Bucks coach Jason Kidd on growing up in Oakland, coaching Giannis and hanging out with Bill Russell
‘Oakland wasn’t like that. I never felt racism toward being a mixed kid.’
Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd spent time growing up around Hall of Famers in two sports: Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell and Oakland Raiders legend Art Shell. Now the man who retired from the NBA as one of its strongest point guards will soon have a chance to become a Hall of Famer himself.
Kidd, a 10-time NBA All-Star, will become eligible for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018. With a résumé that includes a 2011 NBA championship, a 1995 co-NBA Rookie of the Year award, second all-time in assists and steals, and ninth in 3-pointers after recently being passed by Stephen Curry, it’s hard not to imagine the five-time All-NBA first team selection’s bust in bronze in Springfield, Massachusetts. Kidd also has two Olympic gold medals, was a first-team consensus All-America selection at California, Berkeley, in 1994 and the 1992 Naismith Prep Player of the Year.
“I gave everything I had to where you are exhausted on a nightly basis,” the 44-year-old Kidd said. “I made the organization better. But the biggest thing I will always treasure or feel is that I made my teammates better, no matter who it was: the 15th guy, 14th guy, the student manager at Cal, the guy who hardly played that when he played he felt comfortable helping us win.”
Kidd sat down with The Undefeated last week to talk about coaching the Bucks, most notably All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, growing up as a mixed-race kid in Oakland, California, lessons learned from Russell and Shell, and more.
Being a half-black, half-white kid, did you deal with any racism growing up in the San Francisco Bay area?
As a kid, I didn’t. Oakland wasn’t like that. I never felt racism toward being a mixed kid. If there was, my parents did a really good job of protecting and shielding me from it where it didn’t affect me, nor did I hear it. I had cousins that were white and cousins that were black. I just looked at them as family.
My parents did a great job of helping me understand that we shouldn’t be judged on color. You should be looked upon as a person. I give them my thanks for that.
How did living in Oakland push your growth as a basketball player?
I was born in San Francisco, but we moved to Oakland when I was 3. I began playing sports through one of my dad’s close friends at work. That’s how it started for me sportswise. I played soccer, and then I was introduced to basketball. I found myself at Rainbow [Recreation] Center off Seminary [Avenue]. I played with kids a little older than myself. I went to the playground playing at Grass Valley [neighborhood in East Oakland] playing kids that were older than myself.
I just tried to find ways to stay on the court. There was always a draft. I was always picked last, being one of the young guys. But I always built my status by trying to help the team win. … For me, it was about competing, winning. For whatever reason, that gene was a very strong gene. Being introduced to basketball at Grass Valley by [former ABA Oakland Oaks center] Jay Hadnot, he was older than I was. For him to take the time to come get me and take me down there and bring me back, I just tried to copy those [older] guys. I was a throw-in that made the 5-on-5 work.
What do you think about Oakland’s basketball legacy? (That history includes Kidd, Hall of Famers Russell, Gary Payton and Jim Pollard, Damian Lillard, Paul Silas, Drew Gooden, Antonio Davis, Leon Powe, J.R. Rider, Brian Shaw, Greg Foster, Ivan Rabb, Gary Payton II, Jared Cunningham, Jabari Brown and playground legend Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell.)
It’s underrated. We don’t get the attention that New York or L.A. gets. But there are a lot of talented guys who have made it to the highest level of basketball, a lot of guys who didn’t make it who didn’t get the light they have deserved at a high level.
Who is the best player to come out of Oakland?
Bill Russell has to be the best. He’s the best. Everyone else is in last. You can say second or last, but everyone else is last.
Did you ever get a chance to pick Bill Russell’s brain about basketball?
My godfather was Jim Hadnot. He was best friends with Bill Russell. So as a kid I got to see these two 7-foot guys that I was scared to death of. When [Russell] sat in a chair his knees went to his chin. His voice was very raspy and deep. I was always scared. Mr. Hadnot was the same. They were like brothers. They were almost twins seeing two 7-footers sitting together watching TV. My dad wasn’t tall.
