Kyrie Irving has learned to live without fear, stay true to himself

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- Kyrie Irving is just 24 years old, but he is self-aware enough to recognize the fundamental flaw to his basketball existence.

"I'm naturally an Alpha," Irving told ESPN.com in a wide-ranging interview during a preview event for his new Nike sneaker, the Kyrie 3, on a gray Sunday afternoon in late November. "I know I am. I know I am. I have that type of personality but I also understood coming to this team, I couldn't be all of what I envision myself being in terms of taking control."

Irving could consider his pairing with LeBron James, a player so special his talents demanded future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade transition from Alpha to Beta, to be a hardship. He chooses to see it as an apprenticeship of sorts.

"I just got to be great in the space I'm in for as long as I'm in it until there's a change," he says. "We all understand that as basketball fans, we want to see LeBron play for 10 more years and I would love to see that. I would love to play with Bron for 10 more years."

But James, in his 14th season and about to turn 32, doesn't have another decade of hoops in him. Like his idol, Kobe Bryant, lusted for a chance to compete free from Shaquille O'Neal's shadow, Irving will get his chance to operate without James. Rather than resent James for holding him back -- where some would say Bryant failed his partnership with O'Neal -- Irving is embracing the example that's being set.

"This guy right here is just so unbelievably mentally and physically gifted that he's had a blueprint that he believes in," Irving says of James. "And he runs a team and believes in a team and leads a team the right way, and all I've done is just taken myself back, removed myself emotionally and learned from him and try to get as close as I can.

"Because for as long as he's playing this game, I'm going to continue to get better. So, that's where the next point in my career is. Just I become more of a student of the game. I have a true appreciation for what he's done as well as what our team is doing. So I don't want to ever take it for granted."

Nor should Irving have reason to. Since James left Miami to come back to the Cavs, Irving's still had plenty of Alpha moments -- from becoming one of just 10 current players with a signature shoe with a U.S.-based brand, according to Nick DePaula of The Vertical, to becoming just the fourth player ever (along with James, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen) to win an NBA championship and an Olympic gold medal in the same calendar year.

About half of those players with signature shoes -- Irving, James and Kevin Durant for Nike and Stephen Curry for Under Armour -- will be rocking their kicks when the Cavs host the Golden State Warriors in an NBA Finals rematch Christmas Day.

Irving will be wearing the Kyrie 3, which has hints of the two that came before it from the "H&H" and "JBY" on the tongue -- standing for Irving's personal mottos of "hungry and humble" and "just be you" -- which were introduced on the Kyrie 1, to the spiral design on the ankle reminiscent of the Kyrie 2.

"You can just see the evolution of where the shoe is going," Irving says. "Also the bottom, it almost looks like an alien face at the bottom, but these are two pods that are tailor-fitted for me and the weird angles when I'm crossing over or I'm kind of low to the ground. Then, the consistent inconsistencies in the traction at the bottom: It's going in multidirections, which is kind of like my game. We're changing from the 1 to the 2 to the 3. It's subtle, but also maintaining the integrity of the shoe, which is it being tailor-fitted for my game."

Irving hit the biggest shot of his life, the biggest shot in Cavs' franchise history and one of the biggest shots in league history in the Kyrie 2s, rising up over the two-time MVP Curry to sink a 3-pointer that clinched the title for Cleveland in Game 7.

The shot fell through the net with 53.3 seconds left, putting the Cavs up by 3. Had he missed it, Golden State would have been able to dictate the final minute on their home floor with a championship on the line. But the "What if?" game doesn't do much for him. As his Twitter bio states, "Fear is not real."

"Whether it be people being scared of what other people are going to think or scared of what the outcome will be -- the unknown is always scary for people," Irving explains. "I get it. But for me, I wanted to put it out to not only people that support me but just people who understand life. Not just to the game of basketball. Fear isn't real. It's just a product of our imagination. We're thinking about scenarios and we just end up scaring ourselves from opportunities. For me, it was just about always furthering self-awareness, self-acceptance, being better for myself so I can be better for the world. That was the most important thing. And fear was stopping me.

