As All-Star Weekend showed, Kyrie Irving has arrived. Well, it’s a good thing we saw it coming. Want proof? Below is the cover story from KICKS 15, published this past August. For this cover feature, we spent some time getting to know Irving in his adopted NBA hometown of Cleveland.—Ed.
Welcome, welcome, welcome.
Welcome, to a land where few sports stories, no matter how drippingly juicy or boringly dry, go underreported. Welcome, to a time when the act of breaking news on Twitter has evolved into such a compulsive race that hoax accounts spring up like weeds with the sole intent of spreading false stories. Welcome, most importantly, to the rare compelling and telling tale that somehow basically evaded both the real and faux newswire.
Everyone—more likely, almost everyone—has heard the name Kyrie Irving. Chances are, of those Everyones, most know, minimally, that Irving, a first-year point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, won the ’11-12 NBA Rookie of the Year award. What only a small sliver of those Everyones know, though, is what Irving did with the complimentary Kia Sorrento that came with the award.
Sandy Pyonin, coach of the AAU-affiliated NJ Roadrunners and childhood trainer to a robust list of NBA players, has a tendency to make bold, bombastic statements about his players. Sandy also has a tendency to work his players to the point of excellence and puts them in position to make his big statements appear prescient.
When he first started training Kyrie Irving circa 2005, Pyonin wasn’t wowed enough to go out on a lean limb and say something of extreme note about the eighth-going-on-ninth-grader. “I was pretty high on him,” Sandy now says, “but Kyrie’s come a long way in a short time.” Despite Irving’s ceiling being slightly hazy, Pyonin was willing to take him on as a student, was willing to pick him up every single day from his home in West Orange and drive him down the Parkway to his gym in Union.
“His father [former BU star Drederick Irving] turned him over to me,” Sandy recalls, before verbally dapping his handiwork, “and I picked him up every day—every day—and we trained, and we trained, and we trained. You know, he knows how much time we spent together and how he got to that level that fast.”
Persistence in picking up Kyrie, even in rain, snow and gloom of Jersey night, paid dividends to the passenger and the driver: Irving not only made the NBA as the No.1 pick in the ’11 NBA Draft, he also won Rookie of the Year, and Pyonin was subsequently gifted a brand-new Sorrento, which he can now use to spirit around his latest, greatest pupils.
“It was more of a monumental thing, giving him a car,” Irving says. “Once I first got with Sandy, he picked me up every day. There wasn’t one day—if I told Sandy I didn’t want to go, he’d still come to my house and knock on my door and ask me if I really did not want to go. There was no way he not gonna bring me to the gym and have me work on my game. It was that type of relationship.”
The Kia is more than just a car, and this is more than just an anecdotal story. It’s a peek into the heart of a 20-year-old NBA player who’s well on his way to earning the rank of an exalted status on and off the court.
It’s mid-morning on the first Wednesday in August, and Kyrie Irving is tired. Hell, he’s not tired. He’s bone-tired, the tired that slows your reflexes and drops your voice half an octave. After returning to New Jersey late yesterday evening after enjoying a trip to the Caribbean— his first planned vacation as an NBA player—Irving hung out with a few friends in the Garden State and turned around and took a 5:30 a.m. flight to make it here to the KICKS cover shoot.
Irving didn’t only, despite his walking-dead state, make the shoot. Along with three friends who accompanied him on vacay—“They’ve been with me since the beginning”—he arrived to the sparkling state-of-the-art practice facility early, a rare feat for bench players let alone a burgeoning star. As I had been told beforehand by his godfather, former NBA great Rod Strickland, and others, and as I’d find repeatedly throughout our time together, that’s just Kyrie.
What’s also Kyrie, at least today, is a removable soft cast that covers his right hand and prevents him from shaking my hand properly—we settled for an awkward right meets left shake—and also from showing off his treacherous to-and-fro crossover for the camera. Though a cast doesn’t sound like it makes for snazzy pictures, at least it’s removable. After learning of Irving’s injury, suffered during a mid-July Cleveland practice in preparation for Las Vegas Summer League, I feared, as a fan of breathtaking basketball, that he’d be out for an extended period. I feared, as a selfish KICKS writer, that he’d be stuck in a cast and unable to pose for photos. All fears, as I realized when Kyrie unwrapped his hand and started gently horsing around with a ball, that were unfounded.
“I fractured a bone by my pinkie, and I just had to get six screws put in,” Irving says, taking a moment to rotate and show off his swollen, stitched up and shiny left-side of his right paw. “I should be [good to go] in like three weeks. It’s not that bad. It’ll all work out in the end.”
Less than a half-hour later, with his body more awake and his hand feeling better, while tossing in layups and short off-handed jumpers, Irving offers up without prompting that if the Cavs had some sort of Game 7 today, he’d manage to find a way to play through his pain.
