Kyrie Irving: A Dream Deferred

When Kyrie Irving was chosen No. 1 in the 2011 NBA Draft, he knew his rookie year would be impacted by the league’s lockout. He just didn’t know how great that impact would be. After his close brush with unemployment, the Rookie of the Year front-runner can now resume the business of proving he belongs here.

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Kyrie Irving, with his Duke University education and 19-year-old optimism, might describe it as an unshakable faith. Something like an impenetrable belief in the inevitable conclusion that this is the life meant for him. He might say it’s an unflappable conviction in the face of reasonable doubt.

I’m just going to say that Kyrie Irving has a set of balls on him.

When Irving decided to forgo three years of college basketball eligibility and enter the 2011 NBA Draft, he knew the risks involved. When he was taken No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers, those risks had not changed.

And so it was that shortly after the draft, when NBA owners locked out their players and the league’s worst labor dispute since 1999 reached critical mass – leaving Irving and his fellow rookies unable to sign contracts and facing uncertain futures – Irving never blinked. When the originally scheduled date of the 2011-12 season opener came and went, when the NBA players’ union threatened decertification and antitrust lawsuits, when even player-turned-owner Michael Jordan dug in his heels for a lengthy battle with his former colleagues, Irving never doubted.

“No, not at all,” says Irving without hesitation when asked if any part of him regretted going pro. “I knew there was going to be a lockout, but I wasn’t going to allow that to stop me from reaching my goals. I understand what’s at stake (for NBA players) and what we need to do, and I know everybody is working hard to get a deal done. When it gets done, I can get on the court and help my team win games.”

That was from my first interview with Irving in late-October. One month later, when the NBA season was on the brink of being wiped from existence, the players and owners settled on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Opening Day for a 66-game season was scheduled for Christmas.

Kyrie Irving could finally call himself a pro.

There is a certain professional cockiness I caught while speaking with Irving.

The kid can walk and talk the company line like an old veteran, and having been in the athletic-phenom spotlight since he reigned as the best high school point guard in the country at St. Patrick High School (Elizabeth, N.J.), he is seasoned in what to say – and what not to say – to the media. It’s the professionalism in him.

And then there’s the cocky part. Have you ever listened to a Common album and noticed that underneath the 25-cent words and dimpled charm that allows the hip-hop artist to land the lead role in a romantic comedy, lies the same bravado of the roughest rappers bred in the gutters of Anyhood, USA? That’s Kyrie Irving. Underneath the media-trained diplomacy and outward humility, lies the same fire-breathing ego that separates a Dwyane Wade or a Kobe Bryant from the nameless, faceless punch lines who co-star on their highlight reels.

Professional cockiness.

“I feel like I belong,” says Irving. “Even though I haven’t played any games yet, from a social standpoint I feel like I’m a pro. People knowing who you are when you go places, there’s a lot more responsibility to be professional everywhere you go. But I don’t carry myself any differently. It’s just about being more aware.”

His basketball resume reflects that earned confidence.

The son of Drederick Irving, a financial analyst by trade who played pro ball in Australia after leaving Boston University as the school’s all-time leading scorer, and Elizabeth Irving, who died when Kyrie was four years old, Kyrie was born in Australia in a household where basketball put food on the table.

Eighteen years later, as a college freshman, Kyrie took over at point guard for the defending national champion Duke Blue Devils. He dropped 17 points and nine assists in his first game. A couple of weeks later he put up 31 points, six rebounds and two steals against Michigan State and their senior point guard Kalin Lucas, a former Big Ten Player of the Year.

“He’ll be like, ‘Get out of the way, I’ve got it,'” Duke guard Nolan Smith (now a rookie with the Portland Trail Blazers) told reporters after that game. “You don’t really hear that too often, when a freshman will tell two seniors on the wings to get out of the way. We have no problem letting him do it.”

Three days later, Irving scored 21 points against Butler, a program in between back-to-back appearances in the national championship game. During that game, however, Irving suffered a foot injury that would sideline him for the better part of four months. He returned during the NCAA Tournament, and in Duke’s Sweet Sixteen loss to Arizona, Irving scored a team-high 28 points.

And then, after a college career that lasted all of 11 games – in which he averaged 17.5 points and 4.3 assists on 52 percent shooting from the field and 46 percent beyond the arc – in a class that included one point guard who had carried his team to a national championship (UConn’s Kemba Walker), another point guard who had nearly swept all National Player of the Year awards (BYU’s Jimmer Fredette), and another point guard who had led his team to the Final Four (Kentucky’s Brandon Knight), Irving still decided to enter the NBA Draft.

At the Draft Lottery drawing, Irving showed up for the event and conducted interviews as if he knew he was the coveted prospect for which those teams were praying. He did everything short of donning his own Cavaliers jersey when Cleveland was officially granted the top pick.

