Kyrie Irving received something on Thursday night that he thought he’d never get in his life.
No, it wasn’t his selection as an All-Star reserve for the Eastern Conference, an inevitable stepping-stone for the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year1. Nor was it the designation as Pro Athlete of the Year at the 2012 Greater Cleveland Sports Awards, the first for a Cavalier since LeBron James in January 2010.
In fact, it was simply a text message. From Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“Yeah, the first time ever,” Irving said about the big accomplishment. “I don’t think Coach K has ever sent one of his previous players a text. I think his assistant sent it for him.”
During his freshman year at Duke, Irving said he was sternly told to never send the legendary 65-year-old coach a text message. Why? “Because he doesn’t know how to text.”
This story was a very Kyrie Irving-like thing to share in a moment of extreme happiness. Part-joke, part-short story, it’s the kind of tale that reporters are starting to get used to from the 20-year-old budding superstar.
Along with this being the first Sports Award honor, Irving’s All-Star recognition is the first for a Cleveland Cavalier since LeBron James’ final year with the team in 2010. During James’ seven-year tenure, he earned six straight All-Star nods, beginning with his sophomore season in 2004-05. In this span, only two other Cleveland basketball players joined him at the mid-season spectacle: Zydrunas Ilgauskas in 2005 and Mo Williams in 2009.
Irving said he purposefully didn’t want to hear any All-Star related news until it was shown on TNT, again a very typical kind of quote. Some family members had already known the few days before. But there was Irving, of course, glued to the TV in his own living quarters only about an hour before he journeyed to the Sports Awards.
Head coach Byron Scott, Irving’s “basketball father,” recalled his star player’s words from earlier that day at practice: “Coach, I’m going to be at home by myself because if I make it, I’m going to jump all over the place and if I don’t, I’m going to want to be alone.”
After seeing the news on TV, Irving said he did indeed jump around his place. But as typical to his jovial personality, he couldn’t just end the story there: “I didn’t do any back-flips or cartwheels though, I didn’t want to get hurt.”
Back on the serious side, Irving said his first phone calls were to his girlfriend and then his dad, Drederick Irving. When prodded by the media, Kyrie only said the phone calls, especially with his dad, were emotional. He preferred to keep those thoughts private, while never specifying if any tears were exchanged.
On stage at the Sports Awards, Scott and general manager Chris Grant were the ones that presented Irving with the Pro Athlete plaque.
Grant went out of his way to say that Irving is one of the team’s hardest workers. He remarked that Irving himself has even said that some guys need four years of college in order to succeed in the pros, while others need a single year. But on the other hand, Kyrie needed just 11 games at Duke and only last week played his 82nd career NBA game, giving him one full year of service time.
The team’s bosses said they were excited to be with Irving on his big day.
“It’s special to be here with him, especially even more so with CG here because he’s the one that took the chance,” Scott said. “We brought him in, worked him out … and we both were pretty convinced after watching him work out that he was the best player in the draft. But he still had to pull the trigger and he was able to do that.”
Irving joins elite company, becoming the sixth-youngest player in NBA history to be an All-Star and the seventh under 21 years old. The list in order: Kobe Bryant in ’98, LeBron James in ’05, Magic Johnson in ’80, Kevin Garnett in ’97, Isiah Thomas in ’82, Kyrie Irving in ’13 and Shaquille O’Neal in ’93.
“I think it’s great,” Scott later said backstage to the media about his star player joining this star-studded list. “Again, that’s great motivation for him and as we said from day one when we first drafted him, we knew he was good. … He still has a lot of room to grow obviously, but he’s definitely well on his way, barring injuries and stuff like that, to have a chance to be one of the best. “
Irving shared backstage what he thought the honor meant for him and the suddenly improving 12-32 Cavs.
