Kidd retools his career for a ring

MIAMI – Jason Kidd(notes) grabbed that championship trophy, and finally, all those 17 battle-scarred seasons from Dallas to Phoenix to New Jersey to Dallas again, had their validation. He’d forever been the picture of composure on the court, the heady point guard always looking ahead for the next play, the next passing lane, and in that moment, in the din of celebration late Sunday, teammates pressing around him, trophy in his arms, Jason Kidd looked lost.

“It’s not real right now,” he’d later say, and who could blame him. This second act, this renaissance, wasn’t supposed to happen. Not at age 38, not when so many of his peers had long ago left the game. The NBA had been turned over to Chris Paul(notes) and Deron Williams(notes), Derrick Rose(notes) and Russell Westbrook(notes), those of the younger legs and fleet feet. He’d had his two cracks at a championship, and missed.

Through it all, Kidd never stopped grinding, and this is part of his brilliance. Eyes wide, shoulders squared, he’s forever rushing the ball up the court, searching for the next opportunity. This season, he found it amongst a motley collection of Dallas Mavericks. He looked around the locker room at all these veterans, not a single title among them, and proclaimed something that would continue to resonate in the months ahead.

“This team could be special.”

These Mavericks grew into a championship team because Kidd helped Dirk Nowitzki(notes) make them so. Three seasons earlier, Mavs owner Mark Cuban had gambled a talented young point guard, Devin Harris(notes), and two first-round draft picks to pull Kidd from the rubble of the New Jersey Nets. Cuban knew that Kidd could serve as a guide for Nowitzki, help him lead in ways he never had. Even at Kidd’s age, he could still manage a game as well as anyone in the league.

“Do you think we won that trade yet?” Cuban barked early Monday morning. He’s long been sensitive to the criticism he absorbed for giving up so much for his aging point guard. When Kidd arrived, Avery Johnson was still coaching the Mavericks, and Johnson’s heavy-handedness on the sideline stifled Kidd. The Mavs lost in the first round to the New Orleans Hornets that season, and Johnson paid with his job. Harris became an All-Star in New Jersey. The vitriol followed.

[Related: Dirk Nowitzki puts old championship myth to rest]

Still, Kidd learned something in those first seasons back in Dallas. He’d have to reinvent himself, remake his game to fit well with Nowitzki and Jason Terry(notes). He’d become one of the greatest point guards ever, and yet he couldn’t shoot. “Ason” Kidd they called him because he had no “J.” Kidd reconstructed his shot with help from Nowitzki, and the transformation has been stunning. He’s become one of the league’s more dependable 3-point shooters the past couple seasons. His son T.J., an eighth-grader now, even mimics Nowitzki’s mannerisms and shooting stroke.

“That was my challenge,” Kidd said. “I wanted to compete and help my team, and I had to be able to knock down the 3 to make it easier for these guys. So I worked on it every day.”

It’s showed in these playoffs. Kidd’s 3-pointer in the closing minute of Game 4 of the Western Conference finals helped push the Mavs past the Oklahoma City Thunder. He threw in another late dagger to help win Game 5 of these NBA Finals, and there he was again Sunday, spotting up from 25 feet, burying one last 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter to help give the Mavs all the cushion they needed.

Kidd impacted just as many games on the other end of the floor. He’s chased Kobe Bryant(notes), Kevin Durant(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) throughout this postseason, somehow staying in front of them just long enough. His legs may have slowed some, but his hands seem as quick as ever. He’s always seen the game different – “He’s savant-like,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said – and no player from this generation has been smarter.

“You saw it all playoffs,” Cuban said. “We measure those things. He’s just off the charts.”

“What a warrior he is at 38,” Nowitzki gushed.

Kidd would laugh at that. He’s often joked about his age, and he looked every year of it in parts of these Finals, especially early in the series. But there also was a cold, hard truth to this championship run: If he didn’t get his title now, he likely wouldn’t get it ever. He has one year left on his contract, but he’s said if a lockout eats too much of next season, he’ll consider leaving. If this was indeed his final game, he left it with the only thing missing from his Hall of Fame career.

“To finally finish across the line of the marathon in first place,” Kidd said, “is huge.”

Seventeen years, it took Kidd to get to this moment. He began his career in Dallas, the second overall pick by the Mavericks in 1994, supposedly the cornerstone of a young team that also included Jimmy Jackson and Jamal Mashburn. The three of them never got along, and within three seasons the roster had been splintered with Kidd cast off to Phoenix. As cool and collected as Kidd was on the court, he’d step into chaos off it. The domestic-abuse charge in Phoenix, the eventual messy breakup of his marriage in New Jersey – it all played out in the public.

The return to Dallas has brought some stability to Kidd’s life. Finally, it was all about basketball again. He’d been given a second act to his career, one last shot to chase the championship he’s always sought. The years had added up, but these Mavericks kept him feeling young, renewing his sense of purpose. He could help this team in so many ways.

“He kept us calm throughout this entire thing,” said Mavericks center Tyson Chandler(notes). “We went through some tough times. But when you look at Jason Kidd, he’s so calm. No matter if you’re up 10, down 15, he has the same demeanor.”

Seventeen years, and Kidd never stopped grinding toward this moment. Turns out these Mavericks were special, just like he’d said months ago. Sunday night had bled into Monday morning, and the celebration was still going strong. Damp with champagne, the chase over, Kidd strolled through a back hallway of the arena. He didn't know where he was headed, only how far he’d come.

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