On one hand, he's one of the most respected figures in the NBA, a sure-fire Hall of Famer who made his living in large part through his basketball IQ. Even as his body was breaking down during the end of his final season with the New York Knicks -- at one point you legitimately wondered if he could fully extend his arms -- he was making smart plays on each end of the court. Jason Kidd is someone you would want on your team if he were 90 and could barely walk. (That's to say: How he looked in the playoffs.)
On the other hand, well, Kidd has zero coaching experience -- the team admits he "only would be considered if he could assemble 'an All-Star cast' of veteran assistants to support him" -- and would be in charge of a team that needs less a coach than a psychiatrist, a hypnotist, maybe an alchemist. While working for a guy whose demands for championships are starting to sound less like boasts and more like someone who doesn't understand the rules of the league his team plays in, that's a doomed job for anyone, let alone a guy who has never done it before.
It got me to thinking, though: Considering Kidd was still under contract with the Knicks -- for two more seasons! -- when he retired, he conceivably could have heralded the return of something I've long awaited to reinstate: The institution of the player-coach. I think it's time.
Oh, don't you miss it? There was something almost rugged about a player-coach/player-manager, someone who made all the decisions and went out on the field to play. It felt like they were in charge and a part of the action, an actor and a reactor. And more than anything, it felt like the workers controlling the means of production, eliminating the problem of manager-player relations by eliminating the manager.
Plus: It was cool, you know? It was novel and different. And it was fun to try to figure out when the manager in baseball could visit the mound and when he couldn't.
I think sports are ready for player-managers again. The position of manager and coach, as I've argued before, is moving away from some fierce field general lobbing orders from the mountainside down to the front and more toward a streamlined, follow-general-strategy-from-the-front-office-but-mostly-just-stay-out-of-the-way model. The most important job of a manager/coach, in many ways, is simply to manage; to make sure everyone gets along, that the clubhouse/locker room is a peaceful place, that the team does not rise up against itself. It's about respect, and no one has that more than a teammate. A manager must get along well with the media, have everyone on his team respect him and occasionally draw up a play. The job is simple itself enough that playing hardly seems like something that would get in the way.
(As usual, we're exempting the NFL from this discussion. NFL coaches are such insane, film-obsessed lunatics that it's impossible to imagine anyone having the time to practice and watch 18 hours of film a day. I have no idea how any NFL coach ever lives past 50/stays married.)
The reason the practice was popular in the first place was because of money: It was cheaper to pay a manager and player in one shot rather than hire both. That's not much of an issue now; the average baseball manager makes just a little bit more than the minimum player salary anyway. That's a main reason the practice went away. Another reason the practice went away: Pete Rose. I'm not sure why anyone ever thought it was a wise idea to make Rose a player-manager in the first place -- it's not like he was particularly beloved by his teammates in his prime -- but having the job done by one of the most self-aggrandizing, corrupt men in baseball history was an excellent way to make certain no one tries anything like that again for a long time. Rose was pretty lousy at the job -- his first lineup card had him batting second, and he explained, "I don't think the fans are coming out to see me change pitchers." Oh yeah -- he also happened to break the most unbreakable rule in the sport in the process. So there was that.
Before Rose, though, Joe Torre had done just fine with the Mets in 1977 (although he essentially retired during that stint and only had two at-bats), and Frank Robinson the same in 1975-76 with Cleveland. The NBA was a bit spottier, with Dave Cowens the last to do it during two losing seasons with the Celtics in 1978-79 and Kevin Loughery going 5-26 for Philadelphia in 1973, which is not good. In fact, no NBA player-coach has had a winning record since Bill Russell, who won two NBA titles and made two All-NBA teams in 1968-69.
It's coming back around in baseball, though. Kenny Williams briefly considered hiring Paul Konerko to be a player-manager before deciding to go with Robin Ventura instead, and Jason Giambi -- who in his prime I would have considered the least likely player in the sport to be manager material -- was a candidate for the Rockies job this season. (That seems the ideal spot for a player-manager: Late-game power pinch-hitting specialist.) Baseball does seem the sport most likely for this to happen: If you can control the clubhouse and follow your general manager's orders, that's almost the whole job.
One place, alas, it won't happen is the NBA. It's bad news for Kidd, if he somehow gets the jones to play again: The NBA has an actual rule, in the new CBA, against player-coaches, because they consider it a circumvention of salary cap rules. (It's more an issue for assistant coaches, but it applies to head coaches as well.) This makes sense but is still a shame. This is throwing out the baby, the bathwater and the tub.
So it'll have to be baseball. We seem close now. Mike Matheny is only 42, seven years removed from his playing days; Bo Porter is only 40. It's only a matter of time. Maybe it'll be Giambi. Maybe it'll be Placido Polanco. (Whoever it is seems likely to manage the Marlins, for some reason.) But it's an idea whose time has returned. Let's make it happen.