by Tim Keown
ESPN The Magazine
Jason Kidd sees more. He sees more on the basketball court, on the freeway, in the movie theater. After he and his wife watch a movie, he routinely asks her if she noticed some subtleties in the film's background. She rarely does, even though she has learned to look for them. Reporters who have spent time with Kidd say he invariably finishes their sentences, slightly under his breath, as a prelude to his answer. In a practical sense, this mental acuity allows Kidd to make high-speed decisions in the open court, decisions that go far beyond the mundane choices of shoot-or-pass. His refined sensory awareness is not limited to the basketball court; it's part of who he is.
This is why Kidd performs physical feats that can't be practiced, or repeated, or sometimes even believed. It is why some witnesses say he threw a pass on Feb. 22 against the Knicks that came straight out of Area 51. After a steal in the Knicks forecourt, 70 feet from his own hoop, he saw Lucious Harris down court, breaking to the basket through a floor scattered with Knicks and Nets. This is where the story takes on some fourth-dimension quality, and where it becomes slightly unbelievable. With the window of opportunity opening and closing in roughly half a second, Kidd wound up and threw a 60-foot bowling-ball pass -- complete with an Earl Anthony follow-through -- in the direction of Harris. Witness reports vary, but the ball bounced at least three times and was thrown with enough backspin to avoid defenders and somehow curve back -- on the third or fourth bounce -- to hit Harris in stride for a layup.
Unbelievable? Nets coach Byron Scott, who played with Magic Johnson, says, “I could see his body language, and I’m looking at this ball saying, ‘I don’t believe this ball is going to curve right to where Lucious can catch it.’ I’m watching this thing come down and I’m shaking my head. I told Jason, ‘That was one of the greatest passes I’ve seen.’ ”
Kidd sees the game of basketball in large chunks, as a movie, instead of the slide show that others see. Kidd knows, for instance, that Nets teammate Richard Jefferson prefers soft looping lobs and Kenyon Martin prefers them harder and faster. At game speed, even when Martin or Jefferson is trailing a play, Kidd can simultaneously see the situation (the potential for the lob) and accommodate his teammate’s preference. This split-second awareness is why Kidd occupies a rarefied spot in the basketball world. It is why, in a basketball sense, Jason Kidd is a genius.
The basis for this genius comes down to one word: Speed. But not by its traditional definition. This isn’t stopwatch, 40-yard dash speed. It’s brain speed, or how fast the mind puts the body in motion. It is memory, pattern recognition and preparation all mixed together. Physical speed -- the kind we can see and compute -- is the manifestation of what goes on in the mind beforehand. Mental speed becomes physical when Gary Payton, the human premonition, disrupts a three-on-one fast break by overplaying a passing lane and coming up with a steal. Or when Andruw Jones, seemingly off before the crack of the bat, tracks down a liner to the gap. Or when Allen Iverson, arms and legs in arbitrary abandon, embarks on one of his fearless rages through the lane.
Every time you watch, astonished, and ask yourself how did he do that, be assured it starts inside the brain. The best of the best are the ones who do their sharpest thinking when there’s no time to think. Put simply, mind speed is what we’re seeing when we can’t believe our eyes.
Think of it this way: As you read this sentence, you recognize the individual words and comprehend their meaning simultaneously. You do not need to read the words once to identify them and then reread them to understand their meaning. Both cognitive processes occur at once.
The best athletes play their sport the same way, but in their case they’re merging the mental and physical. Take Kidd’s bowling-ball pass. “The thing that impressed me the most,” says Jim Spanarkel, a Nets broadcaster and former NBA player, “was that in a split-second, he had the ability to not only line up Harris down at the other end of the floor, but realize that the only way he could get the ball safely to him was to try a pass that I’ve never seen in 25, 30 years of watching basketball.”
This mind speed, immediate and confident, is the essence of athletic greatness. The best recognize patterns no one else sees, whether it’s Andre Agassi tracking the path of a 140 mph serve, Jeff Gordon weaving through the bumper-to-bumper grind of the Daytona 500, or Joe Sakic skating at full speed and backhanding a no-look pass to a teammate across the ice. These guys see order in chaos, the secret code embedded in a page of text. It’s what Kidd sees in the open floor, and what Barry Bonds sees from the batter’s box.
