EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Jason Kidd had never truly stopped to count, except now, by request, his mind running the number now. In all those times that the scoreboard dictated his night should be over with useful minutes still left in the game, how many of those instances had cost him a triple-double?
"Probably 20," Kidd said the other day.
Coaches always gave him the option to chase The Big O and Magic, to chase the ultimate measure of point guard perfection. Only, Kidd understood that the way to chase Oscar Robertson and Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain would be with the most honorable of intentions.
To stay and scavenge a triple-double with one more cheap assist, another rebound – it goes against the code of greatness.
"That's disrespecting the game," Kidd said. "That's how I see it. If it happens, it happens. If you disrespect the game, though, sooner or later it will come back to get you."
As the New Jersey Nets star closed within one triple-double of tying Chamberlain for third on the career list with 78, the stat that most surprised him was discovering that 45 times in his career he finished games one digit short – say, 20 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds. Soon, Kidd will move into third place and stay there a long, long time.
Kidd will never catch Robertson's 181 triple-doubles, nor his boyhood idol Magic Johnson's 138. Yet he passed Bird (59), and comes to the cusp of Chamberlain now. In an NBA of immodest dunks and distant three-pointers, of massive centers and forwards and jetty guards, Kidd has been the genius talent that transcended his NBA generation.
"The league has promoted scoring," Kidd said, "but I think anytime you have a line where you can be involved in three categories – maybe four – it shows you've had a real impact."
"It tells me that I was involved – really involved – in the game."
He doesn't dunk, doesn't shoot well and doesn't move the fastest down the floor. Before his eyes, there unfolds a game most others never see. Magic did. Bird. Oscar. And yes, Kidd does. He is 34 years old now, lost a little in the legs, but nothing in those eyes, those sensors. As much as anyone in the sport, Jason Kidd is a palpable presence.
"(The triple-double) is the empirical evidence of how good he is," Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. "The thing about Jason that you try to describe to people is that without him ever having to say a word, you feel him as a coach, a teammate, an adversary, a fan – you feel him in the game."
An accomplished student of basketball history, Kidd is forever fighting for history to remember Robertson's 1961-62 season that averaged a triple-double (30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists a game) the way it deserves: on the Mount Rushmore of untouchable sports records.
"It belongs with DiMaggio's (56-game) hitting streak, with any record that's ever been set," Kidd said. "Unless there's somebody close to doing it again, I think that would be the only way people could really appreciate it. That's the only opportunity we'd have to quite understand what Oscar did.
"I don't think he gets enough recognition for what he did achieve."
Robertson wasn't reachable on Friday, and he's gone on record as saying that he doesn't love too much of today's game. Yet, he loves Jason Kidd. He chose four Hall of Fame legends to write blurbs of praise on the back of his autobiography, "The Big O," – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Jerry West and Kidd.
They've never had a substantive conversation, but Robertson considers Kidd – along with Tim Duncan – among the two most complete, most keenly understanding players in the sport. Along the way, Robertson had heard that Kidd had wanted to know how he was able to sustain that triple-double for a season.
"I think in actuality," Robertson wrote in his book, "he's referring more to an idea than an average. I also think that when an announcer brings up my name and the phrase triple-double, he's talking about the same concept: the idea of the complete player. The idea of excellence in all phases of the game."
Here comes Kidd for Wilt Chamberlain now, one more triple-double to reach 78 and rise on the Rushmore of basketball completeness that tells the most about the mettle of a basketball player. Kidd won't catch Magic and Oscar, but he'll keep chasing them to the end. All these nights, all these magnificent scoresheets, they tell him what he needs to know: By his standards, his genius, Jason Kidd was involved – really involved – in the game.