Theirs was a cautionary tale about expecting too much, too soon from guys not yet ready to stand on their own feet.
"We were young," Jamal Mashburn says now, from a distance, "and everybody wanted the limelight just a little bit too early."
Jamal Mashburn, Jason Kidd and Jimmy Jackson. The Three Js. A marketing dream. Exciting, brash, talented. They were supposed to take the Dallas Mavericks to the playoffs. But within five years of each player's arrival, each J had been sent packing, amid rumors of dissention and back-stabbing, and never making the playoffs.
"I mean if those three guys would have found a way to mesh and get along, I think they would all be here. I think they would have owned the city of Dallas," said Derek Harper, a temporary teammate of all three during the bad days and now the Mavericks' television analyst.
But fast-forward a few years, and, somewhat amazingly, just about everyone involved in the Tale of the Three Js has wound up on his feet, still wincing at the memories but almost glad for the experience. Each J is in the playoffs this spring -- and so is the franchise that temporarily sank under their weight.
"We've matured enough to understand that we had a great thing in Dallas," said Jackson, who went through the NBA's Journeyman Wilderness before latching on this season with the Kings. "It may be the timing wasn't right, but we've all learned something. We've all grown. We've grown (in) our separate directions. They've been All-Stars, and I haven't been able to reach that, but now I'm at a point where I'm on a team where we could probably win a championship. So, in some ways, we've watched each other grow from a distance, but when we see each other we always speak."
There were moments when things looked promising. Mashburn went for 50 one night in Chicago; Jackson averaged 25.7 points in '94-'95, and Kidd, as ever, just wanted to pass the ball to his teammates, as he did in '94, when he won co-Rookie of the Year honors with Grant Hill.
"As a rookie, you're not allowed to say anything," Kidd said, chuckling at the memory. "They (Jackson and Mashburn) were in the top five in scoring. And that's very rare to have two guys on the same team in the top five, top 10 in scoring. And as a point guard, that's a point guard's dream ... to get those guys the ball. And so for me it was that I didn't think that I had a right to say anything because I just came into the league and these guys had been in the league two and three years, and I just wanted to play, have fun, and win."
But it didn't go that way. Dallas only won 36 games that season, and that was the Js' highwater mark. Each J has his own spin on what went wrong. Could've been ownership: The Mavs were sold, in a space of a couple of years, from longtime boss Don Carter to Ross Perot, Jr., who acknowledged early in his tenure that he knew nothing about basketball. Could've been injuries: Jackson suffered a severe sprained ankle in 1995; Mashburn only played 18 games in the '95-'96 season with a sore left knee. Could've been coaching: From 1992, when Jackson was taken with the fourth pick in the draft, through 1997, the Mavs went through Richie Adubato, Gar Heard, Quinn Buckner, Dick Motta and Jim Cleamons, each of whom had different systems and philosophies. Buckner and Cleamons each favored the triangle offense, which Jackson and Mashburn loathed; both loved Motta's low-post offense, but Motta thought the two wrestled over shots.
But the biggest reason why things didn't work out may have been the Js themselves. Each was trying to find his way as a star, and each had the star retinue in his ear: the agent, the family, the friends. All telling a J that he was better than the other two Js.
"We all got along," Kidd said. But "different stories started to take a life of their own and they grew into something bigger than what really didn't have no truth (to them). The three of us didn't know how to handle it ... I think the outside was really a big influence on the three of us and which sent us down the wrong road. And we kind of separated and started to take a stand against one another, which really wasn't the case. And that really hurt us."
"When you're losing," Mashburn said, "it brings a lot of inconsistencies in your personality. It was real rough."
Jackson says he and Kidd, once very tight, were pulled apart when Jackson started questioning Kidd about his representatives' dealings.
"His agents were intimidated by me," Jackson said. "From the standpoint because I was all about business. I used to question Jason on a lot of things that were going on business-wise that they probably didn't agree with, but I didn't care. Because my loyalty was to him and not to his people."
The denoument probably came with one of the league's all-time urban legends, the supposed feud between Jackson and Kidd over R&B singer Toni Braxton's affections. What supposedly happened has been so twisted over the years, it's hard to pin down exactly what was alleged to have happened. There was a limo, it was supposed to pick up Kidd, but Jackson stood Kidd up so he could pick up Braxton in the limo, something like that. On this, Jackson is adamant. It wasn't true then, it isn't true now.
"It's funny, 'cause no matter how many times I say it or how many times Jason says it or no matter how many times she may say it, people are still going to believe what they're going to believe," Jackson says now. "To be honest with you, I never met her. Jason may have met her, but what happened was we were in New York ... I had a publicist who was going to set up the whole team to go over there and see her in the studio (in New York). So, I'm sitting in my room, I'm chillin', it's about 7:30, 8 o'clock, and I'm waiting for people to call me, and nobody calls me. So, I'm like dang they must have left me, so I went to a sponsorship meeting with Scotty Brooks. Hung out that night with some sponsors from Coke and AT&T.
