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STRAIGHT SHOOTER

2/27/2008

Jason Kidd has a knack for knowing what comes next. He finishes your sentences, whispering the last few words with you. He beats you to the ball simply by being first to see where it's going. He passes into pockets of space you don't see, creating open shots you didn't know were there.

It is a gift, this prescience. But it can be torturous if ignored. Kidd discovered just that when his 61-year-old father died on a Sunday night last spring back in California. Three days earlier, Kidd had driven him to the Phoenix airport. "It's funny how everything seemed to take forever that day when I dropped him off," he says. "He hadn't been feeling well for a couple of days, but it wasn't like he was moving slowly. I just remember everything seemed to be in slow motion. It took him forever to get out of the car, and then from the curb to inside the terminal and then to turn and wave … "

Normally, a call to the Kidd home after 10 p.m. goes unanswered until the next morning. Once, Jason's East Bay buddies knew they could count him in on any escapade; now his friends know that Jason and his wife, Joumana, do not like to be disturbed at night. So when the ring of the phone echoed through their high-ceilinged, marble-floored Scottsdale mansion that Sunday, they let the answering machine pick up the call. Maybe the ring had a strange quality to it. Or maybe it was simply the time of night. But Jason's curiosity was piqued. He checked the message. It was his mother, asking him to call home right away.

As suddenly and unexpectedly as Steve Kidd's heart attack struck, his son now figures the timing was just about right. The exact moment his father pitched across his bed back in California, Jason was stretched out across his black-felt pool table, practicing for the next time they would play, using a routine one of his dad's best friends had showed him. The Suns had just been swept out of the playoffs, which normally would have spelled a disappointing season. But considering all the injuries the team had suffered, the Suns were lucky to have been in the postseason. And Kidd was the big reason, winning his first assists title and establishing himself as the best all-around point guard in the league. Steve Kidd had stuck around long enough to see all that and departed as his son, now the family's lone adult male, played the game that bonded them-early in the evening, at home, ecstatically married, his own son having arrived just a few months earlier.
Which brings us to the flaw in Kidd's intuition-he can see where everybody is going except himself. It might have been a tragic flaw had he not found, and trusted, someone to point him in the right direction. For there was a time when Kidd was not the happy family man, and had no desire to be one. It was a time when he shot a lot of late-night pool, drank
a fair amount, too-"Shell, Pump No. 5," he jokes now-and certainly was never alone. Back when he and Gary Payton and Brian Shaw were the boyz-young, lionized athletes bringing equal parts fame and infamy to the East Bay. Back when no one believed Kidd would ever become the league's best point guard, despite his having all the tools to do so.

It had always been that way. Jason was never much different from most kids, until he stepped onto a basketball court. There, he was so good, many thought he could be the first guard to jump directly from high school to the pros. That talent drew a painfully bright spotlight to all he did: blow-by-blow accounts of his struggle to score high enough on the SATs to get into Cal; later, reporters staking out his Tuesday night softball games to talk about his legal problems; anonymous callers to newspapers eager to report his night club escapade from the night before.

Stay at home? Not a chance. He was from the Oakland suburbs, but his game earned him acceptance from Payton's inner-city crew. And he never lacked for company. When he first started dating Joumana in 1996, she borrowed his silver Mercedes and accidentally hit the directory on his car phone. The roll call, she says, stunned her: "Barbara, Bunny, Cookie, Donna, Lakeesha, Lisa, Marie, Nora, Taniqua ... And that was only the roadtrip phone."