“Us this year, we had a lot of goals, and I had a lot of personal goals, and to achieve this personal goal is a big deal for me and it’s a big deal for our organization,” he said. “For Cleveland to get recognized like this, for me to represent Cleveland in an All-Star game, it means a lot.”
Scott remarked that these constant goals are what have pushed Irving to such quick success in the pros.
“The one thing that continues to keep him going is having new goals and this year, he’s a reserve, next year he should want to be a starter,” he said. “That would be his next step and in order to do that, this summer he has to work even harder. And that’s what I’m gonna do as far as pushing him to get better and better each day. ”
This week, amidst the honors and electronic recognitions, Kyrie Irving also quietly produced two of the finest on-court performances in his career in respective Cavalier victories.
Tuesday vs. Boston: 40 points, 16-for-24 shooting, 1-3 threes, 7-7 free throws, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, 5 turnovers, 38 minutes
Friday vs. Milwaukee: 35 points, 12-for-17 shooting, 2-3 threes, 9-9 free throws, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 turnovers, 34 minutes
The statistics show the incredible scoring ability and staggering efficiency. Combined, that’s 75 points on 41 shots in just 72 minutes.
Anecdotally, Irving’s finest moment may have been his “I’m Kyrie” line in the locker rooms following the Celtics game. Statistically, Irving’s finest moment was the second half against the Bucks, when he scored 24 points on only eight shots to spark the comeback victory.
As Kirk showed in film room on Friday, Irving has a certain majestic yet natural knack for scoring from any spot on the court. Without knowing better, one would simply think he’s a seasoned veteran “schooling all the young bloods,” much like Uncle Drew.
But in his second season, Irving only recently qualified for the NBA per-game leaderboard by accumulating enough starts following his 11-game absence. After Friday’s performance, he now ranks sixth in the league with 24.0 points per game. In his last 20 games since Dec. 152, it’s 25.0 points per game along with 48.5% shooting.
At this age, as noted previously in The Diff, Irving’s combination of production and efficiency is nearly unmatched in NBA history. The incredible guards listed as comparisons in that article are/were transcendent stars in Chris Paul, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. But, when discussing Cleveland basketball stardom, there’s still the humongous over-arching elephant in the room.
One name in particular already has been noted thrice in this article and in countless others before it. One name rings most profoundly in the context of Irving’s stunning early accomplishments in Cleveland. And that is the city’s former All-Star, LeBron James.
It’s nearly taboo now to talk about James, since it’s already been two-and-a-half years since his infamous departure in the summer of 2010. But the relationship between Northeast Ohio sports fans and Kyrie Irving is incomplete without also sharing James’ impact3.
At first, it’s possible that fans were reluctant to turn around to Irving’s potential stardom. We felt jaded, and in the typical Cleveland mindset, concerned that another No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft might burn us again eventually. With such little collegiate playing time, fans, as always, were worried about all of the possible bad things that could happen.
But here we are now as a fan base. On the verge of witnessing greatness yet again. And a new All-Star has been christened for the city of Cleveland, crowned in a spectacle of a night at his home television and then at one of biggest stages of all at the Renaissance Hotel.
So what’s on Irving’s mind as he heads to the NBA’s showcase as the first Clevelander since You-Know-Who?
“I just hope I don’t airball my first shot. I’m really worried about that right now.”
There he is again. Just being a kid. Just being Kyrie. Our Kyrie.
(Photo: Jon Cole/WFNY)
- I was surprised to see that three players in the last 13 years have won Rookie of the Year and then never made it to an All-Sar game yet: 2001’s Mike Miller, 2005’s Emeka Okafor and 2010’s Tyreke Evans. [↩]
- All but two games are without Anderson Varejao, who last played on Dec. 18 and had been playing at an All-Star-like level when healthy. [↩]
- Yes, the summer of 2014 rumors continue to ring loudly in Cleveland, but again, fans seem pessimistic or angry at best about those ideas, even though adding the best player in the world certainly would help the team’s title odds. [↩]