The making of Kyrie Irving
How a skinny wallflower became the most captivating 20-year-old since LeBron
- ESPN The Mag: Kyrie Irving
ESPN The Mag: Kyrie Irving
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WHENEVER HE HAS a bad game, or misses a defensive assignment, or is hit by the general existentialist dread that tends to befall a 20-year-old, Kyrie Irving writes to himself. It started at Montclair (N.J.) Kimberley Academy, when he would confide to a black-and-white composition notebook that swiftly tattered from daily use. But last spring, the rigors of his inaugural, lockout-compressed pro season forced him to exclusively commit to a more modern platform. "I had to give up the journal," Irving says. So now the Cavaliers' 6'3", 191-pound star conducts his motivational sessions with his thumbs, pecking out words he would never say in a news conference, filling a 3.5-inch iPhone with a vision of himself he hopes to never forget.
Irving wrote this in December 2008, upon transferring to St. Patrick High in Elizabeth, N.J.: The lights are on, baby. Time to show the world what you're really about and who the best is in the country. This was from June 2009, amid a pivotal AAU summer: I'm going to make it, even if I have to run
through a ton of walls ... F-- being friends. I'm going to destroy these dudes. More recently, in November 2012: Unleash everything you have and never look back. You are the best point guard in this league, so act like it. Let's go.
"It is," Irving admits, scrolling through the notes, "kind of funny to read these now."
On a recent Friday afternoon, the reigning rookie of the year sits at a polished dining table inside his downtown Cleveland duplex. The rental apartment, perched several stories above a winding crook of the Cuyahoga River, boasts wood floors and floor-to-ceiling windows, with a view of Quicken Loans Arena looming, ever-present, to the left. A framed photo of Irving, his father and his sister on draft day hangs directly across from a four-foot flat-screen, hooked up to a PlayStation 3. An Xbox 360 sits in a crate atop an external fireplace. A bedside drawer stocked with pork rinds and Sour Patch Kids waits upstairs. And, as furnishings go, that's more or less it -- about what you'd expect for a would-be college junior who, after a recent Cavs practice, switched one training-room TV to SpongeBob SquarePants. ("And," teammate C.J. Miles adds, "Kyrie was saying all the words to the show.")
But put a basketball in Irving's hand -- either one; he's ambidextrous -- and the youngest Cav couldn't be more of an adult. Most remarkable to colleagues and competitors? His confidence, especially at the end of games. Last season, according to 82games.com, Irving was the best in the NBA during "clutch time" -- when a game is within five points with less than five minutes left -- scoring 56.4 points per 48 minutes on 54.4 percent shooting. Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony finished second and third. "There's definitely some people who have it," Miles says. "Kyrie just has that feel, like he's been doing all this since he was 4."
Scarcely two years ago, as a slight Duke frosh, he was the predominant player in college when he took the court -- all 11 times he did so -- averaging
17.5 points, 4.3 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals a game while shooting 90 percent at the line and 46 percent from three. In his rookie year, he tallied perhaps the finest teenage season in NBA history with a line of 18.5/5.4/3.7/1.1/87 percent/40 percent. In July, while training against the Olympians with USA Basketball's Select Team, he was the "best of all the Select players," according to Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski. Granted, the Duke head man might be biased, but the praise was echoed by everyone from LeBron James ("He stood out more than anyone") to Kobe Bryant ("Extremely impressive"). And this season, despite missing three weeks with a fractured left index finger, one in a freak string of injuries, Irving is at it again, averaging 23.8/5.6/3.7/1.1/83 percent/43 percent through Dec. 17. Such precocity has even inspired Cavs guard Daniel Gibson to coin a mantra -- Can't teach it -- that he repeats after every game. "You're either born with it or you're not, and Kyrie's got it," Gibson says. "Nothing fazes him. You can't teach it."
Except, that's precisely what someone did.Peter Hapak for ESPNLast season, Irving was the best NBA player in "clutch time" according to 82games.com.
Do work. Show no mercy. Fear nobody. I am Kyrie Irving. -- Dec. 12, 2008
IN 1992, when Kyrie Andrew Irving was born in Melbourne, Australia, his parents' friends wondered why two vibrant athletes in their mid-20s would want another baby so soon. It was as if they had a plan. The year before, Elizabeth Irving, an ex-volleyball player at Boston University, had insisted on spiking balls in intramural games when she was seven months pregnant with her daughter, Asia. To get her competitive fix this time, with Kyrie, she'd resorted to free throw contests with husband Dred, who'd graduated four years earlier as BU's all-time leading scorer. As usual, Elizabeth -- whose family Christmases involved a rented Seattle gym, foul-shooting duels and knockout marathons -- never lost.