But that was the very least of his indiscretions. There was the night a month before the '94 draft when he rolled his dad's brand-new Toyota Land Cruiser while racing from Payton's East Bay pool hall hangout to an after-hours party, sideswiping another car and then fleeing the scene. That got him a $1,000 fine, 100 hours of community service and two years' probation. Two lawsuits found him before the draft as well, one from a Cal student saying Kidd had hit her at a party, another from a woman demanding child support for a son, Jason Jr., born out of wedlock. Kidd would settle both cases.
All this had the Mavericks wondering if they could afford to use the No.2 overall pick on Kidd. Ultimately, the sophomore guard many had pegged as a franchise cornerstone was too good to resist. But turning pro did little to slow him down. Yes, the memory of BShaw losing both of his parents in a car accident was enough to end the impromptu drag racing on I-80. But the gin and tonics still flowed freely at Johnny Love's in San Francisco and The Joint in Dallas. Kidd made the papers again for cuffing a fan who was looking for a photo with him on New Year's Eve of his rookie season. And despite being the league's most indestructibly built guard at 6'4'' and 212 solidly muscled pounds, he routinely used a star's prerogative to go light in practices, or to just sit them out altogether.

Michael Jordan saw the wealth of talent being wasted and, during a '96 Nike summer trip to Japan, called Jason to his suite for an earful. That didn't work either. A few months later, Kidd was riding in a car that got hit at 5 a.m. in L.A. after a game against the Clippers. The incident received more scrutiny when questions arose over whether Kidd had injured his collarbone in the game that night or in the accident.By then, Kidd knew something had to change and saw someone who could throw him an assist for once-Joumana, whom he had met earlier that fall. Asked his handicap by golf buddies, Kidd jokes, "communication," which was Joumana's major at San Francisco State. She was beautiful enough to garner as much attention in public as Jason, only she seemed better able to handle it. She could socialize, but knew where the line between a good time and going too far stood.

So taken was Kidd that he told his best friend since grade school, Andre Cornwell, "I'm going to marry that girl." Then again, quite a few guys recited that prayer at the sight of Joumana. It wasn't quite so easy. She grew up in the Bay Area too, and had read about Kidd's mishaps in the papers. She ran in the same social circles, dating a football player named Boo Merritt, who played at New Mexico State and had a tryout with the Patriots. It didn't matter to her how unselfish Kidd was on the court, or that he was USA Today and Parade Magazine High School Player of the Year and the Pac-10 Player of the Year as a sophomore. Back then, Kidd was a player in every sense of the word. Merritt earned far more points working with handicapped kids.

"I hated Jason's guts," says Joumana, the passion in her voice belying her smile. "There were certain guys I didn't like from afar, but there was something about Jason that really bothered me."

Kidd is nothing if not competitive. Just to help him get together with Joumana, Andre arranged to date a woman she knew. They invited Joumana to a party that would consist of the four of them. She arrived, discovered the setup and never removed her coat. Just turned around and left. But Joumana finally broke up with Boo, and Andre convinced her to come on a double date to see How to Make an American Quilt, a chick flick if ever there was one. She and Jason talked from start to finish. "I found out that he had a head on his shoulders," she says. "He wasn't just the guy I read about in the papers."
Kidd went court lengths to prove that. Shortly after Joumana stumbled into the phone directory, he handed her his little black book and pager and said, "I'm done. No more." When he flew her down to Dallas and had a personal assistant pick her up at the airport, she nearly turned around and went home a second time. When she left at the end of the weekend, he drove her to the airport and walked her to the gate.

A few weekends later, the two went for a walk and passed a shoe store. A pair of Gucci boots caught Joumana's eye. When Kidd came back from practice later that day, he told her that Honey Bear, her favorite stuffed doll she had brought to his house, had something for her on the bed. And there was HB, sitting on top of the Gucci boots.

Then there was Christmas Eve '96, when he attended Midnight Mass with her family and slept at her house. She spent the night with her mom, and he slept alone in her single bed. No one told him the room wasn't heated and that the trick was to put socks on his hands and load up the blankets to keep warm.

When the Mavs gave him a trade to Phoenix as a Christmas present two days later, he convinced Joumana to be part of his fresh start and move in with him. She took the offer seriously in more ways than one. Joumana heard writers complain that Jason was a bad interview, so she pushed him to air the clever comments he had previously kept private. She broke down his stats, creating multicolored charts and graphs to show him right there on the team plane how he played differently on the road than at home, or that he took fewer shots against certain teams.

