It was the first day of school for Kyrie Irving. Later, of course, he'd be Rookie of the Year, All-Star Game MVP, NBA champion, and now he's back in the Eastern Conference Finals, looking for more. But first, picture a 15-year-old, nervously walking the halls of St. Patrick High School in New Jersey.
The school's basketball coach, Kevin Boyle, had ordered Irving's host for the day, Chase Plummer, to make him feel at home. Irving was transferring in and would help bring St. Patrick a state title, the coach told Plummer. But when he first spotted Irving in the hallway, Plummer froze.
Irving was wearing an untucked school uniform that was two sizes too big. He had on a mismatched vest over his button-up that was rolled up to his elbows, and on his left wrist were two separate G-Shock watches.
"You gotta be kidding me," Plummer said under his breath.
Plummer escorted Irving to the school gymnasium for second period gym class to meet his new teammates.
"He didn't have facial hair, had a big head—he just looked like a squirrel," teammate Christopher Gibson says. "We called him Squirrel Boy."
The team circled around Plummer as he introduced the new player.
"This is Kyrie. He scored over 1,000 points at Montclair Kimberley Academy in two seasons. Let's welcome him."
Most of his new teammates shrugged. St. Patrick was a top basketball school, and that year's team included the No. 1 rising sophomore in the country, future Charlotte Hornet Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and five more future Division I players. Others were indignant.
"Who are you?" Gibson asks. "Like, how are you supposed to be good, and we never even heard your name before?"
The players changed into school-issued gray short shorts and green T-shirts and threw on sneakers, then picked two teams. During the pickup game, Irving was shy initially and deferred when the ball came to him. Soon he was pinned in on the baseline. He threw the ball through his defender's legs, ran after it, then pulled the ball back to create space and shoot.
"It was amazing," Gibson says. Later, down the court, Irving did something similar, turning his man inside out. "He was doing stuff we'd never seen before."
When the game was over, the players shook their heads.
"He was ahead of everyone mentally," teammate Kevin Seabrook says. "He created a separation right there."
Earlier this month, in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, Irving was isolated against Norman Powell on the wing. It's a terrible place to be for a defender, and Irving went into attack mode. He crossed over six straight times, turned Powell around then scored and was fouled. Irving finished with a ho-hum 24 points and 10 assists in a rout.
After the game, Dahntay Jones, a little-used sub, sat in the locker room and shook his head. "He can do everything," he said. "He impresses us on a nightly basis." As he said it, Kyrie stepped out of the shower and walked to his locker, trying to edge by the media scrum fixated on J.R. Smith.
The circle of reporters, however, wouldn't budge. One media member bumped into Irving and didn't acknowledge him, as if unsure of who he was. It was fitting, perhaps, because there was a time not so long ago, when no one in basketball circles would even look in his direction.
It was eighth grade and Irving, who was 5'7", maybe, skinny and shot the ball from his hip, was playing for his father Drederick on the West Orange Traveling Team. Drederick, once the all-time leading scorer at Boston University, coached the team of undersized misfits like a big-time college program. Sometimes, before practice, they'd run 30 laps around the gym before they touched a ball. On offense, they'd execute complex pick-and-roll schemes and backdoor action.
"It was hard. No one wanted to come to practice," Irving's teammate and best friend Kevin Philemon says.
Of course, Drederick wanted to believe his son was a star in the making. There were subtle signs, like the time Irving's future high school coach was in the stands and Irving led a fast break, shielded the defender with his body, then finished with his left hand.
But still, Drederick, who had raised Kyrie and his older sister, Asia, since their mother had died when Kyrie was four, had to be a realist. He enrolled Kyrie in one of the best academic schools in the area, Montclair Kimberley—a $35,000-a-year Ivy League factory with a basketball team in the lowest division in the state, that didn't have a player on the roster taller than 6'1".
"We were not great, to say the least," Montclair Kimberley player Kevin Clark says.
You'd like to think Irving transformed the team, but it didn't quite work out that way. He scored 40 points in the second half of a game his sophomore year and finished with 44, one of the highest point totals in the state that year, but his team still lost.
