The last time the U.S. basketball team was in this predicament, Jason Kidd bailed out his country by helping it qualify for the Olympics.
That was in 2003, after the Americans had been embarrassed by a sixth-place finish at the world championships the previous year.
Now Kidd, 34, is back to help a U.S. squad that took third at worlds try to secure an Olympic berth. The Americans will need a top-two finish in the FIBA Americas Championship that begins Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The New Jersey Nets point guard, who owns an Olympic gold medal from the 2000 Sydney Games, won’t lead the team in scoring or rebounding. By his own admission, he might not even be the top assist guy.
But Kidd’s importance to the team can be measured in one statistic — wins.
As U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski pointed out after Thursday’s practice at Valley High School, Kidd has never lost a game while playing for the national team, going 33-0 in four tours.
“His experience is invaluable to us,” Krzyzewski said of Kidd, who was not on the national team roster last year and was added May 23 only after meeting with managing director Jerry Colangelo. “It’s nice when you earn somebody’s respect. But it’s better when you already have it. He’s got everyone’s ultimate respect, players and coaches.”
Kidd is the one player on the U.S. squad everyone else wants to be on the floor with.
Stars such as Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James figure to benefit from Kidd’s deft passes, and young players such as Kevin Durant and Deron Williams want to learn from him.
“I think we’re coming along great,” Kidd said. “Those guys talk about wanting to play with me, but I want to play with them. They make it so easy for me.”
Kidd’s court vision, passing ability, defense and rebounding give him a big edge over opponents.
“I don’t need to score to be effective,” he said. “Especially on this team.”
Kidd was last in scoring for the U.S. team at the 2003 FIBA Americas Championship, with 3.4 points per game. But he averaged a team-high five assists and started all 10 games as the Americans ran the table to earn a spot in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
He sees a similar scenario this time around.
“We’ve got guys who can score on this team,” Kidd said. “My job is to get them the ball.”
He’ll be an extension of Krzyzewski on the court, making sure guys are in the right spots and taking care of defensive assignments.
“The thing that makes Jason great is his will and his ability to do the little things,” Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. “He forces guys to play at a high level. He’s a giver and a helper. Who wouldn’t want to play with him?”
Kidd has 98 career triple-doubles in the NBA, but he said his statistics are the last thing he’s worried about with the national team.
“My role here is pretty simple: Make sure I’m getting the ball to the right people and that we’re playing together,” he said.
Kidd, the U.S. team’s oldest player, said he’s ready for the rigors of the FIBA Americas tournament.
“I feel great,” he said. “As you get older, you get smarter. I’ve always tried to take care of my body, and right now everything’s fine.”
Williams playfully calls Kidd “Dad,” and other teammates have teasingly labeled him “Grandpa.”
“That’s my son,” Kidd said, pointing to Williams, the 23-year-old point guard who is fighting for a spot on the final 12-man roster. “When you get to be my age, they’re going to call you Grandpa.”
As the lone member of this team who has an Olympic gold medal, Kidd said he feels obligated to let his teammates know the sacrifices it took to earn it.
“I’ll probably be a little more vocal this time, let guys know what it takes to do that,” he said. “I’ve got one. I’d like to get two. That’s why I came back.”