The hardest thing for any athlete to do is to give up the sport they've loved their whole life. Just ask Michael Jordan when he was with the Washington Wizards, Deion Sanders with the Baltimore Ravens or Brett Favre with the New York Jets.
For Martavious Irving, a former guard for the Kansas State Wildcats, the narrative holds true. He doesn't want to stop playing the game he loves.
"It's too hard to give up on something you love," Irving said.
That's why after sitting out a year following his senior season, Irving is back on the hardwood, signed to an agent and trying to earn his way overseas.
Part One: Irving's K-State Career
From 2009-13, Irving, a product of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was a staple of the K-State roster.
In his four seasons, he made four NCAA tournaments—including an Elite Eight appearance his freshman year—and won a Big 12 title his senior year. His graduating class, which included Rodney McGruder and Jordan Henriquez, is the winningest class in school history with 101 victories.
McGruder was the star of the class, leaving as the school's seventh-leading scorer and rebounder. Henriquez left as K-State's all-time leading shot-blocker.
But ask anybody who the face of that class was, who had the most vibrant personality of the three, and they'll tell you that it was Irving.
He became known for his pregame dance routine in the team's tunnel, where he'd dance inside a circle of his teammates before rushing out onto the Bramlage Coliseum floor.
But Irving was also quietly one of the best players for K-State during his tenure. He had a reputation as one of the squad's best defenders, shot 40 percent from behind the arc his senior season and averaged over 20 minutes per game on a team that won its conference.
Now as Irving is trying to go play overseas, his agent, Stephen James, says that his experience playing in the Big 12 is the best thing Irving has going for him.
"His resume speaks for itself," James said. "The fact that he played at a school like K-State is great as well."
But it was two seasons ago that Irving's playing career in Manhattan came to an end. In his final exit from the floor on senior night, he kissed the Powercat logo at midcourt. He and the Wildcats went on to the Big 12 tournament championship game, where they lost to archrival Kansas, before having their hearts broken in the NCAA tournament.
There, in front of a hometown crowd in Kansas City, the Wildcats were upset by La Salle, ending the Wildcats' dreams of making another deep tourney run and ending Irving's tenure in the Little Apple.
To this day, Irving says he hasn't watched film of that upset.
"I can't, it's too hard," Irving said.
Irving's career wasn't stat-stuffing, but it was great nonetheless. You don't win that many games without having a winner's mentality.
Part Two: Knee Problems
While Irving played well his senior season, he played the entire conference season and postseason with severe damage to the ligaments in his knee.
According to Irving, he says early in the year the ligaments would pop in and out, but prior to a game against South Dakota they popped out and didn't go back in.
He was then told by the K-State athletic trainers that he had one of two options. He could have surgery to fix the problem, ending his season prematurely, or endure the pain and play on.
"It was a no-brainer," Irving said. "I had to play."
So he did. But after that loss to La Salle, three days later he had arthroscopic knee surgery.
After Irving woke up from the anesthesia, he says he felt almost completely healed, as though a miracle had occurred while he was knocked out.
"That day after the surgery, I walked out of the hospital without really even using my crutches," Irving said.
The euphoria quickly turned into agony for Irving. When he woke up the next day, he was screaming in pain. Because he lived by himself, there was nobody around to help him.
"I got up and went to the bathroom to vomit, it was just really bad."
For the next few weeks, everything was a struggle for Irving. He lived on the third floor of his apartment building and he said going up and down the stairs took 20 minutes each trip because of the pain.
“The recovery was the worst part of my life, to be honest," Irving said. "I felt like I was never going to get better."
Irving was on a time crunch though after his senior season ended. He had just a few months to not only get back into shape after surgery, but sign an agent and try to get picked up by an overseas team.
But every time Irving tried to play that summer, his knees hurt and he couldn't go on.
“I went home to Florida and played in a local summer league for three games," Irving said. "After those three games I couldn’t walk anymore.”
Irving says that the K-State trainers told him that Irving's recovery process was hindered because he tried to rush back too quickly in his pursuit of an international gig.
“I was so eager to go out and play, I rushed my recovery process," Irving said.
So that was it. The summer had passed and Irving, despite having signed with an agent, was still too hurt to go play. For the time being, it seemed like his dreams of playing professional basketball had died.
Part Three: Irving Returns to K-State
Irving was stuck in Florida with virtually nothing to do. He had no job, and his knees weren't getting better.
"I tried running on the beaches or doing other stuff, but nothing helped," Irving said.
K-State head coach Bruce Weber had offered Irving one of their two open graduate assistant spots in the summer, but Irving turned it down as he wanted to keep pursuing his professional dreams. So instead, Weber hired two former student managers—one from K-State and one from Illinois—to fill the vacancies.
In the fall, Weber called Irving again. This time he, along with athletic director John Currie, had set up a program that would allow Irving to join the team as a graduate assistant at the start of the spring semester.
After flying back to Manhattan and meeting with Currie personally, Irving took the offer without hesitation. He moved back to Kansas State in November and worked under the athletic department's Life Skills director before officially joining the staff in January.
"The coaching staff really showed me love," Irving said. "It just goes to show how far they'll go to help out their former players."
Because Irving had joined the staff midway through the season, he was unable to travel with the team. So the coaches gave him an assignment.