Anyone who followed college basketball during the 2010-11 season couldn’t be blamed for ranking Irving fourth nationally among point guards. Yet there he was, with his insufficient sampling of games, his average size (6-2, 180 pounds) and his not-quite-otherworldly physical talents, carrying himself in front of each of those potential employers like the undisputed prom king. Like he was telling the world, I know something you don’t know.

“We took the attitude that Kyrie was going to be the No. 1 pick,” says Irving’s agent, Jeff Wechsler. “We felt he was the best player in the draft, and handled everything accordingly. Any team in the lottery who we felt wasn’t the right situation, he wasn’t going to workout for that team. In the end, he only worked out for Cleveland.”

When you ask Irving about his feelings before hearing his name called on Draft Night, however, he swears he had no idea Cleveland would pick him.

And you almost believe him.

But what about the money?

For all the starry-eyed talk of achieving dreams and sticking to goals, the toddlers who turn into teenagers who decide they want to play in the NBA when they grow up do so in large part because NBA players are millionaires. Be real. If it were only about being on the court and pleasing the crowd, more kids would idolize the guys who shoot t-shirt guns or break-dance during timeouts.

So when you can politely decline a full-ride college scholarship to join the NBA ranks, it’s because you understand that NBA players occupy a higher tax bracket than the rest of us who work “regular” jobs.

For the No. 1 pick, that career decision is supposed to include the biggest rookie contract and the brightest future. Those few months between Draft Night and Opening Night are designed to be a “Push It To The Limit” Brian De Palma montage of black-on-black SUVs, candy-painted donks, diamond watches that would make Stevie Wonder see the light, steak dinners with $100 tips, swanky condos for you and big houses for the family.

Before the rookie salary cap existed, you could have thrown a white tiger and a pool-sized foyer fountain into the mix and you wouldn’t be too out of bounds.

But not for Kyrie Irving.

During the NBA lockout, which lasted long enough for every NBA player to miss at least one paycheck, Irving lived in professional purgatory. He hovered somewhere between college and the pros, between being a kid in school and being a man on his own, between reaching the doorstep of his lifelong dream and actually getting the keys to enter the building.

He wasn’t broke, but he wasn’t rich. It was like starting a new job at a weird time in the pay period when you might not see your first check for three or four weeks. Only this thing had gone past four months.

“I lived off of my endorsement money,” says Irving, who counts Nike as his biggest partnership. “But that was my plan all along, no matter what happened. I wasn’t going to spend any of my (Cavaliers) contract money unless I needed to.”

In the meantime, Irving set up shop in Durham, N.C., where he took fall classes at Duke and worked toward the promise he made to his father before the draft that he would finish his degree.

His daily routine consisted of an 8 a.m. workout, classes from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., another two-hour workout in the afternoon, then studying and/or hanging out the rest of the day with his college buddies – a crew that includes Duke sophomore forward Josh Hairston, sophomore guard Tyler Thornton and freshman guard Austin Rivers, a serious contender to be No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.

“It is kind of like being back in college,” said Irving at the time. “But at the end of the day, I’m not putting on a Duke uniform anymore. It’s been a pretty smooth adjustment. I’m just taking classes, working out and getting used to being a professional. I know all eyes are on me, all the time.”

Many of the Class of 2011 rookies could relate to Irving’s summer routine that bled into the winter. One of them is Tristan Thompson, the 6-9 power forward from the University of Texas who was drafted fourth overall by Cleveland after his freshman season.

“Basically, it’s like your dream is on hold,” says Thompson. “If you signed a trading card (endorsement) deal or a shoe deal, that money will help you out for a little bit. And, like me, I’m getting some scholarship money for school. Otherwise, most guys take out loans that can be paid back once you get paid.”

Jeff Teague, third-year point guard of the Atlanta Hawks, offers a veteran perspective.

“It would have been tough on me if this had happened when I was a rookie,” says Teague. “Not having the opportunity to work with coaches, not knowing what to expect, knowing it’s going to be a shorter season, it would’ve been tough. Plus you might not have any income coming in, so you’re basically just … out there.”

Not that it’s all bad. For rookies in particular, not collecting a paycheck is not too far removed from the life they already know. Most rookies don’t have mortgages, wives and kids and cars they’re still paying for. Unlike the veterans who had grown used to receiving NBA checks, the rookies during a lockout are not necessarily facing a change in lifestyle.

Kemba Walker – drafted ninth by the Charlotte Bobcats – put it best on Twitter in mid-November after news broke of another fruitless labor negotiating session: “No money. OK. I grew up with no money. There’s nothing new!”

There are ways, in fact, in which the lockout was a blessing for Irving.

