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Cavs' Kyrie Irving: Game will never be the same without idol Kobe Bryant

Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- Kyrie Irving was one of a handful of younger players whom Kobe Bryant name-checked in his news conference Sunday as he was elaborating on his announcement that he would be retiring after this season.

Bryant’s message was that through Irving, and others, he will be leaving the game of basketball in good hands.

It turns out that Bryant was someone Irving turned to during the 2014-15 playoffs when the Cleveland Cavaliers star was dealing with a bad knee.

“During the Chicago series he was the first person I called when I had my knee issues,” said Irving, who initially tweaked his knee in the first round against Boston and eventually required surgery to repair a fractured left kneecap suffered in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Warriors. “I asked him a few things. He knew a little bit about [Tom] Thibodeau's defense and how they are going to corral me and what they are going to do knowing I’m hurt, and he just told me how to be more effective in the scoring areas as well as on the defensive end. We talked for about 30 minutes and he gave me as great a talk as I needed at that time. I was in a terrible mental space, knowing I couldn’t be as effective as I wanted to be. He was the first person I called and we’ve had a great dialogue over the last few years, so it’s been great.”

Irving said the dialogue began in summer 2012, when he was a member of the U.S. select team in Las Vegas that trained against the U.S. national team as it prepared for the London Olympics. The 20-year-old Irving couldn’t help but challenge -- more like pester -- the 34-year-old Bryant to a duel.

“I challenged Kobe one-on-one and the video kind of went viral,” Irving said. “From that point on, every time we played since I was a rookie, I was just trying to earn his respect. Guys that have come before me, I never forget their groundwork -- even guys that have come before Kobe that allowed him to leave a legacy on this game that will last forever.”

Bryant has already left a lasting impression on Irving. After he scored a career-high 57 points in San Antonio last season, he credited Bryant for showing him the form that led to his game-tying shot that sent the game to overtime. "As long as my elbow's pointed at the rim, I feel like it has a great chance to go in," he said. "I learned that from Kobe Bryant.”

After reading Bryant’s retirement poem on The Players' Tribune on Sunday, Irving contacted Bryant before the Los Angeles Lakers played the Indiana Pacers later that night.

“I texted him, I was like, ‘Man, you’ve allowed me to grow in my own space, but having guys like you that I can idolize and look up to, I’m going to take your legacy, or try to take your legacy even further and be on the same greatness wavelength as you,' " Irving said. “That’s something we all strive to do. Whether it happens or not, who knows? But for me, idolizing somebody like that, Kobe and 'Bron (LeBron James), guys that I’ve been watching for a long time, when Kobe leaves the game, the game will never be the same.”

Irving said Bryant has kept tabs on him the past couple of seasons (“Just checking up on me and making sure I’m OK,” he said, “just giving me advice constantly throughout the year”), but he gets just as much from Bryant simply by observing the five-time champion as he does through their personal interaction.

“Just the pure emotions that he has,” Irving said. “For me that’s the biggest attribute that I’ve tried to emulate, just that emotion he comes with during the game and that seriousness that everyone is sort of afraid to have. When I say that, I mean going at everybody and anybody, that mentality on any given night, whether it’s a 2-guard or whether he’s playing against another great team, he’s coming with that same mentality every single game.

“That’s something that we all would try to emulate. That competitiveness comes with that emotion, and it translates out on the floor. You can see it even when talking in interviews. I’ve been watching interviews of Kobe since I was about 12 years old or 13, and you could just feel it in the camera when he’s looking at it. When he went down with his Achilles injury, you could just tell in his face that we weren’t there when he was shooting or running up and down the court to get 35 [points] per game, but he was putting his team in position to win and doing everything possible that no one was even aware of. All we could do was guess what he was doing, putting greatness out there on the floor. To me that was something great to see. I try to emulate that and take things from his game and turn it into my own. But he’s Kobe Bryant. There’s not going to be anybody like him.”

As for that one-on-one game, Irving says he’s still waiting for Bryant to accept his offer.

“Never came up,” Irving said. “I think I would do it now though. He would still go at me and it would be good.”