The quickest way to puncture your own myth as a former superstar is to become a coach. So says Sports On Earth senior editor Will Leitch in a recent column about Brooklyn Nets head coach and former Nets superstar point guard Jason Kidd. Leitch spoke with Bill Littlefield about Kidd’s transition and other superstars who found the player-to-coach transition difficult.
BL: After their 30 point loss to the lowly New York Knicks on Thursday, the Nets record stood at a horrible 5-14. Brooklyn was supposed to contend for the NBA title this year and obviously they have underachieved. How much of this is the fault of Jason Kidd?
WL: Well, probably not that much. It was a somewhat questionable hire from the beginning, anyway. One of the stranger things that happened, you know, last week he announced that Lawrence Frank, his assistant coach and the former Nets head coach, was leaving because they could apparently not get along. And this is, of course, a little unusual and scary, because one of the worries about Kidd was that he never had coaching experience.
The Nets constantly said, “Don’t worry. We’ve got all the assistant coaches [who] are going to help him out. Don’t worry about any of that.” And now we’re three weeks into the season and the entire staff is gone, and Kidd is the only one left. It’s strange to think, considering there’s been so much – certainly, on-court-wise anyway – positivity about Jason Kidd for most of his career. It’s probably quite a switch to see him kind of in the cross hairs a bit.
BL: Do we give any of the blame to Nets GM Billy King and the players he brought to the Nets?
WL: Oh, I think there’s no question. But we don’t see Billy King every night. This is the peril of being a coach. Or, as I put it in the story, the peril of switching from a uniform into a suit and tie. When you’re a suit and tie, you’re one of us. We look at players and know that we can’t do what they do — even players that are getting older, like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. We still know that we can’t do what they do. But we can imagine ourselves doing what Jason Kidd does. Once he puts a suit on, it’s like The Purple Rose of Cairo. He’s coming off the screen and joining us out in the real world, and that makes him fallible in a lot of ways.
BL: Did Mikhail Prokhorov hire him just because he was mesmerized by Kidd’s status as an ex-superstar player?
WL: It was certainly strange, you know, because when the first reports of Kidd being interested in the job came out, most people kind of chuckled. ‘Well, of course. You’re not playing anymore. Be a coach. Like it’s the easiest thing in the world.’ Kidd certainly – when he was playing for the Knicks last year, and I think later in his career as well with Dallas – he was constantly being referred to as a coach on the floor. There really is a difference between a coach being on the floor and off the floor.
Listen, I don’t think it’s fair to blame Kidd for everything that’s going on with the Nets. They have serious injury issues. If you saw that game against the Knicks on Thursday night — that was not the Nets team that was supposed to be put together. But that’s not the way it works in the NBA and really in all of sports. When an expensive team is struggling, you usually look at one guy, and that person’s usually the coach.
BL: As you point out in your article, Kidd may someday become a good NBA coach, but more than a few former superstars have failed to do that when they’ve had the opportunity. What are some of the better examples that come to mind?
WL: One of the most famous ones is Ted Williams. When he managed the Washington Senators, he wasn’t even that terrible, but it was just so obvious – his lack of patience for these mortal players that did not have the talents of Ted Williams. Yeah, he did it for a couple years and realized, ‘Yeah, this isn’t for me. Not everyone can hit .411 every year. I don’t want to do this anymore.’
The real cautionary tale is Isiah Thomas. You know, Isiah Thomas was kind of a bungler, not only as a coach, but as an executive for the Knicks and with the CBA, the Continental Basketball Association. I mean, Thomas was the president of the league. He essentially ran the league into the ground. Isaiah Thomas was one of the greatest point guards in NBA history. That’s almost forgotten. If you were to bring up Isiah Thomas’s name, it inspires chortles and mockery. That’s the nightmare scenario. If you’re in the Jason Kidd spot, you want to get out before you turn into Isiah Thomas.
BL: As badly as things have gone for the Nets so far, I wonder if Jason Kidd will get the opportunity to be a better coach. Does he get to keep his job this season?
WL: We’ll have to see what the injury situations are with the Nets. They’ve been so banged up early on. Now Paul Pierce is out, and now Deron Williams has had trouble. It really does come back to that old adage: you can’t fire the players. Kidd is such a big figure in Nets history even — not just Brooklyn Nets history, but New Jersey Nets history. You feel like he might get a little bit of rope, but I don’t know. With a lot of the troubles that they’ve had and the loss of Frank and particularly the impatience of Prokhorov, you can’t imagine this going on too much farther down the line. People always talk about New York how they want Steinbrenner back. It’s possible with Prokhorov they may have him.