The couple had met as undergrads, at a convenience store on campus. The second he saw her, Dred swore that time stood still -- even though, or perhaps because, Elizabeth was wearing her volleyball gear (knee pads, red-and-white shorts). Within weeks, the two were best friends. They shared the same dry sense of humor; Elizabeth, an accomplished musician, could test Dred in any sport. She was "beautiful, inside and out," Dred says, and in a few years, they were married.
Then, in 1991, they found themselves in Melbourne. A native of the Mitchel Houses in the Bronx, N.Y., Dred had been afforded one shot at his lifelong NBA dream: a tryout with the Celtics as an undrafted free agent. But during the audition, the slick 6'4" guard, an erstwhile Rucker Park MVP, attempted to emulate Boston's collectivist pick-pass-cut ethos on the fly, looking pedestrian in the process. In a word, he disappeared. I should've shown what I could do, thought Dred, who wound up scoring more than 30 a game for a professional Australian pro team called the Bulleen Boomers.
The hurt of NBA exile, though, would not begin to compare to what would
happen four years after Kyrie's birth. The Irvings had returned stateside to raise the kids, relocating near Elizabeth's family outside Seattle while Dred looked for work in Manhattan. One overcast September day, Elizabeth checked into Tacoma General Hospital, showing symptoms from what would prove to be a blood infection.
Within hours, her condition had plummeted. Then it plummeted further. And 48 hours later, somehow -- before Dred could even grasp what was happening -- Elizabeth was dead, at 29, besieged by organ failure and sepsis syndrome.
Dred, who'd planned decades into the future with his wife -- career, kids, travel -- was destroyed. To this day, he does not like to discuss the details of her passing. Their only son was still too young to have developed any memories of his mother. "I just have pictures," Kyrie says now. "And stories I hear from my dad."
From that moment, the father resolved to become his son's everything. As close as Dred was with Asia, he became Kyrie's best friend, his teacher, his rival. Dred, an econ major at BU, landed a job as a bond broker in Manhattan. But hoops remained his passion -- and their solace.
Kyrie was aware of his father's hoops trajectory. He'd heard the parable about Celtics camp, had seen the sting in Dred's eyes. He felt, acutely, the pull to go where his dad had not. In their brown-roofed house in West Orange, N.J., Kyrie scratched notch upon notch into his bedroom door to track his height, an arrow pointing to his goal: 6'4", just like Dad. And in his closet, on a wall hidden by clothes, the fourth-grader scrawled a phrase -- I'm going to the NBA -- then an addendum -- Promise -- that he underlined three times, as if to convince himself.
The father knew it was more wish than belief. Dred had crossed paths with many athletes who'd resisted their natural talents. And as coach of Kyrie's
fifth-grade travel team, he could already tell his son was one of them. "He wasn't ready to embrace his skill set," Dred says. "Kyrie was an observer." His son could "disappear," roaming the court like the wallflower his father warned him not to be.
Says Dred: "I worked on Wall Street for years, and I can tell you that Kyrie's not a type A personality. Those people are really strong-minded. They don't lack in confidence. They try to dominate conversations. That wasn't Kyrie."
By nature, Kyrie was an achiever, a kid who also took lessons in the trumpet, saxophone and baritone horn. On the court, he was a pleaser to a fault. "I was afraid to be the best," Kyrie says. "Confidence, confidence, confidence: That's all my dad preached. He'd always tell me, Kyrie, you could be this. You could be that. My dad had more belief in me than I had in myself."
So Dred devised a plan. He'd set about curbing Kyrie's timidity through sheer repetition, a million drops of water aiming to erode a dam. In the narrow driveway of their home, they ran countless pre-dinner games of one-on-one, all governed by two rules: Always shake hands before going inside and No bad shots (meaning if you were trapped, you simply handed the ball over).
At night, once Kyrie was done with his homework, Dred would turn on his Audi A6's headlights, illuminating the driveway for Mikan drills, a stream of righty and lefty layups, all off a backboard missing a big chunk of its right side. Repairs might have been made but for a peculiar benefit: Kyrie learned how to play strange angles and apply spin just so. Then out would come the cones, three in all, and the dribbling would begin: two-ball dribbling, tennis-ball dribbling, back-and-forth dribbling, in-and-out dribbling, behind-the-back dribbling, crossover dribbling, dribbling at alternating speeds, and on and on. Night after night, year after year, by the glow of the Audi headlights, the two men constructed a confidence. "Like it or not," his dad would say, ferrying an adolescent Kyrie to courts across the Jersey suburbs, Newark, the South Bronx and Manhattan, "God blessed you with a Bentley engine. If you don't
go, the team doesn't go." Stay hungry and humble, but don't let anyone take food off the table. -- June 23, 2009
BY THE TIME Kyrie reached Montclair Kimberley, a tony private academy unknown in basketball circles, that engine began to hum. As a 5'8" sophomore and the undisputed best player on his team, the guard averaged 29 ppg and 10 rpg. For an honors student who knew his way around a spit valve, the little guard impressed. Still, for a Division I prospect? He needed a challenge. The plan had to change.