"Jason was supposed to go, but he didn't go. I came back to the room at 12 o'clock, 12:30 to get ready for the New York game. A few days later I heard that I left the team and went to the studio (to allegedly meet Braxton). And my biggest disappointment was if you want to know where I was at, just ask me. Didn't nobody ask me about this until late June when we had a meeting with the new coach, Jim Cleamons. And (rumors) were spread because someone said I was on my way, which was true, but I was on my way with the team because I had already set up that there was going to be seven or eight of us going to the studio, but I never got a call that night. So, they all went out and did their separate things without telling me, so I got stuck.
"So, now the label is that it happened in Atlanta, and a car was downstairs and I went downstairs and said that Jason was sick, which is a lie because Jason, Jamal, all of us were all together in Atlanta that night because a friend of mine had a party, so it never happened in Atlanta. So, it all goes back to communication. And that's what I said to Jason was this. I said, 'Jason, I'm not mad at you, but I'm disappointed because as a man, how close we were -- if you ever had a problem you could have sat down and talked with me.' Whether I agreed with you or not, that's not the point -- it was a matter of respect. I can always respect a man, whether I agree with you or not. And that was my biggest problem."
Got all that?
No matter what happened or didn't happen during L'affaire Toni, when Cleamons took over in 1996, he found his three superstars not talking to one another.
"As soon as I got to Dallas, it was a matter of putting out fires," Cleamons recalled. "You try and piece what happened before I got there and during my time there it was a lot of he said, she said, who shot John. And when you got people together, you found out that it wasn't that bad, it was just the rumor mill had certain things going down the line, and the next thing you know guys weren't speaking to each other, and you try to find out why, so forth and so on."
Says Mashburn: "In reality, at times there was nothing wrong. But you got tired of answering those questions ... and the only way we weren't going to answer those questions is if we won ... and we weren't going to win because we didn't have all the pieces. I mean, we had three perimeter players, three great perimeter players but nobody inside. The guy that helped us inside the most was Popeye Jones and it was difficult."
Cleamons wanted to run his offense through Jackson, whom he'd known from their alma mater, Ohio State, and Kidd.
"I loved the idea, the thought of having that type of tandem at guard," Cleamons said. "Jamal was another question, in terms of was he willing to pay the price to do the things that he needed to do to be a real force in this game. The physical talent was there, but it was a question of him being mentally mature ... I remember telling Jamal one time, I can envision you almost as a point with the skills that he had, but once again, it was a matter or maturing and then accepting any given role at any given point in time."
With Mashburn resisting, Kidd's jumper broken and everyone complaining about the triangle, Cleamons didn't get anywhere near the four years he thought he had to turn things around. Kidd missed games after not telling management he'd been in an automobile accident, and Dallas's neophyte basketball managers decided to take action.
"I wanted to be traded," Kidd said. "I had asked to be traded because I didn't think they were going in the right direction, and I guess they granted my wish ... on Christmas."
It was actually the day after Christmas -- Dec. 26, 1996 -- that the Mavericks pulled the trigger on a blockbuster, sending Kidd, Tony Dumas and Loren Meyer to Phoenix for Sam Cassell, A.C. Green, a second-round pick and a young slasher out of Wisconsin.
"I just wanted to leave" after the Kidd trade, Mashburn said. "He was somebody I wanted to play for, he was somebody that I fought for in the draft because of all his past experience. They wanted to try to get Grant Hill and things like that, but I really fought for J Kidd to be there."
Once the Mavericks brought Don Nelson off the beach in Maui to be their GM, it didn't take him long to move on, and move the other Js. Mashburn got dealt to Miami on Valentine's Day 1997 for Kurt Thomas, Sasha Danilovic and Martin Muuresepp. Three days later, Jackson was involved in one of the biggest trades in league history: a 10-player swap with New Jersey. Half a team for half a team. Nelson said of his half, "They're a bunch of (bleeping) babies. And you can quote me on that."
Being the guy on the other end of the phone, I did.
But Jackson thinks that got him branded as a troublemaker, and led to him sliding from one team to another.
"I've said this all along," Jackson says now. "If you're the general manager, you can do what you want to do. If you want to come in and fire everybody, get rid of them, that's your prerogative. But don't taint the players that you traded away, because people are going to listen to that.
"Don Nelson said he came in the locker room and there was all kind of confusion. Hey, Don Nelson never sat down and talked to me. He never asked me what was going on or my thoughts or anything. Next thing I know is that I get labeled as this bad guy, which is funny, because I came into this league as unselfish, (a) hard worker, and team player, and I got this label put on me, and I can never shake it because there's this reputable guy and people believed him."
It was the start of many travels for each J. Kidd thought he would be the savior in Phoenix, but we all know how that turned out. Mashburn had some good years in Miami, and he always thanks Pat Riley for his role in developing Mashburn as an all-around player. But the Heat never made it very far in the playoffs. And Jackson began a circuit around much of the league: New Jersey, Philly, Golden State, Portland, Atlanta, Cleveland, Miami -- each journey taking him further and further away from the big time.