Irving didn't seem overly concerned with basketball. Before an important late-season conference game, rather than reschedule the annual school swim test, he took it just an hour before tipoff. Still, he averaged 29 points a game that season. For his coach, Tony Jones, Irving was the best player he'd had at the school, even if few knew who he was outside of their conference.
One afternoon, Jones remembered, he called Irving's father to discuss Kyrie's future.
"I really think he can go somewhere and get a scholarship—maybe somewhere like the Patriot League," Jones said.
Drederick was polite but didn't see schools like Colgate or Holy Cross in his son's future.
"I think he can go bigger," he replied.
Seeking more exposure for Irving, his father hooked him up with local AAU coach Sandy Pyonin. The 50-something eccentric with red, curly hair, who didn't own a cellphone, claims to have trained 35 NBA players. Pyonin put Irving through intense, some say bizarre, drills—hop in different directions while dribbling; left-hand skyhooks from the free-throw line—and would challenge him to battles of full-court one-on-one to 100, by ones.
"He had unlimited energy," Pyonin remembered.
Drederick also called legendary coach Bob Hurley Sr. at 28-time state champion St. Anthony's High School to ask if there was room for Irving to transfer, but never heard back. Instead, Irving enrolled at St. Patrick.
But still, how good was he? The summer after his sophomore year, Irving played with Pyonin's NJ Roadrunners team in a summer AAU tournament in Florida. A lot had changed in 24 months. He had gotten a little quicker, a little bigger and had grown to be 5'10". But more importantly, a few choice college coaches began to notice, including Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.
"He wasn't playing with the best team in New Jersey," Krzyzewski tells B/R Mag. "But he was single-handedly killing all these teams." Later, when he could talk to Kyrie, he told him:
"You'll be one of the best of your generation."
Irving was drafted No. 1 by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011 after just 11 games at Duke. A year removed from LeBron James' acrimonious departure from Cleveland and team president Dan Gilbert's meltdown, Kyrie was seen as a sort of savior for a franchise and a city needing a hero.
Samardo Samuels, his teammate at the time, says that during Irving's first practice with the Cavs, Gilbert and "everyone in the entire Cavs organization" packed into the practice facility to check him out against point guards Ramon Sessions and Jannero Pargo.
If you're a new player, there are a few ways to approach this scrimmage. You could view it as a chance to get to know your teammates, fit in with the group and work on your skills. Or you could go full beast mode. Like his first day at St. Patrick, Irving chose the latter.
"He was killing them," Samuels says. "Talking s--t … incredible finish after incredible finish."
An elated Gilbert walked up and simply patted Irving on the back. It was a familiar scene. Anyone who comes across Irving mentions something similar to what Coach K says about him: "He's never nervous." Put him in any situation and he's capable of shining. The one exception, however, might have come during Irving's off-off-off-Broadway theatrical debut.
Picture it: It's opening night of the St. Patrick school play, High School Musical, made famous by the 2006 film starring Zac Efron. Kyrie Irving is a senior and has a small but significant part that includes a short solo. The cast, including most of the basketball team (as is tradition at the tiny Catholic school) has been practicing for months. "The teacher behaved like we were doing Phantom of the Opera on Broadway," classmate Kevin Boyle Jr. says.
Jagan Mosely @J_Mosely
https://t.co/T1YuVKlamp It's proven. Byrie is from Jersey.5/1/2017, 4:07:50 AM
Irving though, "was the most into it of anyone," Seabrook, another teammate, tells B/R Mag. "One time he knew I wasn't singing the lyrics, Kyrie would look at me and make sure the teacher would see it, so I had to sing the part in front of everyone by myself."
There are only, maybe, 100 people in the school gym for the two performances, all sitting in folding chairs, mostly family and friends. When it's time for Irving's solo on opening night, he misses his cue. The director frantically orders him onstage. Embarrassed, Irving pauses, then lets out a loose interpretation of his verse. The audience is taken aback. "He can actually sing," Gibson says.