And so it was, before his junior year, that Kyrie transferred to St. Patrick, a basketball powerhouse that already boasted Dexter Strickland (now a UNC senior) at guard and future lottery pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (now a Bobcat) at forward. "Kyrie was this super-skinny, scrawny kid," recalls Dean Kowalski, a guard on that team. "He looked like an average athlete." The team would roll to a state title, but teammates and coaches were often mystified by the deference from the new guard. Kyrie, by his own account, "didn't really talk to anybody." At times, coaches had to order Irving, who dazzled in practice, to run plays for himself at the end of games.
Then, come springtime, everything changed. And in the end, it came so simply: When Strickland graduated, with no one more experienced to run the team, deference gave way to dominance. Fitting in meant leading. The handle, the finishing ability, the high IQ -- it all came together. He was an overnight sensation a decade in the making. "Coming into his senior year," Kowalski says, "Kyrie's swagger and confidence was at a whole other level."[+] EnlargeNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesIrving punctuates his motivational messages with his play -- 34 points in Brooklyn on Nov. 13.
He tore through the summer basketball circuit, emerging as a top-five recruit, and averaged 24.5 points and 6.5 assists his senior year. He drew suitors from every college, fulfilling his father's vision. But when Krzyzewski
sent a handwritten note to the house in West Orange, it felt like fate. Duke had pulled the plug on Dred's college basketball career in a first-round blowout in the '88 NCAA tournament. Kyrie would close the loop.
He would clock a scant 303 minutes at Duke. And the doubters were legion when he became the first player, in any sport, to be drafted No. 1 after playing so little the season before. ("He's not going to be no immediate help to my team," Charles Barkley prophesied before the draft.) A paltry three point guards in history had ever jumped to the NBA straight out of high school -- Shaun Livingston, Sebastian Telfair and Lou Williams -- and all three floundered out of the gate. None of them, though, had been drilled for more than a decade by Dred Irving.
Can't teach it? Consider those dribbling drills, and that Irving, today, is a master of lulling defenders with a metronomic dribble, only to race into ninja-like choreography the moment they brake. Consider the inbounds play with the Select Team, when the scrimmaging Olympians were pressing full-court. Irving lost Kobe by going right, behind the back; crossed over Durant, going left; spun 360 degrees around James Harden, who tried to draw a charge; then lost a swiping Kobe again by going left, behind the back, and recalling the ball to his right hand by knocking it off the inside of his left calf. (He proceeded to score 11 of his team's final 13 points in an upset of Team USA.) "Outside of the playground," says Nets guard Keith Bogans, one of the league's premier perimeter defenders, "I haven't seen anyone handle the ball like Kyrie."
Can't teach it? Consider all those layups off the chipped backboard. "Among the guys who don't dunk everything, Kyrie is the league's best finisher," says one Eastern Conference scout. "He's as good as anyone with both hands and off both feet. And if he can get the ball anywhere on the glass, he can get it to go in." Consider that his most lethal trick involves lobbing himself into the lane, switching hands in midair -- a signature move of Dred's back in the day -- and "seeing the angles," as Kyrie puts it, snapping the rock off the
backboard like a curveball. Consider that last season he took 5.8 shots at the rim a game, sinking 58.8 percent. Among players shorter than 6'4" (Kyrie, at 6'3", has not yet attained Drederick's height), he led the league.
Can't teach it? Consider that rule about no bad shots, and that no other rookie in NBA history ever shot 46.9 percent from the field, 39.9 percent from three and 87.2 percent from the line, as Irving did at 19. "Among point guards," the scout says, "he shoots it as well as anyone in the league." At the Rising Stars Challenge in February -- the first time and last time Irving played on national TV, thanks to Cleveland's woeful drawing power -- Irving went 8-for-8 from behind the arc. Then, upon being handed the MVP trophy, he stopped the assembled cameramen to make sure they caught the word cavaliers on his jersey.
Feed the monster. Prove everybody wrong. -- July 11, 2009
BACK AT HIS DINING TABLE as the sun sinks toward the Cuyahoga, Irving is zooming in on a poorly lit photo on his iPhone. All his notes to himself are digital now, even the ones that were born analog.
