There was, for a brief while, a blimp in the arena. It was not a full-size blimp, of course, because it would've been difficult to fit that into the former Brendan Byrne Arena -- which was at that time the Continental Airlines Arena and would later become the Izod Center -- and have left any room for the New Jersey Nets, whatever team was beating them that night, and the few thousand people who'd come out to watch. So this little blimp would sort of putter above the upper section and periodically dribble off a few coupons for McDonald's or Modell's, which drifted down like little shabby bits of commercial dandruff, little flurries of 10% Off or Buy One Get One. Not enough, not nearly, to distract from what was happening on the court, but one of the gambits that the Nets tried during that period with that end in mind. That distraction was, given the basketball the Nets were playing at that time, a good idea.
And so, to compliment the goofball teams that followed the electric and epically unlucky teams of my youth -- Derrick Coleman, Kenny Anderson, Drazen Petrovic, Dwayne Schintzius -- the Nets tried whatever they could come up with. The mascot, once a member of the common mascot phylum Buffus Insectus, underwent an on-court transformation one season, going from Duncan to Superdunk, who was slightly puffier and light blue. Superdunk would eventually return to his home planet (I'm guessing) and be replaced by a gray fox named Sly, who would later get a miniature assistant foxlet. There was a DJ for a while, and a junior dance team and that blimp.
Mostly, there were decades of peevish mediocrity -- Shawn Bradley and Ed O'Bannon, Sam Cassell and John Calipari at the same time, a good deal more Chris Gatling than is probably advisable -- and then, somehow inevitably, there was Stephon Marbury. His tenure coincided with the blimp years. This seems appropriate, although I can't quite name why.
Marbury did his best, took as many shots as he could but probably not as many as he wanted, and tried to be polite about sharing a spot in the starting lineup, if not always the ball, with Evan Eschmeyer. Marbury wasn't happy, which built a grumpy kinship with the fans that came out to the games. "I'm a true Net now," Marbury said about halfway through the team's 2-15 start in 1999-00. "When I die, I'm going to die a Net."
This was supposed to be an expression of loyalty and determination, and it may well have been -- it's best not to spend too much time in Stephon Marbury's head; it's weird in there, there are wasps. But it certainly sounded fatalistic, which is another way of saying that it sounded very New Jersey and very New Jersey Nets. For all their many repeated failings as a basketball team, the Nets of that era were effortlessly great at evoking just that sort of intimation of doom. At the end of Marbury's second full season with the team, the Nets swapped him for Jason Kidd, and my friends and I took our usual seats for the season opener expecting nothing new, which is to say expecting nothing much. If the blimp was in the house that night, I don't remember it.
* * *
It wasn't that the Nets fans and I slouched warily around the arena had been waiting for Jason Kidd, so much as it was that we had never had any indication that players like Jason Kidd could even exist. The Nets had employed a few good players and a slightly larger number of memorable players in the previous few decades, but none of them expanded and dignified and enlivened the game the way that Kidd did. Within minutes of the first game, it was clear that, while Kidd's Nets would win more games than the previous season's, they would also open up new weird universes of basketball possibility to fans whose expectations had, we suddenly realized, been stuck in a gnawingly mundane place. Basketball is a team game, and Kidd's genius was for making it more fully and exhilaratingly so, but this expansion was entirely Jason Kidd's doing.
From the cheap seats, we watched Kidd make the game dazzlingly abstract. We saw plays emerge, alley-oops gathering into immanence before exploding, and only belatedly realized, after the high-fiving and shocked applause, that he had made all that happen, seen it and shaped it at once. Up close, or on television, his brilliance was even more startling: The startling thing about the NBA when seen up close is how fast it is, and the startling thing about Kidd at his best was how slow and certain he was in it.
He was not really a very good shooter -- that came a little later, when he really needed it in order to stay effective -- and not nearly as physically impressive as the lither, ropier opponents he patiently outmuscled, outplayed and outclassed. But Kidd was like nothing we'd ever seen, or had believed it possible to see, taking the Nets to the NBA Finals in each of his first two seasons in New Jersey, and doing so the first year with mostly the same players that Marbury had led to 26 wins the year earlier. We were delirious, drunk on the bus back to the Port Authority, stunned out of our minds and convinced -- sentimental and certain and I might as well mention again very drunk -- that this was it. The thwarted and mostly terrible teams of our youth had led to this, opened onto something brighter. And so we'd live there, in that endless wide-open present, where Jason Kidd showed us amazing things about how basketball could be. Grown at last, and awake in perfection. Except, of course, not.
* * *
Of course not because there is no such thing as perfection, and because Jason Kidd -- as close as he came on the court for giddy, impossible stretches of time -- was not at all perfect. The Nets got him at the reduced rate of One Not-Yet Floridly Unemployable Marbury Plus Tax because Kidd had pled guilty to domestic abuse against his wife, Joumana; there were persistent rumors of various nightclub crudities over the years after that, although his wife and son were a regular presence at games. He filed for divorce in 2007, and her countersuit painted him as a relentlessly abhorrent if depressingly familiar type.
This matters, of course, and that Jason Kidd's apparent loutishness is so hard to square with the prescience and generosity of his on-court genius is part of why it matters. He retired earlier this week, at the end of a long and supremely distinguished career. That's distinguished not just in terms of achievements and stats and such, although there's all that, but distinguished in the way that Kidd grew up and old on the court as spectacularly as he had once inverted it with the Nets. He recognized his limitations and so expanded them, and made teams better until he decided he no longer wanted to do it any longer. As ever, there was a presence and grace to what he did on the court that appeared to abandon him away from it. Quite aside from any familiar truisms about Troubled Genius -- all true enough, here, but not really that interesting -- this may be the last thing that Jason Kidd shows us.
The Nets left Jersey, and my friends and I have left the Nets. We grew up in intense transference with the team, too intense a relationship to sustain once adult relationships start horning in on the emotional energy. But we mostly just grew up; some other kids will grow up in a similar relationship with the Nets, and with other thrilling and imperfect players. This is how it's supposed to work, and it's a good thing. Nothing about this should stop.
But Jason Kidd, despite giving us basketball more beautiful and forceful than any we'd seen before, also helped end our childhood as fans in another way. I grew up as the Nets, made them a central part of myself at the time in life when we 1) do dumb things like that and 2) are busiest at the work of creating ourselves. Kidd and the teams he made shocked us out of that -- he was not us, both because my friends and I had become people by that point, but because he was both so much better and so much worse and finally so different from us, who we were or wanted to be. And so, in a sense, he set us free to watch. For all the things to be more or less grateful for after his long, brilliant, complicated career, I keep coming back to that. Nothing before it makes much sense.