By his senior year, St. Patrick is the top team in the state and Irving is the best point guard in the country. He has begun to work out obsessively—in the morning with his high school team, then the afternoon again with the team, followed by another workout well into the evening. On weekends, he spends time with his father, flipping thousands of shots off the backboard from various angles until his finishing becomes second nature.
Before a national showcase against perennial power Oak Hill at home, the team is joking around in the school cafeteria when an assistant coach enters with news. For the last few months, the St. Patrick basketball team has been appealing a possible suspension stemming from a rules violation during the preseason.
The assistant coach announces that the team would no longer be eligible to play in the prestigious New Jersey Tournament of Champions, which crowns the best team in the state. When the players find out, they put their heads down in silence. Then Irving begins to cry. Kidd-Gilchrist puts his arm around him, but he is inconsolable.
That night, he and Kidd-Gilchrist score 28 points apiece against Oak Hill, the No. 7 team in the country, and NJ.com calls Irving's performance "splendid." Late in the game, down one point, Irving brings the ball up, and instead of taking the final shot, he passes it to Western Kentucky signee Derrick Gordon, who is fouled with 0.4 seconds left. But he misses both free throws and Oak Hill wins.
When Irving returns home that night with a few of his teammates, his father, nicknamed Iceman during his playing days, replays the game on their big-screen TV. When it nears the end, Drederick, normally reserved with his son, turns to Kyrie's friends and asks: "Hey, did you guys see Kyrie play tonight? I didn't see him out there. Did anyone else see him?" It is a soft dig, but they all know what it means–don't you ever give up the ball with the game on the line.
In 2014, Irving teams up with Coach K for Team USA in the FIBA Basketball World Cup, hoping to recreate the brief relationship they had at Duke during the 2010-11 season before Irving suffered bone and ligament damage in his right toe. During that season, Coach K had learned that you have to give Irving "the freedom he needs." With Team USA, Irving flourishes, leading a group with Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and James Harden in scoring in the championship game. He is named the tournament MVP.
"He's so damn good," Coach K says. "He fits perfectly with others around him."
When LeBron returned to Cleveland that summer, the freedom Irving enjoyed as the focal point of the offense began to dissolve. He was asked to play off the ball at times, to be more of a distributor. There were rumors of discord between the stars. After Irving fractured his kneecap in the first game of the 2015 NBA Finals, an injury that ended his season, he moved to Miami that summer to rehab.
"He was bummed out about being injured," says Philemon, his best friend. "He wanted to be two times better." He changed his diet and monitored his sleep patterns.
Then came the roller coaster of the 2015-16 season. There was a coaching change, constant trade rumors and the public breakup with his pop star girlfriend Kehlani. Nevertheless, Irving had the ball, isolated against Stephen Curry, with less than a minute to go in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
"He's one of the best shotmakers probably this game has seen in a long time. He wants the attention," his Cavaliers teammate Richard Jefferson tells B/R Mag. "He also has LeBron, who's willing to concede to him."
Whether it was LeBron, or coach Ty Lue, or memories of Oak Hill that convinced him to take that shot, Irving, of course, knocked IT down and the Cavs won the title. But the story doesn't end there.
Two days later, Irving sat around his dining room table in suburban Cleveland, the night before the biggest parade in Cleveland history, with his dad, his sister and a few of his closest friends. When the conversation died down, he looked around the table, glancing where his mom would have sat, and thought about the long road he had traveled.
"I just really want to thank everyone for your support," he said, fighting back tears.
In that moment, the strain of that journey was there for all to see, along with the joy and satisfaction that come with winning a championship.
This year, Irving averaged a career-high 25.2 points per game. On March 19 against the Lakers, he scored a Kyrie-esque 46—effortless and from all over the floor. The next night, he celebrated his 25th birthday three days early at a local club with celebrities like Amber Rose and Odell Beckham Jr.
And Kyrie Irving has never been happier. "It was the best birthday of his life,'' says his best friend. "When I see him now, all I see is teeth.''
Flinder Boyd is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag. A former writer at FoxSports.com, his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Newsweek, BBC Online and more, as well as multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. Before becoming a journalist, he played 10 seasons of professional basketball across Europe, and now lives in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @flinderboyd.