On the screen sits a picture of a marked-up piece of off-white stationery with a gold watermark. It's the kind they give as a courtesy in the good hotels, in this case the Townsend in Birmingham, Mich. That's where the Cavs stayed before Kyrie's first preseason game against Detroit in December 2011 and where he scribbled a plan entirely of his own devising. Titled "Goals 2011-2012 NBA Rookie Season," three columns stretch from left to right: Team, Person and Player. Under each, in carefully considered print (there are no typos and no cross-outs), sits a list of at least three sub-objectives. The acronym ROY!! -- underlined multiple times, just like the Promise in his childhood closet -- runs across the top, abutting the words signed by and Kyrie's swooping signature, a 19-year-old's authentication. In the bottom left tilts a mandate, in equally huge font: Be great!!
These goals, writ largest on the page, were met. Others were not. Under Player, Irving settled on 17 ppg, 7 apg, 2 spg and 1 bpg and drew an arrow pointing to the phrase Lead the team in defense. While Irving topped his scoring target, he fell short of the others. And he knows it.
"I always tell Kyrie, 'We know what you can do on the offensive end,'" says Cavs coach Byron Scott, who sees much of former pupil (and ROY) Chris Paul in his current one. "But if you want to be an All-Star? If you want to be a complete basketball player and not a one-hit wonder? You gotta defend. You gotta do the little things." Last season Irving ranked in the bottom 4 percent of the NBA defensively, according to Synergy Sports, allowing opponents to shoot 48.3 percent.
In this way, Cavs fans waiting for Kyrie to replace James might want to move the target. Their new star's liabilities -- defense, brawn, durability -- happen to be the defending MVP's strengths. The 6'8" James missed just 20 of his first 492 regular-season games; Kyrie, due to what Krzyzewski dubs "just bad luck," has already missed 26 from a sprained right shoulder, a concussion and the broken finger, not to mention the jaw he fractured this December and the hand he broke while training in Vegas in the summer.
Yet what Irving has established well before James -- whom he calls a friend, dating back to his enrollment at the LeBron James Skills Academy -- is the kind of sangfroid that comes from repeatedly being told, by the man to first believe in you, that you are the Bentley engine.
If you don't go, the team doesn't go. "Personality-wise, LeBron and Kyrie are a lot more alike than people in Cleveland would like to admit," one former Cavs staffer says. "They're socially outgoing, friendly, funny, alpha males. But confidence is the biggest difference. LeBron always seemed worried about what would be said when he failed. Kyrie's more like, I'm just going to score on those motherf--."
In Irving's third NBA game, last December in Indianapolis, he drove from the top of the key, swept by Paul George with a crossover and shot a lefty layup at the buzzer ... that rimmed out. Cleveland lost in overtime. Four weeks later, in the waning seconds in Boston, Scott called the same play, 15-Hat, and Irving delivered, pirouetting through traffic for, yes, a lefty layup as Dred celebrated in the stands.
Hard as it is to imagine now, it took James 227 games over nearly three seasons to sink his first game winner. Kyrie needed all of 19. Then, over the next 38 days, he added three more -- in Dallas (knifing into the paint past three defenders for a reverse lefty layin), Sacramento (draining two free throws with 0.4 left, down one) and Denver (ripping through full-court pressure for a righty layup from the left side of the hoop). All the while, his laconic expression recalled a student who'd procured a copy of the exam beforehand.
Yet none of those moments said as much about Kyrie as the one in July, at Team USA camp, when he strode up to Kobe and demanded to go one-on-one. "You're not going to lock me up! It's over," Kyrie said, as if reciting from his iPhone. Replied Kobe, who knew Kyrie's family tree: "Get your dad on the phone right now ... He'll be like, Son, are you crazy? Are you crazy?" In the end, they agreed on stakes, a cool $50,000, to be won next summer, rules and location TBD.
And Kyrie's father, when he learned of the wager? He could hardly have been prouder -- even if he won't be around to witness it. You see, back in 1992, when Dred and Elizabeth had mystified their friends by having their second child so young, so soon, it had, in fact, all been part of their plan. All along, Elizabeth had wanted to be vibrant enough, when both kids hit their 20s and were out of the house, to travel abroad with her husband in their 40s. "They were best friends," Kyrie explains, recalling the story his dad often told. "They promised each other they'd struggle, get through it and see the world" -- never knowing that future would not arrive.
Now Dred, 46, who recently retired after a dozen years as a bond broker, is through his struggle. Now the slight kid the father spent years teaching is, at age 20, nothing short of the NBA's next superstar. Now his daughter, an accounting major, is set to graduate from Temple. And now, next summer, the father will finally see Europe and Africa when he travels the world thanks to two promises made long ago.
The first was that pledge to Elizabeth. The second was scrawled across a closet. Father, like son, never forgot.
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