"It was always thinking about what people were going to say. What people were going to think about me afterwards and me making my decisions. If you live your life based on that, you drive yourself crazy. You're trying to be better for other people, rather than be better for yourself. So, that was a big, big thing for me to express that message that this is a guy over here -- I'm very flawed. I make mistakes all the time. But I'm not afraid to make those mistakes or be flawed. So, that fear is all gone. I'm not afraid of almost any situation or anything that I'm in. I feel like as I continue to prepare as a man for life, then I'll be prepared for anything."

Much of the 20-minute conversation with Irving offered this type of introspection. At one point, Irving was reminded how rare it is for him to let his guard down and give anything but stock answers. "Dave, you know it's by design," Irving says. "You know it's by design." Indeed, perhaps the most engaging interview Irving ever gave was to comedian Pete Holmes. It's not your typical media strategy.

Yet it harkens back to the personal path he is on. Why let others in when they are inconsequential to someone finding his own truth?

"You can lose yourself when you get lost in the world and you start worrying about what everything else is going on," Irving says. "I was OK with being selfish about my pursuit in being better.

"It's not as easy as it sounds. It's really hard. But I really believe that the journey is the reward. There's beauty in the struggle, sometimes ugliness in the success. My favorite rapper said that, J. Cole. It's just a testament to being OK with what life throws at you no matter what.

"If you're going to stay consistent and you're going to really stay true to who you are, then you have to be that all the time. No matter if it's good, bad, ugly or beautiful; you got to stay the same no matter what. Never get too high, never get too low as cliché as it sounds. You never want to be, what is that, a (blood pressure) graph when you're in the hospital where it goes, 'BEEP' and it goes up and down? That's not the life I want to live. I want to stay consistent and have a steady breathing pattern and just keep on trucking through life despite what's going on."

Hearing Irving say this and then going back and watching his facial expression barely change at all -- no smile, no roar, no anything -- after he hit that 3 in Game 7 starts to make more sense.

He writes "Whiplash" in cursive on his sneakers before every game as an ode to the film starring J.K. Simmons, as the music instructor, pushing Miles Teller, as the young jazz band drummer, to the point of exhaustion to unleash his peak performance. (His new commercial for the Kyrie 3 has a very "Whiplash" feel to it, too.)

"I thought I was giving myself to the game," Irving says, explaining how the script spoke to him. "But I wasn't giving my whole self and there was something always missing. And that's what drives me still to this day. Even though I'm still learning how to still enjoy the moment, I had to make a choice, man. I had to make a choice: How great do I want to be?"

Irving points to a narrow early-season loss to Atlanta -- 110-106 -- in which he missed 7 of his 11 shots in the fourth quarter, wasting his teammates' efforts as Cleveland nearly battled all the way back from down 18 points only to let it slip away.

"I had missed three pull-ups and I kept shooting them and I come down and there's another opportunity for me to either make a play for my teammate or shoot and I just shoot the damn ball and I'm just like, 'Man, how great do you want to be?'" Irving says. "Like, make a choice ... You're better than this. And that's why I never forget those moments because they make me. They form a certain barrier that I have. A protection that I can always walk around with and I can live with the consequences."

Sparkling rings and shiny medals won't win you a game on a Tuesday in November, this he knows.

Come Sunday, he'll be called on to be great once again. The Cavs lost J.R. Smith to surgery on his right thumb and have struggled with their depth at times even before that injury. The Warriors are humming along with the league's best record at 27-4.

Irving insists he'll resist any Alpha battle with Curry though, be it point guard vs. point guard, Nike vs. Under Armour, or whatever other form it could take.

"I'm confident in who I am and what I bring to this team," Irving says. "I know I'm in this right now. In this moment and I got to be great for my team. I can't be thinking about, 'Should I try to get what Steph gets?' Or, 'Should I try to get what Russ (Westbrook) gets?' Should I try to get what all these other guys get? Because then I would lose myself. I would lose myself completely.

"But I feel a change in me where maybe this was a year ago, I would definitely be saying to myself, 'Oh, man I should go for MVP. I should go for all that. I think I should try to average 30 and average a triple-double.' Nah. Nah. That's not for me. Nah. Uh-uh.

"See, that approach, it wouldn't work for anybody. I wouldn't be staying true to who I am. I'm a winner."