#kyrie

Originally published in SLAM 169

by Adam Figman | portraits by Atiba Jefferson

At some point during the ’13-14 NBA season, Kyrie Irving will be matched up one-on-one with a defender about 25 feet from the hoop. The defender will lean in and lock down—he’s surely seen footage of Irving blowing past dozens of guards and forwards who tried and failed to stay in front of him over the past few years—not wanting to be another addition to an ever-growing highlight reel. Irving will stutter-step quickly to the left, then swivel his body to the right as if he intends to then dart to the hoop. The defender may be thrown off-balance, but he’ll catch up to the paused Irving, satisfied that he’s thus far managed to keep pace with his fast-footed opponent. But just before that poor sap fully regains his composure, the Cavs point guard will lunge hard to the right, and the defender, still mid-recovery, will push all of his momentum in that direction in an attempt to somehow remain between the ballhandler and the basket. Irving will then spin fluently to the left, fulfilling what—unbeknownst to his now-defeated opponent—was to be his endgame all along.

And then the future of the NBA will be wide open, free to finish the play as he’d like.

“How they gonna stop this?” Irving asks, smirking while simulating the sequence step by step. We’re in the back of a high-ceilinged all-white room in Carousel Studios, located in sunny Miami’s Buena Vista neighborhood, a few minutes before he’ll pose for the photos that grace SLAM 169′s pages. Our cover star is clad in a Cavs gold jersey, matching shorts and a pair of bright yellow Nike Hyperdunks with his KI emblem stitched on to the tongue. And, you know, the kid makes a good point: It’s pretty freakin’ difficult to envision anyone successfully keeping up with that elaborate set of moves without spiraling uncontrollably off course.

It’s mid-April, just a few days removed from Irving’s second year, though he’d later tell me this season felt more like a true rookie experience. His actual first season immediately followed a lockout, and it was filled with all of the requisite post-lockout weirdness, a handful of games stacked on top of each other with little opportunity to take a breather and figure out what the hell this whole NBA thing is actually about. Irving did win the Rookie of the Year award in ’11-12, but what’s taken place in the time since has put him on the map in a whole new manner.

There was the game last December against the Lakers, in which he traded buckets with a ruthless Kobe Bryant, eventually finishing with 28 points, 11 dimes and a huge win. And one against the Knicks days later, in which he dropped a career-high 41 in front of a raucous MSG crowd. And one in late January against Toronto, in which he drained a game-winning 28-footer in the tilt’s closing seconds.

And then there was All-Star Weekend, which rapidly evolved into The Kyrie Irving Show. First he shook Brandon Knight out of his shoes at the Rookie-Sophomore Game; then he out-shot a set of lethal sharpshooters in the Three-Point Shootout; then he played major minutes in the All-Star Game, scoring 15 points and dishing 4 assists, making it more than clear that he can stand toe-to-toe with the League’s best without missing a beat.

All in all, a strong, if ultimately unsatisfactory—the Cavs finished 24-58, 13th in the Eastern Conference—sophomore campaign. “It was a big learning experience for me,” Irving says. “I had to have a fast learning curve, the fastest I’ve ever had, just being the youngest player on the team and being the leader. I had a target on my back basically all season. I earned almost everybody’s respect in the League, and became one of the best point guards and best players in the League.”

How’d he earn that respect? The crazy All-Star Weekend helped, as did the occasional scoring outbursts, the incredibly popular Uncle Drew Pepsi spots and the countless highlights. But it was also his astounding ability to step up in the clutch—per NBA.com, he scored 145 points in the time officially considered “crunch time” (five minutes or less remaining, a game within 5 points), second to only Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, who played 15 and 10 more minutes in that situation, respectively—that drew Kyrie praise from every corner of the NBA media sphere. “It’s instincts, honestly,” he says. “At the end of the game, I live for those moments, because those moments I’ve practiced so many times by myself. At the end of the game, I feel like I’ve already been there.”

It hasn’t taken long for Kyrie to start to plan for what comes next. He was already writing down his goals—something he’s done since he was a little kid, scribbling on the wall of his closet (and then in a black-and-white notebook, and now in his iPhone)—for next season before last one even ended. He’ll be spending the majority of his offseason with his fam in New Jersey, breaking only to vacation in Miami (where his girlfriend lives) and occasionally to jet to North Carolina to workout with both old and new Duke buddies.

“He’s gotta get stronger, like a lot of our young guys do—working in the weight room and so on and so forth in the offseason,” says Cavs GM Chris Grant. “But he’ll continue to work. We’re looking forward to him coming back physically stronger and continuing to grow to another level with the same amount of confidence he did from his first year to his second year.”

That sounds like a safe bet. “He’s not too proud to be forced to make mistakes,” says Micah Lancaster, a trainer who’s pushed Kyrie through drills in the past. Lancaster once pelted a dodgeball at the 6-3 guard, forcing him to maintain his dribble in order to improve his ballhandling. “I thought I could get him, but he just wasn’t fazed. When guys work as hard as he does, it just tells you that there’s still so much more room for them to grow.”

***

An hour or so after our cover shoot, Kyrie and I sit at the bar of a pizza joint a few blocks from the studio, waiting for an open table. He chews on an appetizer of meatballs while the Nuggets and Warriors open their series on the restaurant’s only TV. We begin speaking about what’s to come, and I can’t help but ask Kyrie what’s featured on that list of goals for next season. “I keep those to myself,” he says, cracking a half-smile. “Obviously I want to get a lot more wins, and become a better leader and be the leader that we need and just make the Playoffs. That’s on the surface of the goals, obviously.”

Ever since his NBA career began, he’s laid out those goals each year with head coach Byron Scott, who was fired one day after ’12-13 came to a close.

Reports of a rift between Irving and Scott had been circulating—understandable, considering Irving essentially pleaded the Fifth when asked about Scott’s future with the Cavs toward the end of the season, not exactly a ringing endorsement—but those words (or lack thereof) probably came with an understanding that there was no way Scott would actually get booted out of town. Immediately following the firing, Irving told reporters he was “trying to get over the loss of his basketball father” and that he felt like “a piece of him is missing.”

“That was my guy,” he says now. We’ve moved over to a table at the pizza spot with his agent and one of Kyrie’s close friends, and while he speaks, an NBA Playoffs commercial runs on the muted TV overhead, the stars of the 2013 postseason appearing on screen one after the next—KD, D-Wade, Manu, Carmelo. I ask if he’d like some kind of say in who Scott’s successor will be. “It’s a business,” Irving responds. “That’s a front office decision. Right now, I’m just kind of dealing with the loss of Coach Scott. When that time arises, and we’re on the brink of hiring a new coach, I’ll have answers, but right now I don’t have an answer for that.” #chris grant quote

The two spoke on the phone shortly after the firing, though Irving had little to offer the conversation. “[Scott] told me to stay the course,” he says. “That’s all he needed to say.”

It may have come as a surprise to Irving, but it’s no shock the Cavs front office wasn’t pleased with how things unfolded this year. For one, there was little encouraging team improvement as the season wound down—the group ended ’12-13 losing 16 of 18. They also ranked dead last in the League in opponents’ field-goal percentage at 47.6 percent, displaying little hope on the defensive end. And Irving ended on a frustrating note as well; in the last possession of the last home game of the season, with the chance for yet another game-winner, he was stripped by Miami guard Norris Cole and didn’t even get a shot attempt up.

Irving tweaked the inside of his heel during the play, then sprinted right back to the locker room to get it checked out, electing not to return for a fan appreciation event that was set for post-game. He’d later apologize on Twitter. “I was wrong on my end,” the 21-year-old says. “If we had more games I could’ve tried to bring back that [fan appreciation], you know? It’s more of an emotional time for me losing the game, and it being against the Miami Heat. It was a little bit of an embarrassment, but you learn from stuff like that.

“My duty is to go out and compete for the city of Cleveland,” he continues. His relationship with the second biggest city in Ohio is a pretty positive one—it wasn’t long ago he was branded the impossible—The Next LeBron, or something along those lines—but now, as fans begin to clamor for the (laughably unlikely) return of LeBron in 2014, they’ve started to let Kyrie be Kyrie. “He’s under a microscope because of what he means to the franchise,” says Mark “Munch” Bishop, who co-hosts a Cleveland-based morning show on ESPN radio. Munch notes that he used to go easy on LeBron, hoping to do his part in helping the Cavs retain the superstar. Having learned his lesson, he now speaks his mind. “I am much tougher on Kyrie than I was on LeBron. If they’re gonna leave, they’re gonna leave—there’s nothing you can do.”

Ultimately, while Irving hopes the city of Cleveland stands behind him as he adapts to the NBA, it’s his real family that owns his heart—the Australian-born, Jersey-raised Irving lost his mother at age 4 and grew up with a single parent and two sisters. He and his pops remain inseparably close. “We talk after every game,” says his father, Drederick Irving. “Every night after every game we talk about a different element of the game. It’s always something in the department of growing. The game is so fast at the next level—it’s a perpetual growing process for him because of the fast pace of the game.”

Back at the pizza place, I ask Irving if he wants to one day have kids of his own. “Yeah,” he says, though he jokes about the world not being ready for Kyrie Irving Jr just yet. He then makes a decent point: If he does name his son Kryie Irving Jr, that youngster will be the only person on the planet who shares his name with him. “Technically, I am the only Kyrie Irving in the world. The whole world. You gotta think about it: When you think about your name, think how many have your last name, and how many people have your first name. What’s the likely chance of somebody having the combination of your full name? I’m the only one!”

Weird, but confirmed as best we can: There really is only one Kyrie Irving. Pretty fitting, all things considered.

***

A few days after I get up with Kyrie in Miami, we reconnect in Orlando, where he’s working with EA SPORTS on the development of the new NBA LIVE video game (we’ll have more on that soon). After touring EA’s facilities and learning the ins and outs of the organization, Kyrie reclines in the lobby of the building, chatting up some of his hosts. He looks relaxed, wearing a Nike t-shirt, loose black basketball shorts and a pair of black/white Nike P-Rod 5s that he snatched from the SLAM photo shoot earlier in the week.

I’m sitting on a couch on the other side of the lobby, shooting the breeze with the company’s communications director. During a lull in our conversation, I pull out my phone and start scrolling through my Twitter timeline when a tweet from Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski comes across my feed:

“Cavaliers, Mike Brown are constructing a five-year contract, league source tells Y! The final year on deal would include a buyout provision.”

Oh shit!

So, what now? Do I run and tell Kyrie the news, stick my tape recorder in front of his face and get a quick reaction quote? That’s what any Intro to Journalism professor would want me to do, right? But…wait, is he going to be happy about this?

Brown is a solid enough coach, but just days ago Kyrie could barely speak about the end of the Byron Scott Era, and it’s hard to imagine him actively excited for someone to fill those shoes just yet. And what if he hates the move? It certainly doesn’t seem to have been made in conjunction with the franchise’s best player whatsoever. (Days later, I’d ask Grant if Irving factored into the hiring. He was diplomatic: “For us, it was the best decision for our team. We want to build a team that is winning and has long-term success. Certainly we think about our players, but overall it’s the best decision for the entire group.”)

Plus he looks so peaceful, cheerfully joking around in this beautiful, sun-drenched setting after a nice, productive day. This news is going to alter his short- and possibly long-term future, in a (very) positive or possibly (very) negative way. Do I really want to be the messenger here?

No more than a couple seconds pass when, still oblivious to the latest headline, he stands up and shakes the hands of the group of guys who guided him around for the past few hours. He then sends a nod and a goodbye wave in my direction, and without even a peek at his assuredly text message-filled iPhone, the one and only Kyrie Irving walks toward the exit, pushes open the glass door and disappears into the Florida sun.