She would call him by his middle name, Fred, when he didn't play hard or made crazy decisions, as if he had an alter ego. The rest of the Suns picked up on it and talked about Jason and Fred as if they were two people. She ran sprints with him and rebounded for him during last year's lockout, just weeks after giving birth to T.J. Tired of being called "Ason" because he had no J, Kidd would not leave the gym until he made 20 consecutive jumpers from nine different spots on the floor and 50 consecutive free throws. Every day he did that, no matter how long it took. She stayed as long as he did.

After a few months of living together, Jason realized that Joumana (they married in February '97) shared his knack for knowing what came next. Where he could see a step ahead for his teammates, she could see what lay ahead for him and provide that perfect lead pass. The results were tangible. Becoming a true leader, finding a high-post pullup jumper and saying goodbye to Fred resulted in selections to the All-NBA first team, All-Defense first team and the 2000 Olympic Dream Team. His shooting percentage, which never broke 40% in Dallas, has never fallen below that mark in Phoenix. His free throw percentage, which never got above 70% in Texas, is now hovering around 80%. He added his second 700-assist/500-rebound season his first full year in Phoenix, joining Magic and Oscar as the only players to turn that double more than once. Last season, he led the league in minutes played, a testament to his more sedate lifestyle.
Kidd helped the Suns reload in the off-season by recruiting Penny Hardaway and Oliver Miller, two free agents who hope Jason can lead them to the same sort of redemption in the desert. As Kidd stood in front of his locker holding T.J. after an early-season game, Penny and Oliver stopped by to get T.J.'s attention. You got the sense they were also paying respect to Kidd, who has emerged as the Suns' Gandhi, beloved for being a leader whose sole interest is taking care of everyone else. After being the only Sun who could consistently score in a narrow home loss to the Lakers, Kidd put in extra work on his jumper before facing the Bulls-and then spent that game trying to get everyone else's shot back on track, finishing with 11 assists while taking only two shots himself.

At 26, Kidd has stepped forward not only as a leader for the Suns but for the entire league. NBA senior VP of operations Rod Thorn, whose office had too often heard stories about Jason's Dallas dalliances, now can't stop raving about the new Kidd. Most of the Dream Team lost focus during the two weeks of pre-Olympic qualifying in Puerto Rico because of the tropical sun, the casinos and a lack of competition. But Kidd and Tim Duncan remained the team anchors, bringing it every night.

Joumana found the rest of what she needed to know about Jason by scouting the Kidd family. She saw dedication to work in Jason's father, who spent his entire 33-year working life with TWA, moving up from baggage handler to ticket-counter supervisor. She saw commitment to family in how Jason's parents divorced but continued to live on the same street, spending almost as much time together as when they were married. She saw unconditional love in how Steve Kidd would call Jason before his son's trips back to Oakland to find out when to pick him up at the airport. "I married Jason because looking at his family, I knew what he could become," she says.

Reminders of Steve Kidd surround his son. There's the pool table that greets you upon entering Kidd's house. There's that way T.J. looks out of the corner of his eye, the same way his grandfather did. There's T.J.'s birthday, Oct. 12, just one day after his grandfather's. There's Steve Kidd's pool cue sitting in Jason's rack and, tucked in a nearby drawer, a scoreboard from the last time they played-Jason 13, Steve 8, Joumana's brother Ed 4.

But to understand the most valuable thing Steve Kidd passed on, you have to see Jason holding T.J. in his arms in the Suns' locker room as the two munch on a basket of pretzel sticks. "Mommy's going to be mad," Kidd says, grinning wickedly as he holds up another stick for T.J. to grab and shove into his mouth, eyes shining. They are as much partners in crime-buddies, pals-as they are family. The Kidds are moving out of their home on the Gainey Ranch golf course, a location that allowed Kidd to feed his links jones. Why? So T.J. can have a backyard.

The son has become the father. The Kidd has become a man.