On Oct. 4 of last year, with the entire sports world watching as he went for homer No. 70, Bonds stepped up for his final at-bat of a three-game series in Houston. In his previous 14 plate appearances in the series, Bonds had been walked eight times and hit once. An Astros coach joked that the only way Bonds was going to get a pitch to hit was if it came from Houston’s “Secret Weapon.” That weapon was Wilfredo Rodriguez, a ballistic-armed kid up from Double-A. So the lefthanded Bonds would see nothing to hit, unless it was leaving the hand of a wild, over-amped lefty at 97 mph.
As if to add torment to frustration, there was Rodriguez trotting in from the bullpen. He threw his first warmup pitch in the dirt, and air-mailed another to the screen. Bonds stood impassively in the on-deck circle. Rodriguez, his heart no doubt racing at hummingbird speed, took a few deep breaths. When Bonds got into the box, he trained his eyes on Rodriguez’s release point, while also peripherally scanning for any tip-off movement (body leans, looks, small steps) from the middle infielders. In this case, there was little doubt that Rodriguez was going to come at him hard, and Bonds has developed a visualization technique to help him hit pitches that approach 100 mph. He envisions he is playing catch with the pitcher, using his bat as a glove. Catch the ball and off it goes.
The first pitch was outside for a ball. He swung through the second one, a 95 mph fastball. With the 1-1 pitch, Rodriguez threw another fastball, chest-high at 96, and Bonds cranked it 454 feet into the thick Houston night. The Astros pitched to him once in the series, and he was ready.
The record-tying home run wasn’t merely a memorable physical act; it was a product of years of intense research. Bonds’ approach in the batter’s box is similar to that of a scientist in a laboratory. As he begins the malicious twitching of his bat, he senses subtle movements from fielders, sometimes after the pitcher starts his windup. A shortstop who cheats to one side (it can be as minute as an upper-body lean) can signal whether the pitch will be hard or soft. Bonds is also the undisputed master at picking up repetition in pitch patterns. If a pitcher falls into the slightest routine with his pitch selection -- a first-pitch fastball with a runner on first, for example -- Bonds will recognize it and exploit it.
And remember, this all happens in a matter of milliseconds. A major league fastball, thrown at 90 mph, travels from the pitcher’s hand to the plate in approximately 400 milliseconds, or about as long as it takes you to sneeze. Someone as advanced as Bonds, whose bat speed is unparalleled, takes 190-300 milliseconds to decide whether to swing the bat and another 160 milliseconds to get the bat to the ball. As the numbers suggest, a significant amount of the work has to be done before the swing. When he hits, Bonds is not simply reacting to the speed and location of the pitch. He has, in effect, seen it before it’s thrown.
Mind speed provides the framework to explain the way Marshall Faulk runs with the football. It might look random, but Faulk bases his water-bug moves on a number of nearly instantaneous observations. Before the ball is snapped, his mind takes a series of snapshots of the defense -- starting with the defensive linemen, then the linebackers, then the defensive backs -- and plots his course accordingly. In an era of max speed, with 260-pound inside linebackers running 4.5 40s, knowing tendencies and spotting patterns can mean the difference between being the best offensive player in the game and being a second-stringer. “Some guys have tunnel vision, but Marshall sees everything,” says Rams running backs coach Bobby Jackson. “I think he sees not only the guys approaching him, but the guys to the side of him and the guys behind him.”
Consider this move Faulk performed late last season against Indianapolis: Breaking through the line of scrimmage on an off-tackle play, Faulk found himself behind Rams center Andy McCollum, who had just made contact with a Colts linebacker. McCollum and the linebacker separated, and at that moment, with barely a body’s width separating the linebacker and the center, Faulk split the gap between the two and gained another 10 yards. “He went through them like a dart,” Jackson says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
More than foot speed or strength or nerve, a move like this takes the kind of mind speed that blurs the line between thought and action. How much time did he have to see the separation, make the decision and split the difference? Probably less than a half-second. Faulk’s physical skills aren’t carrying him; he’s not the fastest or most punishing back on his own team, much less in the entire NFL. In fact, the growing Faulk legend might simply be a triumph of the imagination. Despite the barely organized chaos of an NFL running play, with 22 bodies in various stages of commotion, Faulk’s assumptions are uncannily accurate.