But that's the funny thing about this league. The longer you hang around, sometimes things start to turn around. After Kidd's infamous domestic abuse incident with his wife Joumana in Phoenix, the Suns sent him to the Jersey swamp, hard by Jimmy Hoffa. It seemed like an exile. It turned out to be his chance at redemption. He still wants to pass the ball more than shoot. But now, if he sees a problem in the locker room, he opens his mouth and clears the air, and quick. Dallas memories.
"I'm kind of back in that situation where I have two young guys (now, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson) who have a lot of talent," Kidd says, "and I'm trying to guide them in the right way and use experiences that I went through when I was their age ... the outside influence, people telling you, 'You know, you're better than the other guy,' or so that there is no confusion. If you communicate with one another, then you'll solve a lot of problems."
Never able to stay healthy in Miami, Mashburn wound up with the Hornets in 2000, got injured some more, spent a year and a half with the rest of his teammates wondering where he could forward his mail, and landed in the Big Easy. It's turned out to be the best season of his career. He made his first All-Star game 10 years into his career, and after missing most of last season's postseason with positional vertigo, Mashburn desperately wanted to play all 82 games this time around. Mission accomplished.
"For me to play this year and to get to the playoffs and to do what I've done this year, it's been enjoyable for me and I've had a smile on my face all year," Mashburn said.
As far as Jackson, well, the only good thing about living the nomad's NBA life is that you start thinking about life after basketball earlier. Jackson had started a development and an engineering firm in Toledo, dealing with commercial and residential real estate and housing. The engineering side does soil testing for contaminants and concrete testing for prospective builders. Jackson didn't see a lot of minority involvement in such work, and he figured that state and local governments had to have some minority companies involved in the bidding process for work, so he could help out his community and get started in a business.
But he still wanted to play, so he kept working out on the regular with his strength guy, waiting for the phone to ring. August, September, October, November. No takers. And just when Jackson thought time might be up for him, the phone rang just after Thanksgiving. The Kings were losing players left and right to injuries, and, well, would Jackson mind filling in for a while? Jackson took the job, but he didn't expect to fall in love again. He looked around and saw teammates who got along, who hung out with one another, who were fully professional on and off the court.
What Dallas was supposed to be.
"To end up here in Sacramento has been a real blessing," Jackson said. "And I say that for a lot of reasons. Ownership -- and I relate everything to business -- ownership means a lot. Because if your guys are up front up top and are honest and really want to succeed, they're going to spend the money, they're going to treat the employees right, they're going to do whatever it takes. That's what they do in Sacramento. That trickles down to the coaches and general manager, which goes on to the players. We have 14 players that genuinely like each other ... We were on the plane the other day playing old school hip-hop, and we were all singing. And you don't get that. So, the transition coming in from not playing to this team was a lot easier because of the personalities of this team that starts at Chris (Webber) to Vlade (Divac) to Mike (Bibby) on down the line. And they accepted me for who I was, and it's been a perfect fit."
Cleamons was fired by Nelson in December of 1997, but he got his money and he went straight to the Lakers, where he's won three more rings as an assistant to go with the three he got as an assistant in Chicago, to go with the one he got as a player in L.A. 30 years ago. So he's willing to wait until he finds a head job that's just right.
Even the Mavericks healed from their experience with the Js. (Sounds vaguely illicit, doesn't it?) Nelson engineered deals in 1998 to acquire Steve Nash from Phoenix and a German kid nobody else thought was that good named Nowitzki. Those two combined with the young slasher that had come from the Suns on the day after Christmas 1996 in the Kidd deal. In those three years, Michael Finley had become an All-Star, and Dallas had a new triumverate to pin its hopes on. Nobody's come up with a catchy nickname yet; they're just The Big Three. And three days after Y2K was supposed to kill us all, the Mavericks were sold to a guy that just might kill the Commish yet, Mark Cuban. Things have never been quiet in Big D since.
Whaddya know? A story with a happy ending. For the Js. For the Mavs. For just about everybody.
Kidd ran into Mashburn at All-Star Weekend in Atlanta in February and they exchanged numbers. When Mashburn plays the Nets or Kings, he knows when Kidd's going to throw an oop, or when Jackson's giving his head fake to set up a post-up move. They all wonder, in private moments, what it would be like if they could play with each other now. Mostly, they remember with pain, but also appreciation, how the Three Js rose and fell so quickly.
"Jimmy was a top-five two guard at that particular time," Mashburn summarizes, "and he just got back on his feet, and he's been around a whole lot of teams and he's with a championship ball club. J Kidd went to the NBA Finals (last year), and I made my first All-Star team and we're having a lot of success. Everybody's going to be in the playoffs and I think everybody, you know, is glad that they're going to be there, but it would've been fun to see if we could've did that together. So I mean, um, it's kind of bittersweet a little bit."
David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.