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LOS ANGELES — Midway through the fourth quarter Saturday night, with the Boston Celtics holding a comfortable 16-point lead that was virtually insurmountable for the injury-riddled Los Angeles Lakers, Kyrie Irving saw his 270-pound former teammate heading to the basket.
LeBron James got a step on Al Horford, and Irving abandoned whom he was guarding and stepped right into James’ path. James plowed into Irving and struck the point guard in the chin with his elbow. Lying on his back in pain, Irving moved his jaw around to make sure it was stable as the official whistled him for a blocking foul on James.
The hustle was there and that’s the type of sacrifice, dedication and leadership Irving wants to impart on his teammates and young players who follow him. It’s the opposite of the irritated star who has recently been combative with reporters.
After the 120-107 win over the Lakers, Irving opened up to Yahoo Sports on how burdensome it was living up to James’ resume earlier in his career, how he’s still evolving as a person and explaining why former players might not understand how the social-media landscape — a feature that wasn’t around for them — can negatively affect one’s mental state.
“The way I’ve handled things, it hasn’t been perfect,” Irving told Yahoo Sports as he rested his feet in a bucket of ice at his locker stall. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes that I take full responsibility for. I apologize. I haven’t done it perfectly. I haven’t said the right things all the time. I don’t want to sit on a place like I’m on a pedestal from anybody. I’m a normal human being that makes mistakes. For me, I think because of how fixated I was on trying to prove other people wrong, I got into a lot of habits that were bad, like reading stuff and reacting emotionally. That’s just not who I am.”
This was a calm, introspective Irving, 26, reflecting on how he has conducted himself in his eighth NBA season. After scoring 30 points to go with seven rebounds and five assists, he acknowledged frustration getting the best of him in interactions with the media.
He made it clear that his gripes still stand about how some media manufacture drama, but he confessed he was disappointed in himself for displaying an example that he doesn’t want mimicked.
“Being one of the top guys in the league, this all comes with it,” Irving told Yahoo Sports. “It’s a responsibility that I have to make sure that I know who I’m doing this for and know why I’m doing this. It’s for the players that are coming behind me who will be in this league and setting an example for them on how to handle things and how to evolve within your career.”
After soaking his feet for about 15 minutes, Irving stepped out the bucket of ice, stood up and said, “I’m still learning, bro. I come from a suburb of New Jersey. I’m not used to all this [attention].”
The All-Star guard was roundly criticized last week when a clip circulated of him walking into an arena in which he was met by cameramen and he was heard saying, “I’m not going to miss this [expletive] when I’m retired.”
His critics, which included retired players, quickly pointed out that he didn’t have a problem using cameramen and social media to help promote his “Uncle Drew” movie.
Irving smiled and nodded his head, conceding he’s heard the remarks.
“My [Uncle Drew] character, I never took any acting classes. I didn’t put any extra work into it. It was just something I was able to do and it became this,” he told Yahoo Sports. “Look, I respect the ones that came before me, but they didn’t endure social media, the 24/7 news cycle. [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver was right; it really affects people in different ways. These are just different times. People are dealing with anxiety, depression and other disorders that affects their well-being. Some people can’t handle all of this, and we need to be mindful of that.
“The off-the-court stuff, that’s more the aspirational side of things where it’s not really so much about the game. That goes back to having a presence, a message that you want to get across to fans, to different industries that you want to become a part of. I don’t really have complaints about that. It’s just when you come into this business now, it’s more entertainment now more than anything else. That’s what bothers me the most. It’s like a freaking reality show at every corner. Everything that someone says is the next [big controversy]. Like I said before ... this breaks up locker rooms. Media breaks up locker rooms. It happens all the time, bro. Whether people want to admit or not, it really does.”
As soon as the final buzzer sounded Saturday, Irving and James met near half court and exchanged pleasantries. The two brought Cleveland its first NBA championship in 2016. James has told Yahoo Sports that Irving is one of the fiercest competitors he’s ever played alongside.
It was all laughs and smiles at Staples Center, though, as the two stars covered their mouths to prevent anyone from lip reading before retreating to their respective locker rooms.
But there was a time when James’ overwhelming presence didn’t make life so pleasant for Irving.
“Coming into this league, it’s been trial and error. Just from being a rookie and having to ‘quote-unquote’ fill the shoes of LeBron,” he told Yahoo Sports. “That was a lot for a 19-year-old kid to be coming into a city like Cleveland where something traumatic like that happens where their hometown kid leaves to go win championships [with Miami]. And here I am, this rookie. Our first year, we lost 26 or 28 in a row and I have to fulfill my own legacy. It was always like I was being compared or I had to live up to someone else’s standards, and I felt like I wanted to go after my own dreams, get my own things. And everything that every great player hit, in terms of great players that came before me, I was hitting. I made the All-NBA Rookie Team, I won the MVP of the rookie-sophomore game, I was leading my draft class in everything.
“I kept getting better every single year. My second year, I went to averaging 22 points and I made my first All-Star Game. I kept hitting every single mark since I was 19. And now that I think of it, I’m in a position where I have a greatness about my game and I don’t ever want that to overshadow the great young players that I’m playing with because it’s a hard thing to accept. You basically have to wait your turn and be patient in this league to be that guy and to earn that right. And I feel like I’ve earned that right thus far.”
James will miss the postseason for the first time in 14 years, while Irving and the Celtics are on a quest to win a championship. Irving said he feels for what James is going through, but that he is going to use his past Cleveland experiences to help Boston make a deep playoff run.
It’s been about three months since Irving last logged onto one of his social media accounts. It’s his way of fully channeling his energy to the task at hand.
He wants the locker room void of distractions and rifts, while also acknowledging that he hasn’t handled recent issues like a model leader. But he isn’t giving up on the process or the responsibility.
“I just want to make sure this locker room understands who I am and what I represent,” Irving told Yahoo Sports. “I’m trying to make sure that they set a great example for young players that are coming after them as well. Like I said, I haven’t said the right things and done all the right things, and I don’t ever want to compare myself to perfection. But I can tell that I’m definitely learning from the older players, the players that are my age and the younger players on how to deal with the evolution of just media. It’s a platform now, it’s an entire industry that bothers a lot of people, entertainers, athletes. Being at the click of a button and someone commenting on your life all the time and you’re seeing it. It doesn’t make you feel good when you’re feeding yourself that.
“And I had to get off of Instagram, I had to get off of Facebook, I had to get off of Twitter. I had to get off of those things to disconnect myself to focus on me, rather than getting information and validation from everyone else. So, once that started to progress, then I had a lot to fight back about. I was just sick of it after a while. I’m a human being who happens to be a hooper. This is the responsibility that I have. I’m done complaining about it. I have feelings about it, but I’m not going keep badgering the media, keep badgering other people, keep badgering this or that. It’s about moving forward and keeping my sanctuary as safe as possible. As long as I go out there and handle my business, I don’t have anything else to worry about. As long as I go out there and do my thing and make sure my teammates are playing well and their spirits are right, I’m doing my job.”
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