What Kidd, Bonds and Faulk know, on some level, is that we’re all too slow. Don’t take it as an insult; it’s a physiological fact. You’re too slow, but so is Kidd. Charles Woodson is too slow in his backpedal, and Mike Cameron is too slow getting a jump on a fly ball. Bonds’ bat? Too slow. Faulk’s feet? Too slow. Oscar De La Hoya’s hands? Too slow.
Laboratory tests of human reaction time prove it. It’s always agonizing to inject science into sports, but the scientific truth is this: We’re all wired a bit slower than we’d like. The time it takes to commit a quick action -- a punch, a first step, a head fake -- is roughly 100 milliseconds. The time it takes to counter the action -- to try to block the punch, for instance -- averages 200 milliseconds.
It was once proposed that Muhammad Ali’s greatness was due to his remarkable reaction time. The time it took for him to respond to a punch thrown his way averaged 150 milliseconds. Phenomenal, but still not fast enough. If George Foreman threw a big right hand in 100 milliseconds and Ali didn’t recognize it in advance, his 150-millisecond response time was worthless. It’s something we all know instinctively, and science proves it: Mental speed is not only preferable in sports, it’s essential. Physical gifts aren’t enough.
U. of Oregon psychology professor Steven Keele has conducted laboratory tests on reaction times, using both visual and auditory stimuli. His subjects were asked to touch a screen when a certain visual stimulus appeared, or to respond audibly when they heard a certain sound. His results lead him to say, “If an athlete is reacting only to what he sees or hears, he’s going to be too slow. Nobody would deny the importance of quickness in sports, but the quickest person in the world will be demolished every time if his cognitive skills aren’t good. It’s as simple as that.”
In professional sports, everyone is gifted physically. Among the gifted, there is a distinct separation between the 98% who are merely exceptional and the 2% who are truly great. Mind speed gets close to answering one of sports’ nagging questions: Why do athletes possessing similar physical gifts -- speed, strength, jumping ability -- vary so widely in performance? We say Jerry Rice works harder than anybody, but there are those who work as hard and possess greater physical skills -- size, speed, elusiveness -- who will never step onto an NFL field. Line up eight USBL point guards next to John Stockton. Even if you could remove the age factor, Stockton would most likely be among the slowest of the group. But put them on the court and Stockton would do things the others haven’t even considered. His mind simply works faster.
Willie Jorrin is the undefeated WBC super-bantamweight champion. In the weeks leading up to a fight, he lives an ascetic lifestyle, eating one meal a day to manage his weight, running as many as 12 miles a day, keeping a manic gym schedule. Moreover, he seems to relish the unique brand of torture that comes with the training. On a recent afternoon in his Sacramento gym, Jorrin worked out nonstop for 90 minutes -- shadow boxing, sparring, 15 continuous minutes with the jump rope, followed by a medieval selection of abdominal work.
But what makes Jorrin a champion isn’t his training regimen or his strength or his willingness to take a punch. What makes him a champion is his ability to see an opponent’s punches before they even start. Anybody with the proper inclination can train himself to be supremely fit and generally fearless. What separates Jorrin, though, is the speed at which his mind functions.
Jorrin, 31, is a remarkably elusive fighter, an expert at dodging and blocking punches. His 122-pound body and hands are jackrabbit quick, but his mind is faster. While most boxers look their opponent in the eyes, Jorrin’s gaze remains fixed on an imaginary X that crosses his opponent’s chest. Every punch starts there, he says, with a muscle twitch or flex that foreshadows each left jab or right cross. Like Bonds reading a pitcher, Jorrin’s observations are so elevated that he can focus strictly on this quirky trigger mechanism. Experience has allowed the rest of his game -- footwork, positioning, hand speed -- to work as if on autopilot. “I see whatever’s coming, doesn’t matter what it is,” Jorrin says. “Your chest doesn’t lie.”
On Sept. 9, 2000, in Manchester, England, Jorrin won the WBC title with a 12-round decision over Britain’s Michael Brodie. The fight turned in the late rounds, when Jorrin’s technique paid big dividends. One benefit of focusing on the chest is that it allows Jorrin, peripherally, to see and assess his opponent’s feet. Boxers are trained to be implacable. They don’t show pain, and the good ones are so accustomed to being battered that the consequences barely register on their faces. Their feet betray them, though, and when Brodie’s feet began to search for balance in the ninth round, Jorrin took over. He says, “If I had been watching his eyes, like most fighters, I never would have picked up on it.”
