BOSTON -- "Wall-tham? Wall-thumb? Am I saying that right?" Kyrie Irving wondered.
Twice during his first week on the job with the Boston Celtics, Irving has stopped news conferences to ask reporters how to properly say the name of the Boston suburb that hosts the team's practice facility. For the record, the town of Waltham is pronounced "Wall-tham," though history suggests that has more to do with New England accents than the original intent.
Nevertheless, this is the sort of thing that weighs heavily on Irving's mind right now. This is a man who has repeatedly explained his decision to request a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers by suggesting that he wants to "perfect his craft" and he is likewise obsessed with adapting to his new surroundings.
Beyond pronunciations, Irving is still trying to settle into his new home. He playfully detailed the frustration of trying to furnish his new place, and the challenge of picking the right paint colors. He'd also like to find some good restaurants where he might be able to blend into the scenery, as unlikely as that seems as the new face of the Celtics franchise.
Yes, there's plenty to work through here, both on and off the court, and yet one thing has been consistent with Irving since he first came to Boston last month for an introductory news conference: his smile. It's ever-present. He smiles throughout interview sessions, he smiles at the notion of what the Celtics might become. He smiles even after putting unleaded gas into the new diesel-craving engine of his beloved Jeep that broke down on his way to his first Celtics practice.
A bunch of Bentley University students were willing to help Irving fix his car, in the rain no less. Instead, Irving called his new employer to say that (1) he was going to be a little late for a meeting with coach Brad Stevens and (2) ask if someone could come fetch him. Sure, he was told, the Celtics would send equipment manager John Connor to get him. But where was Irving?
"Wall-tham? Wall-thumb?" said Irving. "Am I saying that right?"
Al Horford is a four-time All-Star and a veteran entering his 11th NBA season; which is to say, it's hard to impress him on a basketball court. And yet, Horford stood transfixed on the sideline at Boston's practice facility last month while watching Irving go through his first on-court workout with the team.
"I was just blown away," Horford said. "I've played against him over the years. You see him on the court, you see some of the moves, you're impressed like, yeah, he's an All-Star player. He's a really good player. But when you see him work at what he does in practice and how easy he's able to score the ball and handle it and do certain things, it just really blew my mind.
"I don't think people really understand how good a player he is. He's gonna showcase that this year. He needs time to get acclimated and to catch up to speed with everything we have. His ability is unreal. I'm very intrigued to see how the season's gonna develop. He's gonna be great for us."
Horford admitted it was jarring to watch as the Celtics overhauled the roster of a 53-win team this summer. And just as he was coming to grips with the initial batch of changes, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a couple of future draft picks (including the Brooklyn Nets' unprotected 2018 first-round pick) to the Cavaliers in exchange for Irving.
Boston brought back just four players overall. Even after adding the All-Star talents of Gordon Hayward and Irving, Horford needed to digest the overhaul. Horford knew how good Irving was -- heck, he played a huge role in ending Boston's season in May -- but they also had given up a lot to obtain Irving.
Horford's excitement spiked when he got to watch Irving up close. Now, Horford is certain Irving is going to take his game to another level with the Celtics this season.
"I just think that, playing with LeBron, Kyrie probably couldn't be everything that he possibly could be," Horford said. "Just because LeBron is such a great player that he just kinda -- Kyrie could have a great game and everybody focuses on LeBron because he had a triple-double and he was awesome.
"I just think now, Kyrie will be in a position where people will see him and it's going to be like, 'This guy is elite.' That's what I sense with him."
After three days in Newport and a couple of practices at their training facility, the Celtics ventured to TD Garden on Sunday for an open practice in front of season-ticket holders. About 5,000 fans crammed the arena's lower bowl on an NFL Sunday just to watch these new-look Celtics go through a series of shooting drills and on-court interviews.
The Celtics already had completed their real off-day workout on the Garden parquet before fans were even let into the building. While waiting for the crowd to settle in, Irving was asked what it felt like to be wearing green in the building.
"There's nothing like it," Irving said. "Even the energy in here, I can feel it."
A follow-up asked Irving what stood out to him about the Garden. It's the sort of question that a newcomer might reference the 17 championship banners or the aura of Celtics history that fills the room. But with his answer, Irving focused more on the floor than the ceiling.
"The misfit of the [parquet] squares in where they're placed on the floor. They're going in opposite directions -- the perpendicular one, if you know what I'm saying," Irving said. "I just appreciate all that. And then the nets as well as the whole intimacy as well. I just like the whole aura of it."
The challenge in front of Irving is figuring out how all of Boston's new squares fit together to form the right pattern. He has pleaded for a bit of patience while acknowledging that Boston will endure some growing pains this season, but mention the possibility of what they might become and his smile widens.
It happened last Friday following an afternoon workout. After talking about the challenges of getting Boston's new star trio -- Irving, Hayward and Horford -- on the same page, a reporter wondered if Irving had seen certain sets or plays in which he and the others could thrive together.
The smile widened.
"Yeah, yeah," said Irving, practically glowing. "It's fun."
When a similar question was put to Horford soon after, his face likewise lit up. Horford acknowledges that the team has had these moments in camp where they get a brief glimpse of what they might eventually be.
Make no mistake, there have been just as many frustrating moments. And there are no guarantees this will ever come together exactly as the team might hope. That is the major risk of Boston's summer roster overhaul.
But if it does work, if the parquet pieces are put in the right spots, there's the opportunity for Boston to take another step forward in its quest to return to title contention.
"I just think that we see the potential with the group, with a lot of the guys," Horford said. "A guy like Jaylen Brown, who always seems to improve; every practice, he seems to get better. And Gordon, I've been very impressed with him and his ability to score the ball. I know that he can pass, he can rebound, he plays defense. His ability to score, how easy he makes it.
"When you look at the depth of our group, that's what gets me excited. Then you add in the guys that are already just warriors, like [Terry] Rozier and [Marcus] Smart. Then it's like, now we're talking."
During his exhibition debut Monday night, Irving watched as the ball zipped around the court, with him a willing facilitator. The Celtics missed a ton of shots, but it didn't matter. The team didn't expect everything to come together in Game 1. They see the larger vision of what might ultimately be a 100-game campaign.
"It was awesome, man," Irving said after his debut. "Beautiful to be a part of. It was beautiful to watch."
Yes, while it won't be as easy as learning how to pronounce the names of some of the surrounding towns, Irving is hellbent on making sure he gets this thing right.