I’m sure Kyrie believes what he’s saying, but I’m not sure it’s plausible—after all, just 30 minutes prior to that proclamation he couldn’t shake a pen-stained hand. Regardless, it’s a moot point, as Irving is geared up in the Cavs’ wine-colored jersey and toting various Nike Hyperdunk +s for magazine portraits, not game-action.
Far from the average 20-year-old, Kyrie does have at least one thing in common with his peers: He’s quite the multitasker. While juggling between posing for camera clicks, pausing to pick up his ever-ringing iPhone and examining freshly steamed outfits, Irving talks about the unique way his extensive collection of sneakers came into existence.
“My dad always made me earn all my kicks,” says Irving. “If I played well, he’d let me create some shoes on NikeiD, or if I played well he’d buy me some sneakers as a sort of incentive or motivation.”
It goes without saying, then, that Irving had a sizable stack of Swooshes by the time Nike officially inked him to a contract in 2011, before his near-unanimous ROY-winning season kicked off.
Having the keys to Phil Knight’s kingdom means the pairs No. 2 wears are one-of-a-kinds that allow him to stand out.
“I design all my own colorways,” Irving, who played his rookie season in Hyperdunk 2011s and won’t wear other players’ signature shoes, says. “It’s not trying to stand out in a bad way; it’s just my style. I love standing out.”
Tony Jones still remembers the first time he saw Kyrie Irving play.
It was during the fall of Irving’s eighth grade, after an organizer of a local league hipped Jones, the varsity coach at Montclair Kimberley Academy, to a pretty good player whose father was seeking an academically sound prep school for him to attend. Interest piqued, Jones attended one of Irving’s junior high games, and was immediately struck by two things: Despite a scrawny build and the lack of elite athleticism, Kyrie could control the game like a savant from the point guard spot.
“His basketball IQ was at the collegiate level, and his skill set was also very good,” Jones says. “And he wasn’t dunking or anything like that, but he could finish on anyone. People know now he can finish, but he was finishing at that age.”
Though Jones appreciated what he saw and eventually coached Irving his first two years of high school—before “Ky” transferred and finished his growth spurt to 6-2 at prep powerhouse St. Patrick’s—he never, based on that first evaluation, could have predicted Irving would end up where he has.
“His dad saw in him what maybe other people didn’t,” Jones says. “His dad believed in him, I guess as a father should, more than anyone.”
“I’ve always thought Kyrie had the ability to do whatever,” Drederick—or as many people call him, Dred—Irving says to kick off our conversation. “As long as he followed our simple blueprint.”
When most fathers say their sons are very good at ball, they often have no frame of reference and are just saying it out of fatherly affection. When Dred says his son—who is the middle child, smothered between two successful sisters—is good, the former BU star and pro player in Australia, where Kyrie was actually born, knows what he’s saying. “Once he embraced his skill set and his talent,” says Dred, “I think that was the beginning of Kyrie’s stardom. Once he figured it out, he never looked back.”
Like Jones says, though, a lot of other people didn’t see stardom in Kyrie. In fact, to hear Irving himself tell it, people have underestimated him at every step along the way: They doubted him when he was in eighth grade and small; they doubted him when he was dominating at small, unknown MKA; they doubted him after he suffered a severe toe injury at Duke and only played 11 games; and they doubted him when he was drafted No.1 overall. “It’s just about proving people wrong,” Kyrie says. “They said I couldn’t shoot, I’m not explosive enough to be an elite point guard—I just use that as motivation.”
Truth is, in fact, at least one other guy saw the signs early in Kyrie, but people dismissed him as being partial and an unfit judge. “I see his skill level, and he’s as good as anybody. I think he can be as good as anybody. I think he has that type of ability,” Strickland, Dred’s childhood backcourt mate, says, singling out Kyrie’s wicked handle and ambidextrous finishes. “But I always felt like people thought I was saying that because that was family. But I wasn’t.”
The critics and doubters are one motivation for Kyrie, but family has always been the engine that kept him chugging. Every time Irving takes the court in an NBA uniform, he is repping for his mom, who passed away when he was 4, with the tattoos on his chest and stitching on his shoes. Every time he takes the court, he is putting on for his sisters, he is playing for his dad, who was an exceptional talent but never played in the NBA.
“I rep for my whole family,” says Irving, “but more importantly for my father. Sometimes it still hits him to this day, ‘Really, my son’s in the NBA.’ Sometimes it has to hit me, too. We lived such normal lives that now, me signing so many autographs, him being there, us reaping so many rewards from it, it’s just lovely.”
“It’s just overwhelming as a parent,” says Dred. “This is better [than if I would have played in the NBA]. This is why we live—we want our kids to be better than us. But it’s not about me, it’s about him. We all want to see our kids smile and do something that they love, and this is something I know he just loves and he’s ready to capitalize on it.”
