Behind Kyrie Irving's controversial departure from Cleveland -- and what he hopes to find in Boston
IT'S THE FIRST day of school, September 2008, and a teenager navigates the hallways of St. Patrick High School, alone, fending off a twinge of panic.
He senses the sideways glances. He hears the whispers. He notes the blatant stares. For a fleeting moment, the 16-year-old considers, Why did I do this? Why didn't I just leave well enough alone?
He'd been content at Montclair Kimberley Academy, the tony private school where he'd racked up 1,000 points over his freshman and sophomore years, leading the team to a New Jersey Prep B state title. Everybody knew the precocious point guard, the one so innovative with the ball that the faculty flocked to games to see what he would do next.
The comfortable choice would have been to stay alongside his childhood friends from West Orange, the ones who'd been balling with him since fourth grade, who engaged in epic games of 21 in each other's driveways -- the ones who knew that their friend was different when a piece of his backboard ripped off, and, after hundreds of attempts, he mastered a new shot that accounted for the trajectory of the ball off the damaged corner.
But during countless AAU tournaments when he spent his free moments studying elite players, he wondered how he measured up.
There was only one way for Kyrie Irving to find out.
So he transferred to St. Patrick, located in Elizabeth, about a half-hour drive south of Montclair. It was a national powerhouse program coached by Kevin Boyle, who'd mentored NBA pros Al Harrington and Samuel Dalembert.
Now, as Irving wanders through a blur of faces in a maze of unfamiliar hallways, a boy in high-tops and jeans struts toward him.
"Who are you?" the boy asks. "I don't know who you are."
Irving doesn't respond. He knows exactly who this freshman is -- it's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, one of the top high school prospects in the country. Irving is all-but-unknown outside his prep-school bubble. Still, Kidd-Gilchrist has been notified by Coach Boyle that this scrawny kid is hoping to join their team, and Kidd-Gilchrist feels compelled to size him up.
A few weeks into the school year, Kidd-Gilchrist begins hearing stories that Irving is blowing past everyone in preseason pickup games and converting crazy finishes. "I'm thinking," Kidd-Gilchrist says, "Well, that's fine, but he can't score on me." The first day of practice, Kidd-Gilchrist heaves the ball at the bashful, taciturn newcomer and chortles with a half-smile, "You and me. Let's go."
Over the course of the next 10 minutes, Kidd-Gilchrist comes to understand. Irving lifts his head to snatch the ball, then reveals his ballhandling wizardry. He dribbles left, then right, then left again with so much deftness, it's as if the ball is on a string. He explodes forward, then glides back before launching a textbook jumper. Kidd-Gilchrist inches closer, but as he does, Irving zooms past him to the basket, lofting one-handed floaters and twisting layups. His new teammates are watching now, congregating in a semicircle as Kyrie blitzes the best player on one of the top high school teams in the country.
Kidd-Gilchrist is stunned by the ferocity with which this seemingly reticent kid attacks not just the rim but also him. "He wasn't afraid," Kidd-Gilchrist says, "of anybody.''
Irving and Kidd-Gilchrist went on to lead St. Patrick to a championship that season. A year later, Kyrie committed to Duke as one of the top point guards in the nation.
His decision to switch high schools was the first time in his life that he revealed an insatiable thirst for new challenges, no matter how daunting -- or inexplicable.
"I had to show them I could play with them," Irving says. "And, after a while, I had to show them I could dominate them."
IT'S EARLY DECEMBER, a cold, gray day in Boston, and Kyrie Irving sits on a bench at the Celtics practice facility in Waltham, explaining how he came to the decision that it was time for him to get out of Cleveland.
"[Leaving] was inevitable," he says in his first extensive comments since the trade. "I could feel it."
What they didn't know was Cleveland had explored trading Kyrie in June, long before he asked out, a fact conveniently omitted when word of his demand leaked. Irving made the decision to remain silent while the details of his request were, in his word, "distorted."
"I didn't feel the need to say anything because I knew the truth, and so did they," he says. "So it didn't matter what others said."
Still, for a split second, Irving winces, as though someone has pricked him with a pin.
"They didn't want me there," he says.
