A strange thing happened this past weekend: Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving, who previously could do no wrong, irked a few fans when he candidly admitted that he was agitated and became disinterested midway through a basketball game. A game wherein the All-Star was benched for the entire fourth quarter — alongside the rest of the team’s starting unit — while his team would ultimately reside on the embarrassing side of the win-loss ledger.
Using his considerably short career as a barometer, the night was nine kinds of bizarre. Irving had one field goal attempt in the second half. His typically assertive and kid-in-a-candy-store body language seemingly transformed into pouting. It was not quite Game 5, but Irving went from leader to lackey in the matter of 48 game minutes. He owned the loss, claiming responsibility, but his quote — “My energy wasn’t there; it was there in the first quarter, then the second and third I was disinterested …” — rang louder than any game-winning bell the second-year marvel has rung.
A vocal cabal of fans took to Twitter to call Irving some form of LeBron James Redux, a superstar basketball player who was beginning to distance himself from underlings and commoners. Irving would not blame officials on Friday evening, but he would not offer comments when asked if his bitterness was rooted in shoddy play of his teammates. Rumors of missed appearances, forced firings, and an entourage growing by the minute all began to bubble. The shy star was, after this night, a demanding diva. Nice things could not be had.
Immediately following his timeline-shaking statements, Irving offered up that not only can said disinterest not happen — it wouldn’t happen. Byron Scott appreciated Irving’s honesty and candor. He found no reason to have to have a one-on-one with his point guard, trusting that he would show resiliency and — in the end — be Kyrie. But the bridges…were they burnt? Singed? Placed in Instagram and given a filter that made them look decrepit and bedraggled?
The answer, at least in the short term, was an emphatic ‘no.’
Crossover drives turned into teardrop floaters, swooping spin moves resulting in high-glass theatrics and immensely clutch three-point field goals. My God, those threes. Irving single-handedly outscored the Oklahoma City Thunder — a team which Byron Scott would later call the best in the game — 7-2 in the final few minutes, outdualing both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. A capacity crowd was rejuvenated. What was forecasted to be a bloodbath turned into another win for the Wine and Gold all thanks to Irving.
But one look at his body lauguage following the win and by no means did the 20-year old look like he had just won an emotionally charged contest. Perhaps this was physical exhaustion mixed with the inherent go-through-the-motions rub that comes with addressing the media following a game, but Irving spoke for just a handful of minutes before the horde was kindly urged to wrap things up — he spoke softly, repeating lines which were shared before the game — “It has to come from within,” he would say regarding the need to overcome whatever it was that bothered him so much in Detroit. Is this some new-found “strictly business” version of the kid who was all smiles a week ago after dropping a game-winning three in Toronto? His protective mask has long been removed, but is the emotional armor appliation just getting started? James reportedly left because the Cavaliers could not surround him with enough talent; if Irving is already feeling as if he’s on an island, what does this mean for the future?
These questions — as rhetorical as they may seem — appear to be rooted in the psyche of Cleveland fans who have been disappointed all too often. Irving cannot post a picture of himself online without comments of his departure littering the feed within minutes. He’s from New Jersey after all. Rather than embracing and enjoying, some opt for worry and woe.
Not helping matters is the two-year crusade by some members of the media — and even the team — to ensure the fan base that Irving is “different,” as in he won’t hold a city hostage and then embarrass them on national television. But it is this dichotomy, the one that refreshes, that also leads to self-doubt and the penchant to forecast disaster. The headlines and ledes that followed the Cavaliers’ upset of the Thunder largely reflected Irving being reinvigorated, engaged and — once again — interested in playing the game of basketball. He stepped up and did what leaders do by carrying his teammates and willing all 14 of them to victory, even if he did have to do it essentially by himself1. The aggression, the characteristic which trickles down to his teammates like a feeding tube, was back — and so were the fans.
While the Cavs were in the midst of closing out the Thunder, veteran big man Marrese Speights grabbed Irving by the shoulders, gave him a friendly shake — the visual was very much of a giant and a dwarf — while iterating that the game was “his.” With five seconds remaining and his team about to inbound the ball, Irving gathered his four teammates at center court in a moment of leadership, engaging and quickly describing what was to ensue that would allow the clock to expire and confetti to fall.
The thin ice that accompanies an emotional fan base can provide dangerous grounds on which to walk. One 33-point outing against the Thunder does not cement his stance as the best point guard in the league just as much as a 4-for-10 shooting night is not indicative of his future beyond a rookie contract. In the end, Irving is a 20-year old kid who just happens to be among the best basketball players in the world. His handles job draws, his jumper raises arms. He’s an old soul who just happens to be honest to a fault. But most importantly, he’s a human being who — despite expectations — is not always at the top of his game.
Irving has promised that he will continue to stay engaged, interested and positive. Regardless of his word and what may come of it over time, we can’t expect him to carry out these traits if we don’t do the same.
(Image: Scott Sargent/WFNY)
- This is not to be remiss of Marrese Speights, CJ Miles and Tristan Thompson who were all integral in the victory [↩]