It was cool. Those guys were talking basketball. I didn’t have no idea what basketball was at the time. I just remember my dad talking about Mr. Russell, how good he was and what he meant to Oakland.
Did you remind Bill Russell about those days later?
We always have talked about it. I remember in Vegas [for the 2007 NBA All-Star Game] I asked for a favor for Mr. Russell. He doesn’t always sign autographs. I asked through [Hadnot’s wife] Cookie, ‘Do you think I could ask Mr. Russell if I could get an autographed jersey?’ I was scared to death to ask him. She asked him, and he was like, ‘No problem.’
So I saw him at the All-Star Game and asked him if he got the message, and he said he got it. He asked if I got the jersey. Then, I knew it was real. He signed it. I had it hanging up. It was surreal that we crossed paths later in life.
With recently acquired Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe, how good can this team be?
It’s going to take some time after getting ‘Bled.’ We got off to a really good start. One, we have to be healthy. Two, understanding we’re young. We’re a young team. We are asking a lot of young men to do something. This is a man’s league. The teams that are men are mostly consistent. The younger teams have inconsistency to them. We’re trying to get to that consistent part.
What have you learned about Bledsoe since his arrival?
His speed, we don’t have that. His toughness and ability to guard the pick-and-roll were things we all got better at. For whatever reason, everybody always looks at shooting. Shooting is a piece that he can help on. But he can make plays and get guys the ball. He can attract [two defenders] to the ball. That’s something we didn’t have on a consistent basis.
What is the latest with Jabari Parker? (Parker suffered a season-ending left knee injury for the second time in three years on Feb. 8 and was expected to miss a year after surgery.)
He’s doing great. He’s been practicing. He’s been at shootaround. The timetable is February for him to come back. You’re talking about someone who can score the ball at a very high level. He gives you a big, athletic ability and another big on the floor.
Giannis is a big star, but the Bucks still keep a low profile. Would you rather it stays that way?
With play and winning, you can be on the map. The key is once you’re on the map, how do you stay on the map? You’re not a secret. Everyone wants to play their best against you. We can see that early in the season. There are no secrets.
They’re going to prepare for Giannis. They’re going to prepare for the team. How are we going to get better? We are not surprising anybody. With those kind of expectations, we have to get better.
How does Giannis get better? Where does he go from here?
For him it’s about his consistency making reads offensively and defensively. Everybody is going to talk about his outside shooting. But it’s all about time and scoring and understanding how to dominate the game for three minutes here and five minutes in the second half, where you can put your fingerprints all over the game.
How has Giannis dealt with his stardom?
He’s done great. For him, he is still the same person. He wants to win. He wants to get better. This is the first time he’s been in this situation, so it’s new to him. He’s handled it well. He’s trying to share as much of the spotlight as he can with his teammates. He understands that he needs them to get where he wants to go.
Are the Bucks ready to take a big step this season?
We’re close. Health? Health is big. We have to be healthy. We’re young. You’re talking about a 22-year-old [Antetokounmpo] who is your star and is playing at a very high level, but he’s still 22. He’s still going through it. Once he goes through this then he will be like, ‘I know how this feels. I know what to do.’ The game will become easier for him.
You mentioned shooting earlier. I remember at the beginning of your NBA career you used to get criticized for your shooting struggles and you used to be called ‘Ason’ because you had no ‘J’ [jumper]. How did you take that criticism at that time, and how did you develop a jumper that helped keep you in the NBA for 19 seasons?
The big thing was I wasn’t affected by anything they said. ‘You couldn’t shoot.’ My mindset was about winning. If I had to shoot a shot to win the game, I always believed I could make it. I always thought that whatever the team needed, I can do. But I never wanted to get away from strengths. My speed. Being able to post [up] smaller guards. In the [fast] break, making the game easier for my teammates. That’s what I relied on.