Instead of facing the daily scrutiny of a No. 1 pick during a full-length training camp and fielding a barrage of mind-numbing, pressure-rising questions (LeBron led the Cavs to an 18-win improvement as a rookie; What are you gonna do?), Irving was able to prepare for his NBA initiation relatively underground.

Irving was able to meet with Cleveland’s coaching staff and front office for a few days before the lockout began and get his summer homework assignments, but after that, players were banned from having contact with management outside of labor negotiations. For a rookie point guard coming into the league playing the most difficult position on the court to learn, the stakes were heightened.

Irving, though, stood unwavering. As usual.

“I’m missing out on the experience – that’s what I need most right now,” he admitted during the lockout, “but the Cavs gave me my workout plan before the lockout started so I know what I have to do. I know that Coach [Byron] Scott wants to get up and down the court, and that’s what we did at Duke. He runs a system that fits me, so we’ll make it work. The only thing different from what I’m used to is that in Cleveland we’ll run some of the Princeton offense, but I know I can learn that.”

In this year’s abbreviated training camp and preseason, that learning process will be more of a crash course. Irving’s professor will be Scott, who coached Chris Paul and Jason Kidd during his stints in New Orleans and New Jersey, and played in the same backcourt with Magic Johnson for eight years in Los Angeles. Irving will also be challenged for minutes by tough and talented veteran point guard Ramon Sessions.

Irving also benefits from the reality that expectations are not particularly high for these Cavaliers. In Year 1 A.B. (After ‘Bron), the team finished 19-63, which leaves the organization some leeway to let their future franchise player develop at a measured pace. However the Cavs elect to unleash their top pick, he promises to be ready.

“You only have to tell Kyrie something one time,” says Wechsler. “Explain to him once and he gets it. I just try to create as many opportunities as possible, then let Kyrie run with them.”

“I feel like he’s gonna be a great facilitator,” says Thompson. “Coach Scott likes to run, and Kyrie can run. He’s gonna contribute right away. Everybody saying he only played 11 games in college, but look at what he did in those 11 games. He took down Michigan State. He took down Butler. He took down Kansas State.”

“Kyrie is an exciting player,” says Teague. “He gets up and down the court and has a great handle. I respect his game a lot. He’s going to hold his own.”

When Irving does finally put sneaker to hardwood in front of a national audience again, his feet will be symbolically facing a fork in the road: Will he follow the road of 2008 top draft pick Derrick Rose, the one-and-done point guard who has led his team back to glory while copping last season’s MVP award? Or that of Greg Oden, the ’07 top pick who entered the league a mystery and, thanks to a string of injuries, remains one four years later?

Adding intrigue to Irving’s tale is how closely it mirrors Oden’s. Like Oden, Irving is going to be judged by a lot of people who rarely saw him play in college and may have only heard rumors of his dominance in high school. Like Oden, Irving’s high school exploits could raise skepticism in that he was simply a man playing against significantly less-talented boys. Like Oden, Irving’s short college career could also include the asterisk of injuries skewing whatever success and struggles he experienced. Now, like Oden, Irving’s rookie year gets another asterisk. In his case, due to the shortened preparation time and shortened schedule caused by the lockout.

It may not be until his second pro season that any basketball expert can answer the questions my father posed to me during the draft: “So why is Kyrie Irving getting picked first? Is he really that good? They should have picked Kemba, man. He won a national championship, and this kid didn’t hardly even play!”

Now add in the history of Cleveland, a notoriously tortured sports town. They had LeBron, then lost LeBron. They had the Browns, then lost the Browns. They gave up The Drive, lost The Fumble, watched The Catch, allowed The Shot. They’ve haven’t won a major sports championship since 1964.

Does Cleveland really need a No. 1 pick that could draw early comparisons to Greg Oden? A rookie who is no bigger than Derek Fisher and came from a college with a reputation of churning out mediocre pros and is the NBA’s first No. 1 draft pick to experience an extended lockout right off the bat since Michael Olowokandi? And after feeling the (justified or not) sting of betrayal from LeBron, will Cleveland even be able to embrace Kyrie Irving if he does match the hype?

“This has definitely been more than what I expected,” says Irving during a mini-vacation in Miami before the season begins. “Like I said, from a social standpoint, people knowing who I am, it’s like I’m a pro already. The only thing is that right now we would be playing games, so until that happens, I’m still not a pro in that sense.”

Is the lockout-shortened season plus the time he was injured in college going to hurt him on the court? Or at least give him a decent excuse if he doesn’t play up to expectations?

“Not at all,” says Irving without hesitation. “I absolutely expect to be a leader out there. The vocal leadership will come from the veterans, but I’ll be leading the team on defense and executing plays as a point guard.

“Even when I was injured, I felt like I was getting better. And I’m getting better now. This past year and a half has had some road blocks, but I still have a lot of goals I want to attain, and I still plan on doing that.”

Follow Austin on Twitter at @AustinBurton206.

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