOTO: M. FERGUSON/GALELLA LTD Braxton (above) was only one of the many distractions, real or rumored, bedeviling Jackson (24) and Kidd last season. [Toni Braxton] COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER [See caption above--Jimmy Jackson and Jason Kidd] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESS At home near Oakland, Kidd gets a lift from the hydraulics of his vintage Impala. [Jason Kidd leaning on car]
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