By now there is no question that Irving is good—great—on the court. There’s also growing evidence that he’s got just as much going for him off of it.
On May 18, Pepsi uploaded a video to its YouTube page entitled, “Pepsi MAX & Kyrie Irving Present: ‘Uncle Drew.’” Ten weeks later, the video has a shade under 14 million views, the term “Uncle Drew” returned more than 36 million Google hits and Irving has reached newfound celebrity status that even winning Rookie of the Year couldn’t give him.
“When I see people I’m also known as Uncle Drew,” Irving, who co-wrote the skit and based it largely off of a similarly themed skateboard spoof, says. “Uncle Drew in the airport, Uncle Drew in The Bahamas, Uncle Drew everywhere.”
As the video’s viral success shows, Irving is quite possibly the game’s next big marketing star. After all, why not? He’s camera-ready (singing in the school show at St. Pat’s helped him overcome stage fright), charismatic (that comes from his dad, who’s also a people-person), comfortable in his skin (“that’s just me”) and well-rounded (tried out for football as a freshman, skateboarded for four years and played varsity baseball as a high school senior).
Irving refers to himself as the “Universal Player” because of the way his game was honed, because he grew up playing in the suburb of West Orange but would make weekly forays to play in the Bronx borough of NY where his dad grew up, because he played at mostly-white MKA and then transferred to, what he terms, the “polar opposite,” St. Pat’s. He credits his diverse street-meets-burbs game—what Pyonin calls old school, new school—to playing in those varying environs. What goes unsaid, but certainly not unobserved, is how those same experiences molded him into a universal, cross-cultural pitchman.
The way the tides are pulling—especially once the hand is fully healed—it wouldn’t be surprising if Irving’s biggest corporate partner, Nike, starts featuring the skinny but surprisingly built point guard more in the near future.
“The accolades speak for themselves, but the way he carries himself is just as important,” Nike North America Communications Manager Brian Strong says, adding coyly, “We continue to be enthusiastic about our relationship.”
Having grown up watching his dad maneuver on Wall Street, Irving is schooled beyond his years in business. He knows the deals he currently has, envisions the future deals he wants, and he knows what he wants to do with the fortune and fame.
“This is something that I want to feed my family doing for a long time,” Irving says. “It really makes me happy, seeing my father happy, basically being able to give him anything he wants. He made so many sacrifices for me to get here.”
Like most of what Kyrie says, this statement is honest and open and genuine, which harkens back to why fans adore him and why companies such as Nike are vying to put his face on its product.
“He’s a better person than he is a player,” Jones says. “As long as he stays healthy and humble, he has the personality where he could be the face of the NBA for years to come.”
Kyrie and Kobe, Kobe and Kyrie. It all makes perfect sense. One has the makeup to be the next face of the League; one has been the face of the League for the past decade. Inevitable then, when in the same gym together at Team USA’s training camp in Las Vegas, that they’d get into a little something—even if it was quasi-joke turned compelling-theatre.
The most popular version of Irving and Bryant engaging in some harmless trash talk has more than three million views on YouTube. Between that exposure and the relatively slow trickle of news in July, a little post-practice challenge to a game of one-on-one with the winner donating $50,000 charity has turned into one of the largest stories of the NBA offseason.
“That goes back to Kyrie being comfortable with himself,” Strickland says. “Like, you can’t do that if you’re not feeling like you’re up to par.”
“It started as a joke, but then he put money on it,” Irving, who adds that he watched and learned a lot while practicing with the Select Team in Vegas, says. “I wasn’t going to back down. I have the utmost respect for Kobe Bryant. Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, no, you’re going to lose.’ I’m just like, ‘He is one of the greatest players to ever play the game, but I have confidence in my abilities.”
Pyonin laughs a little when he speaks about Kyrie vs Kobe, seriously debates the merits of who would win, then finishes by saying: “That’s his confidence—he’s that good. Biggest thing with him is, get him a little talent around him, he’ll win a Championship.”
Kyrie clearly had a transformative experience practicing with Team USA in Las Vegas and brought new-found notoriety with him back to the East Coast. But Irving’s not worried about taking Kobe in a one-on-one battle, and he’s not nervous about inheriting Bryant’s mantle as one of the faces of the NBA and Nike. Right now, with his hand almost healthy enough for him to return back to action and training camp just one calendar page away, Irving is all about what he did last season and what he wants to do next season.
“I was trying to figure a lot of things out last season, so I didn’t really feel comfortable playing my complete game,” says Irving, who doesn’t turn 21 until next March and will again be the youngest player on the Cavs. “I feel like next season I’m gonna bring a new gear, a new level, that I didn’t really get a chance to show. A year under my belt, and now the game’s just gonna slow down, my third year it’ll slow down, and my fourth it’ll slow down…I think I can become one of the best in the League.”
Welcome, welcome, welcome…to the wide world of Kyrie Irving.