I didn’t say, ‘I am going to shoot the ball and try to make a jump shot.’ I wanted to help the team win.
But was there anything you did in particular to improve your jump shot?
You have to work. I worked on it. You work on it daily. On vacation, you work on it. You work on it before practice. You work on it after practice. Then you see a couple go in and you say, ‘See, it’s starting to pay off.’ It didn’t pay off for me right away. You had to stick with it, keep working, and it helped me win a championship.
I did a lot of shooting in the morning before and after practice. Especially in Jersey. That’s when it all started to click for me.
When you see that the Oakland Raiders plan to move to Las Vegas and the Golden State Warriors are going to move to San Francisco from Oakland, what do you think about it?
Oakland is going to hurt. They have the A’s, but they could be moving. Who knows? I don’t know. When you talk about sports teams meeting there at the Coliseum for football, basketball or baseball, there are a lot of loyal fans who followed teams that struggled for a long time.
What did Oakland mean to you, and how did it raise you?
It’s a city that raised me through everything. It’s always shown a lot of love and support. I’m grateful. I grew up in the time of Joe Montana and the [San Francisco] 49ers. I am very blessed to grow up with some celebrities that I encountered as a kid. Growing up around Art Shell and the Raiders, being best friends with his son as a kid, going into their locker room. I didn’t know what that meant or entailed for me as I grew up.
Then being around Bill Russell. Those are things I’ve never really talked about or shared. But I had that as a kid. When I look back at it, it was kind of cool.
How did you get connected to Shell?
I went to the same elementary school with his son Arthur. We were neighbors. Arthur and myself were close. I would stay at his house and go over there and play. Vice versa. Then when they moved to L.A. is when we lost touch, and I was mad at the Raiders for moving [in 1981].
What was it like being in the Raiders’ locker room back then?
I just remembered there being a lot of noise. They were having fun. They were just big guys. I was just a kid. I was like, ‘Man, this would be cool to play. Seems like they are having fun.’ I never played football, but the atmosphere was really cool.
What was the best lesson you learned as a kid from Art Shell and Bill Russell?
The fear. Fear. The intimidation. I think they knew that. As a kid, Art Shell is not a small man. His voice — if we did something wrong, he let us know. But he was being a parent. That is the one thing I looked at, not Bill as a basketball player but Bill as a person. And Art Shell, not as a football player but as a parent. I respected both of them.
Did you dream of one day making the Hall of Fame?
As a coach, you’re always in the present. But people have brought it up to me with the expectation of being in the Hall of Fame, being one of the candidates. It would be an honor being one of the candidates for hopefully doing the right thing on the court. As a kid, you dream about winning. Well, at least the great ones do. You don’t see yourself being old as a kid. You don’t see yourself retiring. You see yourself trying to win, hold the trophy and get the ring, whatever it may be.
You never really think, ‘Am I playing to be in the Hall of Fame?’ I was inducted at Cal this summer. You don’t think about the Hall of Fame. You think about, ‘How can I help a program win?’ What happens in life, as you get older you can get recognized for something you have done right. It’s great because all the hard work you put in at the gym and the playground, as you get older you can share some of those experiences with your family.
Do you think your young players are familiar with your career?
It’s all hearsay to them. It’s like, ‘He might have played. Who knows?’
There have been a couple of young black NBA head coaches who have already lost jobs this season in Earl Watson with the Phoenix Suns and David Fizdale with the Memphis Grizzlies. Any thoughts on that?
Coaching is not easy. It’s extremely hard. Sometimes we rush to judge and we don’t have all the answers. We don’t ask the right questions. Recently, we just lost a coach [Fizdale]. And I’m not there, so we don’t know why. I thought he did a great job last year. It’s unfortunate. But that shouldn’t discourage us from trying to coach at the highest level.