Timing and awareness are vital elements of mind speed. Charles Woodson can be beaten deep by a receiver, sprint to recover, and on a dead run dive with an arm outstretched to deflect a pass at the last possible millisecond. How? By reading the receiver’s eyes and hands, and even basing his dive in part on the growing amplification of the crowd.
The faster an athlete’s mind works, the slower the game appears. Players talk about being in The Zone, when everything slows and the baseball or the basket or the receiver seems huge and inviting. Oakland’s Eric Chavez is just starting to see the game slow as his mind picks up speed. In a recent game against Seattle, Chavez lined a two-out, two-strike single to left in the seventh inning off Seattle’s Arthur Rhodes, a hard throwing lefty who’s tough on lefthanded hitters. Chavez hit a hard slider on the outside corner, a tough pitch made tougher by Rhodes’ ability to throw a 95 mph fastball. “It wouldn’t have happened two years ago, or even last year,” says Chavez. “I wouldn’t have touched that pitch.” What’s changed? “I’m picking up everything faster,” he says.
Like reading words across a page, when Chavez sees a 95 mph fastball, he can identify it and respond simultaneously. There is a physical element to this -- refining the mechanics of his swing, for instance -- but most of it is mental. “Every year, the game seems slower to me,” he says. “When I was a rookie, the guy throwing 95 looked like he was throwing 100. Now 95 looks like 90. If I’m seeing it real well, it seems like 85.”
A’s rookie first baseman Carlos Pena sees Chavez’s development as a model for his own. “When I’m going poorly, I’d rather work on my mind than go to the batting cage,” Pena says. “What makes you sweat doesn’t always make you better.” Pena watches film to pick up pitch patterns and visualizes himself succeeding in various situations. He also does eye exercises to enhance vision and concentration.
What Chavez is doing -- and Pena is hoping to do -- is increasing the speed at which he recognizes pitches, shaving precious milliseconds off the hitting process. This is why a pitcher who can control four pitches is inherently more dangerous than one who controls just one or two, no matter how hard he throws. At the big league level, the mental advantage of increasing the number of patterns you force a hitter to read and recognize is greater than the pure physical factor of speed.
It’s why Greg Maddux consistently makes hitters look foolish with an 87 mph fastball, and why A’s closer Billy Koch, whose fastball routinely tops 100 mph, sometimes gets rocked even when he has his best stuff. A hitter spends more time attempting to identify Maddux’s pitches than he does reacting. In this way, Maddux’s 87 -- with the possibility of three other pitches roaming in the hitter’s mind -- can seem faster to the hitter than Koch’s 100. Oakland’s David Justice, a 14-year veteran, is an unapologetic fastball hitter. Matter-of-factly, he says, “If a guy can throw four pitches for strikes, more than likely he’s going to get me.”
The best of the best are those who possess the mind speed to complete one action while thinking of the next, and maybe the one after that. I remember watching Kidd at the Arena in Oakland when he was in the ninth grade, standing at the top of the key and threading a lefthanded bounce pass to a player cutting to the basket from the right baseline. It was a 20-foot bounce pass, through several bodies, delivered with the timing and precision of a trained sniper. He gave no indication he was aware of being the youngest player on the court, in a state final, in a sold-out NBA arena. Even then, as a 15-year-old, his mind was the fastest on the floor.
Mind speed resists concrete definition, but we know it when we see it realized in physical form. For the fastest athletes, competition is close to an out-of-body experience; in their minds, what they’re doing is already done. “You try to stay at least one step ahead, if not two,” Kidd says.
This concept is often associated with words like “instinct,” “feel” or “knack.” It’s Jorrin seeing the punches before they become punches, and Faulk seeing holes that exist only for him. It’s how Derek Jeter can stray 150 feet from his customary position to track down an errant throw from right field and somehow backhand it to the plate to save a playoff game. Speed, as it is employed by the elite, carries an element of the extrasensory. We’re all too slow, but the best of the best have figured out how to compensate for nature’s deficiencies.
They’ve learned how to cheat science.
This article appears in the May 27 issue of ESPN The Magazine.