- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. More than 15 years ago, Jason Kidd would board a bus in the hills of Oakland for a ride downtown and lessons on some of the city's toughest playgrounds.

His mentor? Gary Payton, Kidd's opposite number in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

Kidd's New Jersey Nets, the defending Eastern Conference champions, and Payton's Milwaukee Bucks square off in one of the most anticipated point guard matchups in postseason history.

The best-of-7 series opens today at Continental Airlines Arena.

"We both want to win," Kidd said yesterday. "He's a competitor. I know who I'm going against. We might get tired of seeing him, but I'm happy for Gary because of the situation of being on one team his whole career and being traded.

"He's handled it great, and he's helped them get to the playoffs. I just don't want him to beat us, but that's what brings out your best. You're going to play some friends."

Kidd at 30, four years younger than Payton actually played for Payton's father, Al, on an all-star team in middle school.

The younger Payton and Kidd met a couple of times back then, but they didn't form a bond until Kidd started heading downtown to learn how to be a point guard.

"Jason grew up just playing on the basketball court," Payton said. "He didn't know nothing about going to playgrounds, where guys challenge manhood. Guys are really rough, talk a lot of smack. Once we went to that setting, he didn't know nothing about that."

So Payton showed him.

"He opened my eyes to some different things," Kidd said. "It brought out the competitiveness and the heart or the toughness. He saw that I had it, and I think that's why he kept me around."

Payton laughs about some of the early lessons.

"When he was young, probably around 13, 14, he wanted to always come out and work out with me," Payton said. "He'd catch a bus to Cal-Berkeley, meet me. I used to beat on him a little. Everyday he'd go tell his mother he was going to play harder. He did and got better and better."

Kidd owns a 16-13 edge in their NBA encounters, but both have put up big numbers.

Payton has averaged 20.9 points, 7.0 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 2.44 steals, while shooting almost 45 percent from the field and 32 percent on 3-pointers. Kidd has averaged 15.2 points, 11 assists, 6.5 rebounds and 2.17 steals, while shooting about 40 percent from the field and on 3s.

Both will be free agents this offseason.

Kidd probably is considered the NBA's best point guard. He came to the Nets a year ago and transformed a perennial also-ran into an NBA Finals participant.

Payton is in a different situation. He was acquired in a trading deadline deal with Seattle for Ray Allen, and it took a while for Milwaukee to find its way.

But the Bucks won eight of their final nine games to grab the seventh seed in the East.

The Nets, meanwhile, lost four of their last five and were under .500 after the All-Star break.

The key for Milwaukee is its perimeter shooting. Payton, Sam Cassell, Michael Redd, Desmond Mason and Toni Kukoc can hit from anywhere, and if they do the Nets will be in trouble.

New Jersey has to play good perimeter defense and run. If Kidd can find Kenyon Martin, Kerry Kittles and Richard Jefferson filling the lanes, New Jersey will be tough to beat.

"Everybody is making a big deal about Gary and I knowing each other," Kidd said. "You have Sam, Michael Redd, Mason, and there is going to be an X-factor we're not talking about who has a big series. Point guard is just the start of things."

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