While the team was on the road, Irving's job was to work out the team's two transfer players, Justin Edwards and Brandon Bolden.
"None of us could travel," Irving said. "So I just worked them out."
That was the life for Irving. He was a graduate assistant, working players out and well on his way to becoming a coach. But that missed opportunity of not being able to make a legitimate run at a pro career continued to gnaw at him.
Part Four: Rejuvenation
When February rolled around, Irving's aspirations started to take hold again. He knew he wanted to make another run at playing overseas.
With unlimited access to the team's training facility, Irving buckled down and started to lose weight. In his senior season, Irving was listed at 200 pounds. According to Irving, that number swelled to as high as 243 when he couldn't work out.
"I had my mind set up that I was going to pursue this," Irving said. “My legs were feeling good, so I started running on the treadmill a little bit and steadily dropped weight."
He says that, occasionally, his knees would start to act up again, but overall the pain was subsiding.
“My knees started to feel better, but every few days they started hurting," Irving said. "But I kept pushing myself knowing that I needed to get back in shape."
By mid-February, Irving started to work out more on the court, shooting late at night and getting his athleticism back.
Then, Weber started inserting Irving onto the scout team in practice. That's when Irving says he started to get a feel for the game again and that the pain was almost gone.
“I was moving well, playing the point and distributing the ball, and it became a natural thing," Irving said.
Since starting his workout regimen, Irving has returned to his playing weight, checking in at 210 pounds in his latest trip to the scale.
The 2013-14 season for K-State ended with a loss to eventual national runner-up Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA tournament. After that, Irving's mind was made up.
One year removed from competitive basketball, Irving was going to try to go overseas again.
Part Five: Chasing the Dream, Again
Irving's first step to jump-starting his goal of playing overseas was getting back in touch with his agent, Adam Godes.
However, Godes had all but moved on from Irving after he sat out a year and recommended that he find new representation.
“I understood that, I didn’t take it personally," Irving said. "He did everything he could, we just decided to go different directions.”
So Irving needed a new agent. He went to his email inbox and searched through old messages he received shortly after his senior year ended looking for the right person.
After scouring his inbox and reaching out to a few different prospects, he landed with Stephen James this past spring. What drew Irving to James the most was James' positive, but realistic outlook.
"He told me that I played in the best league in the country, I actually played minutes and put up numbers, and so the opportunities will come but that nothing is guaranteed," Irving said.
For James, Irving was a notable addition to a client list that, while not star-studded, includes Jeremie Simmons from Ohio State as well as a few other former college players.
"He's hungry and he's humble," James said. "He hasn't stuck a price tag on himself and yet he sees the big picture. His priority is to simply get his foot in the door."
As the summer rolled around, Irving increased his workout regimen and started going through drills in the mornings with K-State assistant coach Chester Frazier—who himself played overseas after an illustrious career under Weber at Illinois, where he was known as one of the country's best defenders—and Will Spradling, a former teammate who is trying to land a job overseas this offseason.
Irving says having both those guys to push him toward his dreams has been influential during the oftentimes droll offseason.
"Frazier's able to give insight of certain ways they play over there that are different," Irving said. "He’s always fiery, so he’ll push you harder than you want to be pushed. Then you look to your side and see someone you played with that’s going through the same process you are, it all pushes me in the right direction.”
From Spradling's perspective, it's been a pleasant surprise to see not only his former teammate, but one of his former roommates as well, pursue his dream again. It's also motivated him to stay hungry in his pursuit of a professional career.
“It’s nice to see him bounce back," Spradling said. "It was hard to see him struggling and not go overseas. But now we can both push each other."
The two have formed a new bond over their futures, which they realize they have little control over.
“We don’t have much control, it’s all in our agent’s hands and we just have to hope that they put us in the right position," Spradling said.
Irving has generated some interest amongst some small-market European teams, according to James. But earlier this month, James says Irving became the target of the Brampton A's, a Canadian team in Ontario that is part of the National Basketball League of Canada.
There are talks between the A's and James about either having a scout fly to Manhattan to watch Irving work out or fly Irving out to Canada to be interviewed and put through drills there.
Irving says that if the opportunity arises, he'd prefer to go up to the Great White North.
“Going there and showing initiative and eagerness will be a good thing," Irving said.
Should Irving get an offer, he likely won't sign with a team until the fall. So until then, it's a waiting game. He plans to move back to Florida to be with family and work out with some of his old high school teammates after he attends Spradling's wedding on August 2.
But he doesn't forget the countless opportunities that Weber and the entire K-State basketball community afforded him throughout the five years he lived there.
“I call Manhattan my second home," Irving said. "I’ve been here for five years, and the people I’ve met here are lifelong friends. I get a lot of love here. I still sign autographs and take pictures. I never take that for granted.”
James is confident Irving will land a gig, that it's just a matter of playing that painful waiting game the right way.
"It's still a little early, but I really do think he'll land a job," James said. "Things are really heating up and I'm happy to have him and I'm excited for the future."
For Irving, from his days of tearing up the Florida high school circuit at Boyd H. Anderson High School, to becoming a legend in his own right at K-State, it's always been about one thing; the one thing that Irving is refusing to quit on.
His dream of playing pro basketball.
Quotations obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.