Commentary

A father dedicated to helping his son

Drederick Irving laid out the plan, Kyrie Irving followed it to perfection

Updated: February 24, 2012, 7:03 PM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

Irving Family PhotoCourtesy of Kyrie IrvingEven at a young age, Kyrie Irving's father knew his son was destined for greatness.

The son swears the father saw it all coming.

Kyrie Irving ticks off the milestones as if they were fresh produce on a weekly grocery list.

"In eighth grade," Irving said, "my father told me I would wind up as the best guard in the state of New Jersey. In my senior year of high school, he told me I'd be the number one player in the country. Then, in college, he told me I'd be the number one pick in the draft.

"He laid out all the necessary steps for me. It was up to me what I did with them."

Irving continues to cement his role as the young cornerstone of the Cleveland Cavaliers, leading all NBA rookies in scoring with 18.1 points a game. (He also dishes out 5.1 assists).

He will be a member of Team Chuck in Friday's NBA Rising Stars game, the second player selected after Clippers sensation Blake Griffin.

"I thank my father," Irving said. "He did things the old-school way. No shortcuts. Nothing guaranteed."

The father swears it was the son who saw it all coming, who wrote down "GOAL: PLAY IN THE NBA" on a slip of paper when he was in the fourth grade and pulled it out whenever someone doubted that a spindly high school freshman barely 5-foot-8 could ever make it to the pros.

Drederick Irving was Kyrie's measuring stick. Each summer he'd line up against the mark in their home, recording his father's 6-foot-4 frame.

"I want to be bigger than you," Kyrie told his dad.

"You will be," his father promised.

He had reason to believe that was true. After Drederick's dreams of an NBA career were snuffed out by a failed tryout with the Celtics, he played in New York's Pro Am league, gliding up and down the asphalt courts exuding grace in an otherwise hardscrabble game.

Kyrie was only a toddler in a stroller, yet his bright eyes followed the action, followed his father. Afterward, when released from the constraints of his perch, Kyrie would clamor for the ball, dribbling with one hand, his steady gaze fixed on Drederick.

He was 13 months old.

"And I have the footage to prove it," Drederick said.

He brought the boy everywhere, but then, what choice did he have? When Kyrie was 4 and his sister, Asia, was 5, their mother, Elizabeth, died suddenly, leaving Drederick to care for two confused, heartbroken children. His own grief needed to be tucked away during the hectic daylight hours of raising two active kids. Only when they were tucked in safely was Drederick free to sob himself quietly to sleep.

He wanted more for his children than he had. As one of six children growing up in the Mitchel housing projects in the Bronx, N.Y., Drederick saw too much too soon. He was a child on welfare whose father abandoned him when he was 6, whose mother, Lillian, worked two jobs to keep the family afloat. Drugs and crime and guns were everyday obstacles, and Drederick recognized education and basketball would be his escape.

"I consider myself a good man," Drederick once told Kyrie, "but I want you to be a better one."

Drederick moved his small children to New Jersey and enrolled them in private school, but he brought them back regularly to the Mitchel projects.

"I was there almost every weekend," Kyrie said. "I got to be in the same environment my dad was in. I was basically a kid playing on a jungle gym in the projects."

[+] EnlargeKyrie Irving
AP Photo/Tony DejakKyrie Irving is averaging 18.1 points and 5.1 assists per game.

Drederick commuted to Wall Street, where he was a financial broker. For years he worked for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center.

Eight months before 9/11 he changed jobs, accepting a position with Garvan Securities on the 40th floor of the same building.

"I was there three weeks and I didn't like it," Drederick said. "I can't really explain it. I just had a bad feeling in my stomach about it."

He moved to Thomson Reuters at 3 Financial Square but walked through the World Trade Center building each morning from the train station.

On the morning of 9/11, he was striding through the lobby of the twin towers when a thunderous noise knocked him backward.

"I thought the boiler exploded," Drederick said. "The boom was so loud, the force of wind so powerful. There was shattered glass everywhere."

Within seconds, chaos ensued: collapsing walls, screaming people, suffocating smoke.

"All I could think of was, 'I've got to get to my kids,'" Drederick said.

He pushed his way to the exit, but there was a logjam at the door. People were frightened to leave the building because so much debris was falling from the sky.

"I stuck my head out and tried to see, but I couldn't tell what it was," he said. "Pieces of the building, pieces of the plane, a lot of paper ..."

He dashed across the street, dodging chunks of steel, then began frantically dialing his friends at Cantor Fitzgerald. He tried his former boss, his former secretary, a slew of buddies with whom he shared his hopes, his dreams, his proud stories of his children's accomplishments. Nobody picked up. He glanced up at the building, at the flames licking the top floors, at the smoke engulfing the towers.

"I was standing there watching the debris fall from the sky, and then I realized, 'That's not debris. Those are bodies,'" Drederick said.