Seven days later in Cleveland, James has just put the finishing touches on a win over Atlanta, the Cavaliers' 15th victory in their past 16 games. He conveys through the Cleveland public relations staff that he has already addressed Irving's departure and will decline to answer questions regarding their relationship. Now, as he stands near his locker at Quicken Loans Arena, he's asked about Irving's contention that the Cavs didn't want him.
"That makes absolutely no sense," James declares.
Asked to elaborate, James smiles politely, slings his bag over his shoulder and exits the arena.
THERE'S A LITANY of Hall of Fame legends who never experienced the seminal moment they dreamed of their entire lives: a game-winning shot in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Kyrie Irving did it when he was 24 years old.
He was five years into his professional career, playing against a 73-win Warriors team that had dispatched the Cavaliers one year earlier. He shot poorly early in the series, absorbing criticism that he was shrinking in the moment.
But not on June 19, 2016. It was Game 7 and a tie score with 53 seconds remaining. After an inbounds pass from LeBron, Kyrie held the ball, dribbling six times toward the right wing, where JR Smith set a screen on Klay Thompson, a stout defensive player, and that forced the smaller Steph Curry to switch onto Irving.
Irving hesitated for a second, then stepped back and lofted a 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of the league's reigning MVP, a shot Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert later declared "the most important possession of our lives." It swished, and Cleveland's long, painful championship drought was history.
Irving finished with 26 points and six rebounds. LeBron submitted a triple-double and was named Finals MVP. The two embraced at midcourt, the cornerstones of Cleveland's future.
Nineteen months later, Irving is in Boston and rumors are swirling that James could soon leave Cleveland too. LeBron cornered the NBA notion that athletes should dictate their own destinies; Irving ripped that page out of James' book and implemented it accordingly.
Together, over three years, the duo played in two All-Star Games and three Finals. They weren't particularly close, nor were they openly at odds. Teammates say LeBron's habit of referring to Irving as "the kid" and his "little brother" was eventually viewed by Irving as a subtle lack of respect. Another player, advised by the Cavaliers not to discuss Irving publicly, noted that LeBron also predicted Irving would be an MVP one day.
Today, when asked if he feels that James viewed him as a basketball equal, Irving answers, "I don't know if he did or not, but I don't really care. I didn't lose any sleep over it." Those close to Irving insist his leaving wasn't all about LeBron, and not one of them was surprised that Irving asked to move on from Cleveland.
In 2015, Irving was named third-team All-NBA and had a right to believe it could be a recurring phenomenon. Instead, Damian Lillard, Thompson and Kyle Lowry were chosen ahead of him in 2016. Last season, it was Isaiah Thomas, John Wall and DeMar DeRozan.
"[Playing with LeBron] has its positives,'' Irving says, "and it also comes with responsibilities. It was clear to me that we needed each other."
Irving was the point guard in name, but LeBron often assumed his role as a ball-dominant point-forward in crucial situations. It produced results. The team averaged 54 wins and went to three straight Finals in their three seasons together. But Irving's teammates say there were times Kyrie felt marginalized -- despite the fact that over the three years, he averaged nearly the same usage rate without LeBron (29 percent) as he did with him (28.6).
"Ky wasn't as happy last year," says one of his former teammates who talks with Irving regularly. "He wasn't disruptive -- just a little disconnected."
"Happiness comes and goes in the NBA," Cavs veteran Channing Frye says. "Kyrie had every right to do what he wanted."
"I saw Kyrie high, I saw him low," Iman Shumpert says. "He's seen me tear up a locker room. We're friends. You help each other through it.''
During a rare practice in the middle of last season, coach Tyronn Lue, who was standing next to assistant coach and Irving confidant Phil Handy, called out to his young point guard.
"Ky," Lue said, "I want you to play a little faster."
"Why?" Irving asked.
"Because if we play faster, we get shots off easier."
"I don't need to play faster to get my shot off," Irving replied. "I can do that anytime."
"I'm not talking about your shot. I'm talking about RJ and JR," Lue said, citing teammates Richard Jefferson and Smith.
"Well, that's No. 23's job," Irving replied, referring to James.
According to members of the Cavs organization who witnessed the exchange, Lue ended the conversation by walking away, shaking his head.
Both Lue and Handy, whom Irving affectionately calls his "OG," confirmed the incident but declined to elaborate. "Kyrie is a great player," Lue says. "Please tell him I wish him the best."
