Kyrie Irving’s tour of his new school had taken him to the gymnasium, where Chris Chavannes happened to be on duty observing kids in physical education class. Chavannes, then an assistant basketball coach at New Jersey basketball power St. Patrick High School, had heard about the transfer – a scrawny kid whom he had never seen play – and watched attentively as Irving started messing around with a basketball. After seeing Irving pitty-pat the ball with a “scary good” dribbling display and bury a series of jumpers, Chavannes picked up his cellphone and immediately called Kevin Boyle, St. Patrick’s head coach at the time.
“Are you aware of how good this kid is?” Chavannes asked.
Boyle couldn’t respond definitively because he accepted the kid, mostly from the word of others who had seen him play and believed he needed a bigger stage to showcase his talent. The answer became clearer through several months of practices with a team that featured future NBA player Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and former North Carolina recruit Dexter Strickland. And Boyle had no doubt after Irving made his debut at Rutgers Athletic Center against undefeated rival St. Benedict – which had future lottery pick and teammate Tristan Thompson – and scored 21 effortless points to lead his team to a romp. Afterward, Boyle unleashed what seemed to be some hyperbolic praise on Irving, proclaiming that his speedy, jitterbug of a point guard would be the best guard to ever come out of New Jersey.
Irving has done little to make Boyle look anything other than prescient since that bold statement. And as Irving prepares to make another bet on his basketball career, wagering on himself that he can thrive as a leader and not some LeBronaire, Boyle is confident in what his former player can accomplish. Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge shares a similar belief, unloading many of his team’s valuable trade chips to acquire Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers and extending what has been the wildest offseason for superstar player movement in recent memory.
Although the question about Irving as he makes this move remains the same – “Are you aware of how good this kid is?” – the context is much different, the doubt much greater. Irving has a résumé at age 25 that few players in NBA history can match. But Irving’s controversial decision to leave LeBron James – and that annual NBA Finals conga line – has many wondering about his motivations, whether he can win without the greatest player of this generation, and if he’s even worth all of the fuss. Ask Boyle how good Irving is now and he’s prepared to offer a full affirmation.
“I think, this season, he will be the MVP and Boston will be in the championship series,” Boyle, now coach at Montverde Academy in Florida, told The Vertical. “That’s crazy, his high school coach is saying this. Some might say that’s somewhat of an outrageous statement, but it’s also smart if it’s right. The last time, I said he’d be the best guard ever from New Jersey, and I was right.”
A clean-shaven Irving showed up for his introductory news conference with the Celtics resembling that fresh-faced high school junior starting over at St. Patrick. He’s a man now, capable of growing a full beard. He’s also emboldened by a fearlessness that helped him secure Cleveland’s only NBA championship with a step-back 3-pointer over Stephen Curry in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals and invite the scrutiny of putting aside that success to seek a better place for his personal growth a year later. “It was my time to do what was best for me in terms of my intentions and that’s going after something bigger than myself and obviously being in an environment that’s conducive for my potential,” Irving told reporters in Boston.
Irving didn’t choose Boston. The storied franchise invested in him after declining to go all in for other All-Star talents on the trade block. But he couldn’t have asked for a better situation to test his limitations, with an organization that’s built to contend and a coach in Brad Stevens with a track record of maximizing the talents of his point guards. He also gets to play in the same city where his father, Drederick, starred collegiately, and he can now possibly contribute to a championship legacy.
“Everybody down here is excited to see him back in Celtic green, with the clovers,” Chavannes told The Vertical. Now principal and basketball coach at Irving’s alma mater, now known as The Patrick School, Chavannes admitted that he would’ve preferred for Irving to be traded closer to home, with the New York Knicks: “To be biased, yes we did. But this was a heck of a fall back.”
**** When Irving returned home from a promotional tour last July, swept in the storm of his reported trade demand from a team that had made three consecutive Finals appearances, he turned up for a pickup game at The Patrick School. Irving remains connected to his school – donating shoes to the basketball team and purchasing Christmas gifts for faculty and staff – and is appreciative of the opportunity it provided him before leaving for Duke.
“He thought he was ready for the big stage [at St. Patrick],” Boyle told The Vertical. “He wasn’t afraid to take that chance to put himself out there. I think it showed confidence on his part and on his dad’s part. He was ready to be a part of the team and eventually the main piece on the team.”
Irving had been a one-man show his first two seasons at Montclair Kimberley Academy, a strong academic school in New Jersey with a $35,000 annual tuition and no basketball player taller than 6-foot-1. He posted games with 48 points and 47 points and led his team to its first state title, but attracted little attention. With a push from his father and AAU coach Sandy Pyonin, Irving transferred to St. Patrick to get a much-needed profile boost that would lead to scholarship offers from major college programs. After adhering to the state-mandated 30-day waiting period to play, Irving quickly settled into being the team’s best player – and arguably the best player in the country. That success is one of the reasons those who knew Irving back then expect him to have a similar breakthrough – though on a much larger scale – with the Celtics.
