SANTA CLARA — Three times back in the early 1990s, two prolific assist machines dueled on the same Bay Area college basketball stage.
You might say they were just passing through.
Jason Kidd was the precocious star for Cal, a highly publicized recruit whose talent screamed stardom even before he got to St. Joseph Notre Dame High School in Alameda. “He was Magic Johnson in high school, a one-man fast break,” recalled noted basketball agent Bill Duffy.
Steve Nash, in contrast, was still a work-in-progress at Santa Clara, a player whose background didn’t scream stardom — it whispered it. He returned for his senior season mostly because he worried about being a second-round pick.
In three head-to-head games from 1992-93, Kidd won twice while Nash one once.
Now, Kidd and Nash are part of the same team. The two former Bay Area floor generals will share the stage Friday night as part of the 13-member enshrinement class at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Considering the ties from their college days, it’s amazing how closely they remain linked. John Stockton is the NBA’s all-time assist leader with 15,806. But the player behind him is Kidd (12,091) and the player behind him is Nash (10,355).
“Obviously, they are two of the greatest point guards ever,” said Duffy, also a Santa Clara grad, who represented Nash, “and if you saw them when they were young, you’d know why.”
Duffy saw both players at an early age and had an unlikely vantage point to their potential. He watched their private off-season workouts, including the occasional one-on-one duels against each other or against established NBA stars.
What he remembers most is the way they figured things out and responded to failure with resolve — getting shots off quicker, using step-back jumpers more often, figuring out angles and space as if they were scientists.
“With Steve, you didn’t have to tell him much because he was already a genius,” Duffy recalled in a phone conversation last week. “He was like a savant.”
The same goes for Kidd, the agent said. He’ll never forget the creativity he showed on one play as an AAU player: Kidd got trapped near the baseline by two tall opponents, who smothered the point guard so he couldn’t move. Kidd simply rolled the ball a few feet down the court (“Like he was bowling”), darted around the lumbering defenders and patted the ball back into a dribble.
“How did he even think of doing that?” Duffy said.
Not everyone got to see such a clear-cut path for Kidd and Nash. Their three Cal-Santa Clara meetings were mostly duds and lacked the kind of fanfare you would have expected for games between two future Hall of Fame point guards.
As far as the official record was concerned, the best of the trilogy came on Nov. 17, 1993. That was a historic night anyway: Cal’s 81-74 victory marked the first college basketball game ever played at San Jose Arena (the venue now known as the SAP Center).
Early in the tightly contested second half that night, with Kidd playing defense right in his face, Nash sank a jump shot off the dribble with 11:45 to play.
But that was the last Nash was heard from as No. 6 Cal’s zone defense stymied him the rest of the way. That led to a blunt assessment from then-Coach Dick Davey.
“I don’t think Steve came to the front when we really needed his shooting,” the coach said.
Kidd, meanwhile, commemorated the occasion with 27 points and a few unexpected lapses that allowed the Broncos to stick around. “I have to learn to concentrate for 40 minutes,” the future NBA head coach admitted.
Nash’s victory came in their final meeting, a few weeks later, when the Broncos won 80-67 over No. 13 Cal at the Oakland Coliseum Arena on Dec. 4, 1993. Nash scored 17 points by going 4 of 11 from the field. Kidd finished with 14 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds but the Bears slipped to 2-2. “One game does not send us to the bottom of the well,” Kidd said.
Not bad, but not exactly Dominique Wilkins vs. Larry Bird type stuff.
For the real glimpse of future greatness, you would have had to see Nash test his skills in the summer of 1995, when he entered into workouts with NBA stars, about 10 with Kidd (who had just finished winning co-rookie of the year honors for the Dallas Mavericks) and four with Gary Payton and Brian Shaw.
“Of course I was nervous,” Nash said a few months later. “TV makes them look like gods. While there was that feeling, I overcame it by saying if they show me I don’t belong, it’s good that they show me now, because in a year I will belong.”
It was there that he learned that NBA players use their bodies much differently than collegians, always taking the shortest route past a defender because anything circuitous will be cut off.
He learned those things the hard way. Duffy was there, and recalled the disastrous start for the Santa Clara star. This was by design. Duffy told Payton and Shaw, “This kid is pretty good. Test him. Challenge him. Push him.”
Payton, in particular, took those instructions to heart. The 1996 NBA defensive player of the year (and nine-time NBA defensive first-team selection) struggled to get a shot off, let alone score.
But instead of embarrassment, there were answers. And by the end of the four or five days together, Nash was holding his own. He learned how to get his shot off quicker, how his footwork could by him another inch of space. And by the time he was done, Nash had the respect of one of the best on-ball defenders of his era.
“Right now, he’s got a lot of Mark Price in him,” Payton said later that summer. “(Jeff) Hornacek, too.”
Kidd, too, wound up giving Nash the seal of approval.
“I compare him,” Kidd said, “to John Stockton.”
Nash trained twice a day with Kidd that June at an Alameda facility – besides the workouts with Payton and Shaw. Nash also trained with ex-Warrior Sarunas Marciulionis, in September, just before the NBA lockout was lifted, in Payton’s back yard and later at Cal.
“They won theirs, but by the end I won some games,” Nash told Mercury News sports writer John Akers that November. “The biggest thing is not that I won games – if you beat Jason one-on-one, you’re still not a better player than him – but how far I came. I got to where I could play with them.”
The crazy thing is, Nash still had doubt. As he began his final season at Santa Clara, he still worried about his future.
“I look back and say, ‘I worked out twice a day. I made 100 shots before and after every practice,” he said. “That’s 400 makes every day, whether it took 500 shots or 800 shots. I worked as hard as I could during practice. I tried to lift as much as I could.
“What else could I have possibly done? And yet I’m thinking, ‘Do I deserve it? Am I good enough?’ ”
The Hall of Fame inductions Nash and Kidd provide and emphatic answer for these Bay Area basketball legends.
Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at @mercbrownie