The last time the Cleveland media collective sat alongside one another on the floor of the expansive gym at Cleveland Clinic Courts, we were being introduced to the team’s first overall pick in Kyrie Irving. Roughly 11 months later, we were back to celebrate the same player and his achievements during his first season with the team, one which led to nearly 20 points per game, a handful of game-winning shots and an ear-to-ear smile that would only be stunted in the short-term following a loss.
For Irving’s hard work and determination, which started as early as his fifth-grade year of school wherein a 10-year-old kid from West Orange, New Jersey would spend hours running Mikan drills with his father, he was presented with the Eddie Gotlieb trophy which represented his 2012 Rookie of the Year honors, receiving 117 of 120 possible first-place votes. The front row of chairs on this day were comprised of the same bodies which sat proudly during Irving’s introduction: Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert, vice chairmen Jeff Cohen, managing partner Nate Forbes, Irving’s father Drederick and his agent Jeff Wechsler. The messages conveyed, however, could not be more different.
Last July, a sheepish Irving sat on a stool alongside fellow-first-rounder Tristan Thompson as the two soon-to-be-rookies fielded questions about their pasts as well as expectations of what was yet to come. Despite possessing an innate belief in his abilities, even Irving admits that he wasn’t aware of what his immediate future would be, having no statistical goals or crystal balls. Playing in only 11 games at Duke, the detractors to the Cavaliers’ selection were pounding their fists on the e-tables as loudly as possible — he’s inexperienced, his body fat is too high, Derrick Williams had a good tournament, he’s not Derrick Rose! On a beautiful Cleveland afternoon, outfitted in a navy suit and light grey tie which was continually tugged upon in the way a child does at a wedding or recital, Irving showed that it was not only his game that grew, but his personality was no longer that of the 19-year-old who landed in Cleveland a year earlier, quietly keeping to himself during training camp pre-season practices.
“I came in as a 19-year-old and I got to be myself,” Irving said in front of his friends, family and a few stretch limousines full of third-grade boys from Cleveland’s Kenneth Clement Leadership Academy. Embraced by Scott and assistant coach Nate Tibbets, Irving quickly sprouted into the kid who stood proudly
This relaxed attitude was no more prevalent than in the moments where Irving casually lobbed jabs at Cavaliers head coach Byron Scott, or “the bald-headed man.” Whether it would be a vivid description of the way Scott’s bald head wrinkles up in times of ire or the way it would shine when camera back lights would be present, Irving spoke of Scott as his on-court father figure, helping pave the way for the pomp and circumstance which would be celebrated on this very day. For Irving, the transition from his father Dred to Scott would be an easy one — you know, because, for starters, “they’re both bald.”
Irving’s thank-yous, written on a notecard which was gracefully pulled from the pocket of his suit, included his father, his sister Asia, and his late mother Elizabeth; his close-knit group of friends who keep him grounded and humble and human; his teammates, from Luke Haragody to “Lesantiy” and the veterans who helped guide him through the season; his sponsors Nike and Armani and Tods and Pepsi MAX; the Cavaliers front office, ownership team and coaching staff, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, whom Irving called his “mentor,” and his agent Jeff Wechsler who not only helped his client every step of the way, but introduced him to Robin Pound, whom Irving considers to be the “best trainer out there.”
Perhaps standing as the most glaring contrast to the time the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland sat inside of Cleveland Clinic Courts to celebrate the accolades of a first-overall draft selection, was the way Irving went about his first season in the NBA, continually striving to get better, being his toughest critic, but also in the way that he was treated by the front office and coaching staff. Presumably surprised when the horde of photographers wanted to take a picture of him, alone, with his shiny new trophy, Irving spent the vast majority of his time with the Clement students as well as the team’s employees. He was was was nervous heading into camp and was not told he would be the starting point guard until the day of his first game. He was surprised by the call Coach Scott barked into the huddle during the waining seconds of the team’s third game of the year, the overtime loss to Indiana — a high pick-and-roll that would allow the 19-year-old to take the final shot of the game.
“I’m glad I didn’t get treated like a [first-overall pick],” Irving said of his first year in Cleveland.
Wherein the awards presented to LeBron James were received in Akron, Ohio, serving to provide that well-documented line of delineation, Irving made sure that the city of Cleveland was along side him every step of the way. While hoisting the Rookie Game MVP award during the most-recent All-Star break, Irving instructed the photographers to ensure that the “Cleveland” on the front of his jersey made all of the shots. When doling out his thank-yous this afternoon, Irving stated that, despite the trials and tribulations of the season, the Rookie of the Year award was not just for him, but for the lakeside city in which he lives out his dreams on a daily basis. It also helps that he cherishes fourth-quarter moments, preferring the basketball in his hands as the clock draws closer to zeros.
Though the front row for the Irving-centric press conference was largely the same, Irving will enter Year 2 of his NBA career no longer surrounded by the cloud of the great unknown. He may not have John Wall’s speed, but he toasted all five members of the Denver Nuggests, full court, with the opposition getting a head start. He may not have Derrick Rose’s shoulders and strength, but he already has a resume of game-winners and the innate desire to be even better than he was during his Freshman campaign. He may not have Chris Paul’s defensive prowess, but he has a Drill Sergeant in Byron Scott that will keep on him every day of their collective coexistence.
The same play which was called for Irving in the stepping stone overtime loss in Indiana, was not much different from the one he pulled on Arizona’s Derrick Williams in the Sweet 16 a few months prior to the NBA Draft, complete with his trademark cross-over dribble and the basketball dropping gracefully through the net. That “I can do this” moment propelled Irving to the NBA and into the friendly confines of the practice courts where he happily received his new piece of hardware.
“We’re going to build something special here,” said Irving. “We’re in it for the long haul.”
Irving plans on entering the 2012-13 season in even better shape than the one in which he presently exists, ready to work and understanding the careful balance between basketball and business. Proud of what he has done to this point yet possessing the desire to accomplish so much more, hearkening back to the days of his dad laying out exactly what it is he needs to do be it in the gymnasium or driveway, and transitioning to today where he racks up single-digit dunks and countless hearts across Cleveland. The now 20-year-old Irving will be forced to take on an even larger leadership role for the Cavaliers of the future, but if the Nike t-shirts that branded his name and a “ROY” on the sleeves have anything to say about the next several years, this will not be a daunting task.