"It has taken me years to get that image out of my mind. I still have dreams about 9/11, to be honest. It was a horrible day. I lost so many friends."

Drederick knew he needed to move away from the towers, which quickly became choked with dust and death and despair. His cell phone was useless and the roads were blocked. For a moment, panic took hold. What if he didn't make it? Who would take care of his children?

Ten-year old Kyrie and 11-year-old Asia were at school when the 9/11 attacks began. Kyrie sat quietly as one parent after another, their faces ashen, burst into the building and gathered their children in their arms.

"There were a bunch of teachers crying, a bunch of them leaving the classroom," Kyrie said. "No one knew what was going on.

"Everyone else left with their parents. My sister and I had to wait until school got out."

The babysitter was waiting for them at home, transfixed by the horror unfolding on the television. The solemn reports did little to soothe two terrified siblings who just wanted to throw their arms around their dad.

Drederick could not reach them. Phone lines were down, the trains were grounded, so he began walking toward his old neighborhood.

"I was afraid Asia and Kyrie would think I still worked for Cantor Fitzgerald," he said. "You don't know if kids that young pay attention when you change jobs."

"I don't know why my father would say that," Kyrie said. "I knew exactly where he worked. I also knew he had to pass through the twin towers every day.

"I was worried. Really worried."

Drederick walked nine miles from Wall Street to 137th street and Alexander Avenue in the Bronx, a journey that took more than six hours. He was able to reach his friend Larry Romaine, who drove to Drederick's home to assure his children he was alive and safe.

"I told my children there was a guardian angel looking over me," Drederick said. "How else can you explain it?"

That horrific day haunted him for years. As his children grew, Drederick became even more hands-on, stressing academics and encouraging athletics. He coached Kyrie until the eighth grade, impressed by his young son's poise and resolve.

When Kyrie reached high school, Drederick enrolled him at Montclair Kimberley Academy. After Kyrie led his team to a state prep championship, it became apparent he needed better basketball competition, so he completed his final two years at St. Patrick's in Elizabeth, N.J., where he also won a title.

By then, nearly every college in the country wanted him.

It was so vastly different from Drederick's basketball experience, which often left him overshadowed, first by his close friend Rod Strickland, who would later star in the NBA and become Kyrie's godfather, then later by his Stevenson High School teammates, who seemed to play a little more, score a little more, shine a little brighter.

Drederick drew initial interest from UConn, James Madison and Boston University, but when it came time to pass out scholarships, no one came calling.

It wasn't until BU lost a recruit that head coach John Kuester and assistant Rodney Johnson decided to take one more trip to the Mitchel projects to see what the Irving kid had decided.

Their fine car and their long trench coats set off alarms. Drederick was not a troublemaker, but the dudes that came asking for him sure looked like cops.

"Hey, can you tell me where we can find Dred Irving?" Kuester asked.

"Aw, he's dead, man," his neighborhood friend answered.

"Oh, how terrible," Kuester said. "We're from Boston University and we came to offer him a scholarship."

"A scholarship? Yeah, he lives right down there, two doors over," the boy said.

Drederick Irving went on to score 1,931 career points for the Terriers. His one NCAA appearance was a lopsided loss to Duke, which, more than 20 years later, came knocking for Kyrie.

The son inked with the Blue Devils, was limited to 11 games his freshman year after a toe injury and still became the top choice in last spring's draft. Kyrie went pro with the caveat that he'd complete his Duke degree in five years.

"He's halfway there," Drederick reported. "He gave me his word."

Kyrie claims the transition to the NBA has been seamless, devoid of pressure. Because he was born in Melbourne, Australia, while his father played professionally for the Bullen Bombers, Kyrie could compete in the 2012 Olympic Games for Australia. He'd rather play for the U.S., but so far he hasn't been asked.

His father figures that could change.

"This whole thing is a fairy tale," Drederick said. "Kyrie always hoped to play in the NBA, just as I did.

"He made it, so I feel like I've made it, too."

Kyrie will be 20 on March 23, but his steady gaze remains fixed on the man who devoted his life to his son.

"If you are fortunate to have a father like I have," he said, "you're given a foundation. You can be content with that, or take it and run with it, like I did.

"My father is the one who told me to want more. My father is the one who told me not to settle."

Drederick has remarried and has a new daughter, London. He beams when he talks of Asia, who is thriving as a junior at Temple University.

He commutes back and forth from New Jersey to Cleveland to make sure his son is comfortable, and safe, and will be in Orlando, Fla., to watch Kyrie perform during All-Star Weekend. It is an exhausting schedule, but Drederick won't hear of changing it.

Last time Kyrie came home to West Orange, N.J., he shimmied up to the wall, which showed him at 6-foot-3½, still short of his father's mark.

The son swears he will never reach the heights his father has.

The father swears Kyrie Irving accomplished that a long time ago.

Longtime Boston journalist Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist