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Climbing the mountain with Kyrie Irving

Thoughts on the point guard of Cleveland’s championship team

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers-Media Day Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

It was the night before New Year’s Eve and I didn’t have to work and I didn’t have anyone who wanted to hang out so I decided to try and explore Toledo’s east side. My grandpa was from the east side, over the river from the rest of the city. The country doesn’t always think much of my city, and much of Toledo doesn’t think much of the east side. But there weren’t many people who thought much of me at the time so I think it made some sense that I’d wander over there.

No one thought much of the Cleveland Cavaliers that night, either. There was some mild curiosity about Kyrie Irving, the first pick of that year’s draft, but he hadn’t really done anything yet. I reached the first bar in east Toledo, and watched the Cavs go toe to toe with the Indiana Pacers, on the back of Kyrie, this kid. He missed a shot that would have won the game in regulation, and the team fell off in overtime. But it was enough. I was back. Irving had talent. I was convinced he could make it.

I jumped into the team and made friends in the Fear the Sword comment section. There was WitMi, Kendaru, Conrad, Levy, Dbrimstone, all kinds of people. Justin and Mourt were here too but they mainly made jokes about my mom. I created a Twitter account, and met people through I Go Hard Now and Waiting For Next Year. Eventually I started writing about Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

I’ve talked to Kyrie probably six or eight or ten times over the years. I had the same goal just about every time. I had the same goal anytime I ever asked any Cavs player or official about Kyrie Irving. “Are you ready to grow up? Have you grown up? Has he grown up?”

He’s been young since he got to the league, and he has a background different from many of the players around the league. He never embraced Cleveland. From my knowledge, he never developed any kind of relationship with Dan Gilbert. I’m not aware of any Cavs media member that he developed a relationship with, nor anyone on the Cavs communications staff that he was tight with. Phil Handy, a Cavs assistant with a bunch of roles that don’t exactly get listed under the job description, came about as close as you might get. He wasn’t particularly close with Tristan Thompson, who was drafted in his class. David Griffin probably had one, but honestly I don’t think he would have been able to do much more beyond putting band-aids on the issue.

What the issue actually is, I don’t really know.

The Cavs used to have to come up with all kinds of creative ways to get people to come to their games. I responded to a twitter question from the Cavs account in early January one year and the team hooked a friend and I up with tickets to see them play the Sacramento Kings. The seats were behind the basket, close to floor level, so you could see just how fast the players moved.

For us, the most impressive and memorable part of the night was Irving holding conversations with people underneath the basket about 30 minutes to tip. This is utterly unremarkable, except for the fact that while he held court with teammates and Cavs coaches he was spinning the ball up off the backboard in all kinds of ways for layups. He wasn’t looking at the rim or the backboard and I’m not sure I’d even be able to get my wrist to put the types of spin on the ball that he was, but he also wasn’t missing.

I think the Cavs ultimately lost the game.

I would tell my students, “Kyrie is sort of fun because you’ll ask the question and he’ll pause, as though he’s pondering just how dumb your question is, and then he’ll give you an answer that he feels you deserve.” There were a few times he’d give me real answers, but he’d make it clear he didn’t think much of it just as often. Many of you can probably picture Irving after a bad loss looking 10 inches above the camera rehearsing some Bull Durham cliche about looking within to get better, head sort of bobbing up and down so that you know for absolute certain he’s going by the motions.

Kevin Love was supposed to fit in perfectly with the Cavs. The pick and roll would be run ad nauseum and Love would be the beneficiary. Irving would be the one who had to adjust. He’d have to find a way to sacrifice. Work without the ball. The year before LeBron James came, Irving had been a bad spot-up shooter. Doom! And Irving does seem to have chafed. There was David Blatt, there was Dion Waiters. There was the fact that he thought he signed on to it being his team.

Love struggled to fit in right away, and Irving had his own issues with James which apparently never went away. But Irving made an All-NBA team. James was better with Kyrie on the court. And the Cavs were dominant with both after Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2015. It seemed like the two were going to make an insanely productive duo, if only LeBron James realized what he had next to him. James ultimately did, and spent much of 2017 pumping Irving up. It probably should have been enough.

In the Spring of 2015 I found myself in the Cleveland Cavaliers locker room as the team got ready to host the Atlanta Hawks. They were up 2-0 in the series despite playing without both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Game 2. As it became clear that Irving would miss Game 3, a beat reporter whispered to me and another reporter “everyone in this locker room thinks he’s a p****y.”

The Cavs won the game without Irving, but the feeling around the team was one of discord. Should Irving have been playing through whatever pain he was going through? Other players were getting through bumps and bruises. The team was trying to win a championship.

It got loud enough that Irving played 22 minutes of Game 4 even though he was very clearly hurt. He then played in Game 1 of the NBA Finals at an All-Star level before breaking his knee. Was he pressured to play when he didn’t feel comfortable? Where was the pressure on Irving coming from? Was it the Cavs organization? The Cavs players? I have no clue if this played a role in his leaving. My guess would be ... well I guess I’d just say no one in Cleveland really knows him.

There was the time the Cavs were down 3-1 in the NBA Finals and the noise about whether or not Irving was good was so loud that I just started asking random Cavs officials. “Am I just, like, so far into homerism that I think this player is good that is actually bad? Is Kyrie valuable? Would a smart team actually rather have a non-shooter with a higher RPM? I hate that I’m asking this.”

I got various responses from people around the league. From what I’ve gathered, NBA twitter is not as high on Irving as a lot of executives, and certainly not as high as the players are. But I was close to jumping ship on Irving on a few occasions. It’s a high risk, high reward play style. At the end of the day, his offenses tend to score. He has the physical tools to defend, he just has to believe that himself. In June of 2016 he finally realized he could do it all.

Irving was lifted to heights he never would have reached without LeBron James. Their games complemented one another, he was given all the shots and plaudits he could have wanted, and he was allowed to take and make the championship winning shot in an epic comeback over a 73 win team. Cleveland hadn’t tasted success like the 2016 title in my lifetime.

He wants something else now. What that is, only a small group of people really understand. Watching him go through periods of dismal basketball through breakups, learn how to give canned answers, learn how to play in basketball games that mattered ... I would like to tell you that I have an idea about the guy. But I don’t.

What we do have, though, is something better. Moments with our fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers, friends, extended family. We have his shot to beat Toronto early in his career. We have way more moments of playoff insanity than someone Kyrie’s age is entitled to. We have the moments he got along with LeBron. We have the moments he didn’t. We have the Dark Knight. We have the time spent defending him. We have the time spent doubting him.

We have an NBA title.

The Cavs got a lot back for Irving. The team will be good, perhaps even better. But the aimless time in my life, that period that I tried to grow up with Kyrie, it’s not coming back. I think I’ve known that for awhile. It’s for the best.