Irving, for his part, laments the fact that his conversation with Lue ended without a resolution. "At that time, we had probably lost a few [games]," Irving says now. "[Lue] is coming up to me and saying, 'We've got to play faster,' and I probably wasn't willing to accept it at the time. So maybe I'd like a do-over on that.
"But those conversations go on every day in the NBA. In this case, instead of those things being addressed so you can move forward, it gets held on to, and it becomes a big thing. I was trying to figure out where I fit in and at the same time asking myself, 'What's best for the team?' Sometimes, I didn't know the answer. I had to figure it out on my own. It wasn't like I was getting answers from everyone else."
When the 2016-17 season ended, Irving was making millions. He had his own shoe campaign. He'd been to the Finals again. Yet something, he says now, was missing. "Sometimes, in the search for 'the moment,' you can get lost," Irving says. "I want to be an All-Star. OK. I want to be MVP. OK. I want to win a championship. I want to average this much. I want to be better than this person. I want the media to accept me this way.
"You start formulating all these false realities, and you realize that's not it at all. Once I separated myself from that, I started looking at things I wanted to do with my life that would make me happy."
THERE'S LITTLE IN life that pleases Kyrie Irving more than ratcheting up the degree of difficulty.
Consider that when he played for the Cavs, he would instruct Shumpert to ambush him in the layup line during pregame warm-ups. Instead of benignly rebounding the ball for him, Shumpert was to turn, without warning, and aggressively aim to block Irving's shot. "That way," Shumpert says, "Kyrie could practice suddenly changing angles on his finishes."
Consider that in Irving's rookie season in Cleveland, Kyrie would hound teammate Ramon Sessions so doggedly as the veteran tried to bring the ball up court that Sessions finally handed the chore off to someone else -- anyone else -- rather than deal with the constant harassment.
Consider that when asked to define Irving, Marcus Smart, his new Celtics teammate, offers this: "Sometimes, when Kyrie goes to the basket, he makes it more difficult than it even has to be. That's how he pushes himself."
Consider a game against Toronto in Irving's second season, with the Cavs down 98-96 with 12 seconds left. Coach Byron Scott called time and instructed the team in the huddle, "Clear out for Kyrie." A two-pointer would tie. A 3 would win. Irving brought the ball up the floor, feigned as though he were studying his options, then pulled up and drained a 28-footer over an astonished Alan Anderson for the win.
"Kyrie craved moments like that," Scott says.
Kyrie is a great player. Please tell him I wish him the best.Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue
Now consider how Irving's role changed overnight when LeBron returned to Cleveland in 2014. James chose to rejoin the Cavs in part because he was intrigued by the gifted young point guard. But LeBron's presence created an unforeseen challenge for Irving. "I had already been playing against him for [three] years," Irving says. "Now I felt like I had to show not only him but the rest of the team that I was able to play at the highest level."
Then there was 2010, when Irving was debating whether to compete in a FIBA competition for the United States or Australia, where he was born while his father was playing basketball overseas. Whichever team Irving chose would cement his international status going forward. The safe choice was to play for Australia, as he'd be a shoo-in on the Olympic roster. At that time, Irving was only one of dozens of young U.S. hopefuls who had yet to prove their international mettle. After consulting with Mike Krzyzewski, the U.S. Olympic coach and his college coach, Irving committed to the U.S. U18 squad. By 2014, he was the MVP of the FIBA Basketball World Cup, and in 2016, he and Krzyzewski captured Olympic gold in Rio with Irving as Coach K's starting point guard.
"Challenges are what makes us most human," Irving says. "[Fighting off] the fear of failure, showing people you are the best, that you've been preparing for this moment ... those are things that interest me."
ASK CAVALIERS PLAYERS today, and most will say they harbor no ill will toward their former All-Star point guard. Many still keep in touch with Irving, even though he has gone to their Eastern Conference rival. As Tristan Thompson explains, "Some things are bigger than basketball."
That fondness does not extend to Drederick Irving, Kyrie's father, who some Cavs officials feel planted seeds of his discontent with his son. "He filled Ky's head with ideas that we didn't appreciate him," one team executive says.
