For a brief moment two decades ago, Alameda was one of the most happening basketball towns in the nation. Night after night, a couple of high school gyms on opposite ends of the island were lit up with blinding spectacles of talent from two of the country's most revered prospects.
One was a prescient point guard from St. Joseph's Notre Dame, a kid who made the game look like effortless poetry. Jason Kidd seemed to have a preternatural sense for basketball; he saw plays develop three, four, five seconds before they happened, and like the conductor of an orchestra, he could draw the best out of every player on his team and make it gel. "He just had the vision, you can't really teach that," said current St. Joseph's head coach Don Lippi, who coached against Kidd when Lippi was at Skyline.
Twice, Kidd was named the California High School Player of the Year, and in 1992, his senior year, he won the Naismith National Player of the Year award. After high school, he wowed crowds at Cal for two years before being selected with the second-overall pick in the 1994 NBA draft. In seventeen pro seasons, Kidd has compiled a formidable résumé: ten All-Star games, two Olympic gold medals, and a Rookie of the Year award. Yet even though he's a lock for the Hall of Fame, he's missing one important piece, the ultimate prize — an NBA title. But at the ripe age of 38, he has a chance to finally bring it home this week if his Dallas Mavericks can knock off Lebron James and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
Just one year before Kidd started dishing and dazzling at St. Joseph's, fans were packing the gym over at Encinal High School to catch a glimpse of another freakish talent and his signature slam, a dizzying display of athleticism known as at the East Bay Funk Dunk. Isaiah "J.R." Rider could have been a Hall of Famer in at least two sports. "All around, he was probably the best athlete to ever play in Alameda," said Rich Bullock, who has coached youth basketball on the island for years. "Even Jason [Kidd] would probably tell you that J [Rider] was better than he was. I know Gary [Payton] says it." Payton was another East Bay basketball phenom who went on to NBA stardom.
From his first schoolyard pickup game, it was clear that Rider was an incredible talent. He was dunking basketballs before his thirteenth birthday. By high school he was six-foot-five, and weighed more than two hundred pounds. "Kidd could see the floor like no one else," Bullock said. "But when J went to the hoop, good luck; he was that big, that strong, that fast."
Rider could reign from beyond the arc or slash his way to the basket; he could run the court and play above the rim. He was ferocious on the boards, a menace in the paint. "He could leap right out of the gym," recalled Dave Johns, his high school basketball coach. Michael Jordan once told one of Rider's childhood friends: "This [the NBA] could be his league."
And it was, for one chilly night in February 1994. It was Rider's rookie year, and with a who's who of the league watching, he unveiled his locally-famous Funk Dunk — a mid-air-ball-in-between-the-legs thunder jam — at the NBA's annual beauty pageant, the slam-dunk contest. "Oh my God," Charles Barkley told a national TV audience. "That might be the best dunk I've ever seen."
But unlike Kidd, Rider never became an All-Star. Instead of piling up stats, he compiled arrests, bounced around the league, and then faded from the sports world, popping up only when he broke the law or violated his probation.
Although Kidd and Rider both played on the Alameda hardwood, they came from completely different worlds. Kidd wasn't an island native; he grew up in the Oakland hills, went to private schools, and was raised in a seemingly stable home. Rider, on the other hand, had a much more troubled upbringing. To an outsider, he had everything; but he lived in one of Alameda's only housing projects and his home life was consumed by chaos. "Jason had the support," Bullock noted, adding: "Everyone thought J [Rider] was a real chump, but he wasn't a real chump. He was a good guy underneath all of the crap."
Today, as Kidd attempts to guide his team to the pinnacle of his sport, an NBA championship, Rider's life is in shambles, his fall from grace one of the steepest in Bay Area sports history.
For most of the fourteen-hour cab ride, the passenger in the back seat was silent. He smoked crack cocaine and spit sunflower seeds on the floor. When he did speak, he repeated iterations of the same words: Pull over. Stop there. Turn around. Someone is following us.
"You need help, man," the driver, Abdi Farah, recalled saying. "You're fucked up."
The passenger had a hulking frame and a patchy three-to-five-day stubble. He sat with his shoulders slouched forward, wearing jeans, a hoodie, and a solid black baseball cap.
The passenger was notorious to Oakland cabbies. Bobby, cab No. 103, drove him often; Ricky, No. 86, used to drive him across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, where he would spend thousands on prostitutes. Usually, he'd throw down several hundred dollars up-front. But after ten hours on this November 2007 ride, his fare was running over $600.