Drederick Irving grew up in the Mitchel housing projects in the Bronx. A former basketball star at Boston University, Drederick raised Kyrie and his sister, Asia, after their mother, Elizabeth, died when Kyrie was 4 years old. During Kyrie's early years in Cleveland, when there was turmoil and turnover, both on the roster and in the front office, Drederick weighed in on moments he felt were harmful or unfair to his son.
Since his son arrived in Boston, though, Drederick has deliberately adopted a low profile. "While I love Kyrie and I'm proud of him," he wrote in a text message to ESPN, "I'm choosing to stay on the sidelines."
His son chose to be proactive following Cleveland's loss to the Warriors in June, pushing for an exit interview to discuss his future. But GM David Griffin's contract expired on June 19, and he chose to move on. Cleveland then publicly flirted with Chauncey Billups for nearly two weeks before he withdrew his name on July 2, and it was another 22 days before the team finally named Koby Altman its new GM. In the interim, owner Dan Gilbert, who has never given any of his general managers an extension, was the primary decision-maker for his team.
In mid-June, shortly before Griffin left, team and league sources confirm, the Cavs explored a three-way deal with Phoenix and Indiana that would have shipped Irving and Frye to the Suns and brought Eric Bledsoe and Paul George to Cleveland. The Suns resisted, unwilling to part with their No. 4 pick, which they planned to use to draft Josh Jackson.
No formal offer was made by any of the teams, but news of this potential transaction stung Irving, who, sources close to him say, became convinced that LeBron's camp, which also represents Bledsoe, orchestrated the trade talks.
Team and league sources refute that, saying that it was Griffin who initiated the trade talks with Phoenix. Griffin, who is close with Irving, sensed both his unhappiness and his restlessness and was preparing for the possibility that Irving would request a trade. But once Griffin was no longer employed by the team, the conversations stalled. Cleveland then engaged in talks with Indiana and Denver, according to league sources.
Perhaps it was, as Irving suggests, inevitable that he start searching for the next zenith. As Scott says today, "Kyrie is one of those players who gets bored after a couple of years. He's wired differently than most. He needs to be stimulated. He needs another adventure."
Irving and his agent, Jeff Wechsler, sat down with Gilbert on July 9 in The Vault at Quicken Loans Arena. In the meeting, they pressed Gilbert, sources say, about the future of James. Gilbert, in turn, asked Irving for desired trade destinations, and Wechsler rattled off San Antonio, New York and Minnesota.
Boston was not mentioned, but, league sources confirm, Gilbert later became keenly interested in securing the rights to Brooklyn's 2018 first-round pick, which the Celtics had acquired in the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets. When Gilbert, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was presented with the Celtics as a trade partner for Irving, he went to LeBron and tried to secure a pledge from his franchise player to remain beyond the 2017-18 season. James, team and league sources confirm, wouldn't commit.
Boston was a promising, young team with a storied history, valuable draft picks and a highly regarded coach, Brad Stevens. It was, in many ways, the perfect scenario for Irving.
"But there's a misconception how all this went down," Irving says. "I was traded to Boston. I had no say at all in where they sent me. There were no conversations like, 'OK, this is an opportunity we can pursue.' It wasn't a recruitment process."
After his meeting with Irving, Gilbert flew to Las Vegas for Summer League. Team sources confirm that Gilbert met with his management team, and shortly after that, details of his conversations with Irving and Wechsler began to leak.
"I had a talk with Dan in the most professional way possible," Irving says. "I expressed my feelings, and we had a genuine conversation about what was next.
"I thought there would be a sense of confidentiality on everyone's part. I'm not going to point fingers, even though I know fingers will get pointed anyway, but the way it happened was disappointing. It was hurtful how it spun out. It turned into a narrative where everyone got to have an opinion on why I should do this, why I should do that. I'm this. I'm that. I'm selfish. That's fine because that's not reality. It was just a bunch of noise."
Krzyzewski argues that Irving's "natural curiosity" should not be mistaken for selfishness. "People want to talk about all these 'facts' as to why Kyrie did this, but it's not personal, it's not against anybody. It's just a young man at 25 saying, 'I know I can do more, and I'm not afraid to see,'" Krzyzewski says. "Not many people would do it. I love the fact Kyrie did."
IT IS LATE October, and Celtics guard Terry Rozier lies prone on the table in the team's training room, his eyes closed, his body slack. A physical therapist massages Rozier's back, kneading out the knots from a road game one night earlier in Milwaukee.
Rozier hears a rustling noise, but he's too relaxed to pick up his head -- until his masseuse begins karate-chopping his spine in a manner that feels a little ... unusual. Rozier pops up, turns around and explodes with laughter when he discovers that Irving, his eyes dancing, has somehow become his "fill-in" therapist.
Months earlier, shortly before Irving's trade was completed, he flew to Boston, took a physical and stuffed the Celtics shorts he wore into his bag. When the trade was announced on Aug. 22, Kyrie says he put those shorts on and literally skipped through his house.
Rozier says Irving told him he hasn't had this much fun playing basketball in years. Irving feels less constrained, he says, more appreciated. "I think he had lost some of himself in Cleveland," Rozier says.
There's a misconception how all this went down. I was traded to Boston. I had no say at all in where they sent me.Kyrie Irving
Krzyzewski says Irving's more gregarious personality is consistent with the role he's being asked to play in Boston. The Celtics need him to be a more vocal leader for young players such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. "With LeBron in Cleveland, they didn't really need him to do that," Krzyzewski says.
Celtics boss Danny Ainge, for his part, likens Irving to Larry Bird, who, depending on the situation, could be introverted or extroverted. Bird diverted attention if he felt too suffocated by the adulation, but he also embraced the limelight when the game was on the line and the ball was in his hands. "Those are threads Larry and Kyrie share," Ainge says.
Bird was a bare-knuckles leader who didn't spare feelings. Irving, Ainge says, is still growing into his leadership role. "When he got here, we talked about all the good things and not-so-good things Kyrie has done, who he wants to emulate, how he wants to be different than he was as a young player," Ainge says.
Irving arrived in Boston with a renewed enthusiasm, yet that euphoria was challenged 315 seconds into Boston's season opener in Cleveland. It was then that a gruesome injury to Gordon Hayward, who signed with Boston as a free agent in July, left Irving fighting back tears.
"I was upset because I threw that pass," Irving says of the play that likely cost Hayward his season. "It was crowded up there. D-Wade was on the back side. LeBron came over to help. Gordon jumped without seeing where he was landing. I wish I hadn't thrown it. I felt really bad about it."
Hayward's injury drastically altered expectations and has made Irving's job infinitely more difficult -- with teams forcing him to the sideline or into traps to pry the ball out of his hands. Still, Kyrie has posted career highs in usage rate, field goal percentage and defensive efficiency.
"There's been no negative, selfish energy," Smart says. "None of, 'Oh, this dude wants to do it all himself.' He's been all about team here."
Indeed, after a particularly galling loss to Utah on Dec. 15, a game pocked by poor shot selection and defensive breakdowns, Irving -- who missed 14 of his 25 shots in the game -- calmly reminded his teammates and his coach that it's a long NBA season.
"He doesn't seem to -- and this is something I've appreciated about him -- ride that roller coaster," Stevens says. "I would guess that would be really difficult [to avoid] when all eyes are on you all the time."
WHEN KYRIE IRVING was in the fourth grade, he wrote his life's goal on a piece of paper, with the absurd clarity only a 10-year-old can muster: Play in the NBA.
That goal has been achieved. His next one, though, is in revision as he maneuvers the new challenges he created for himself. He's already beloved in Boston. Chants of "MVP" routinely waft through the TD Garden rafters. Spurned Cavs fans are tempted to caution: "buyer beware." If you are always searching for the next thing, they say, how can you ever find what you're looking for?
"I'm happy," Irving insists. "I'm taking full advantage of this learning experience of being with this new group, this franchise. This is a long process, and I'm just happy to be part of it.
"At times throughout your career, you take things for granted. I'm realizing as long as you take advantage of moments with great people you can learn from and then apply those to your life going forward, that's where fulfillment comes in."
Irving says he has never considered how it might have all been different had he stayed at Montclair Kimberley, where he could well have scored 2,000 points or won another championship or enjoyed the comforts of lifelong friends.
It would have been easier, but easier has never been Kyrie Irving's thing. His search for greatness continues -- however he defines it and wherever he seeks it.