“He’s always been an assertive person and a take-charge person,” Chavannes told The Vertical. “They are a very confident family. Leaving Montclair to come to our school was a big jump and it paid off. They are used to taking big chances and it’s always worked out – because they’ve done their homework.
“I think he’s ready for it,” Chavannes continued. “I think it’s something he wants and embraces and I think he’ll be fantastic with it. People forget, or people aren’t aware [that] his IQ and academic background [are] as strong, if not stronger, than his basketball skills. He’s involved in all of those businesses he does, every little detail. Came up with Uncle Drew. He’s a brilliant person. A lot of time, athletes don’t get credit for that, but he really is.”
Irving didn’t make his decision to force a trade as some reaction to losing in the NBA Finals, or because of a fear of being caught up in the uncertainty of James’ future in Cleveland. He simply played the good soldier until he couldn’t any longer. Three years was all that he could commit to a situation for which he hadn’t signed when he agreed to a five-year extension in 2014. Here he was, a former overall No. 1 pick who never had a team built to complement his skill set. He arrived in Cleveland on a team with LeBron’s leftovers. Then, when the Cavaliers drafted Andrew Wiggins and had Irving recruit the likes of then-restricted free agent Gordon Hayward to establish a truly post-LeBron team, James decided to come back home. “And that kind of squashes the whole thing,” Hayward said of his interest in joining the Cavaliers. Irving had to pump the breaks on what he wanted for his career.
“He came in with a certain poise that most young guys in general, but also No. 1 picks with all of the pressure, coming to Cleveland after LeBron left, I mean he welcomed the challenge. Never backed down,” Antawn Jamison, one of the few players to have been teammates with James before the Miami defection and Irving before James’ return, told The Vertical. “I don’t foresee Kyrie struggling in that role and the new challenges he faces going forward. If there is any point guard right now that can handle Boston, it’s definitely him.”
Before James’ arrival, Irving was immature, entitled and could gleefully collect some empty-calorie stats, pitch highly caloric soft drinks, earn great individual accolades and never be accountable to winning. That changed when he joined the U.S. men’s World Cup team in 2014, winning tournament MVP honors before teaming up with James and Kevin Love for his first meaningful NBA games. Playing with James certainly had its perks – more exposure, a role model for how to handle the responsibilities of being a leader on and off the court and a pressure-filled, winning platform that didn’t intimidate Irving. Those factors outweighed the drama that has long surrounded James – especially when the Cavaliers won a championship. But they couldn’t shield Irving from the frustration of feeling overlooked when it came to All-NBA teams or other rankings of the league’s best players. James once touted Irving as having MVP potential, but Irving knew he’d never garner serious consideration sharing the floor with a four-time winner.
“It’s hard when you’re playing with LeBron to get that. Can I prove that I can be a league MVP? Can I prove that with the right pieces around me, that I can be the lead guy in a championship run? It’s difficult,” Boyle told The Vertical. “LeBron is one of the greatest players of all time, if not the greatest. It’s going to be hard for anybody on his team to be considered the best player on that team. [Irving wanting to leave] is nothing bad. People want to create controversy and other things. It’s just a guy wanting to prove he’s as good as anybody.”
**** In any breakup, blame can be found on both sides. Irving admitted that he hadn’t spoken to James since making his trade demand but was also effusive on the influence of spending three seasons with the three-time NBA champion. James deferred to Irving at times, giving him the freedom to improvise and get loose when he was in a good rhythm. But Irving bristled at being the little brother, with the attention of the media and the organization tilted heavily toward James. A league source who worked closely with James and Irving told The Vertical that he didn’t believe there was an untenable beef between the two, but felt James could’ve done more to make Irving feel “appreciated.”
“The things [Irving] wanted, he never would’ve been ready for without the time he spent with LeBron,” the source told The Vertical. “This is a grown man now. He has very emotionally matured. The reality is, he was not ready to take the mantle of leading a franchise [before James’ return]. In large part, because of things he’s learned from LeBron and playing with LeBron, he’s more ready for that now.”
Irving isn’t without his flaws. He’s an apathetic defensive player, possessing the capacity but not always the desire to stay committed on that end of the floor. His instinct to score and get to the basket far exceeds his ability to run a team and facilitate as its primary decision-maker. But a criticism that irked Irving over the past few years was that he was unable to lead the Cavaliers to victory when they played without James. Again, the pieces weren’t meant to fit around his game; the planets revolved around James. “Do I blame him for being pissed off when he can’t make a team that was built around another man win?” the source told The Vertical. “I don’t begrudge the kid. … People don’t want to stay a Jordanaire forever if they can be their own man.”
The past few years with James provided some cover for Irving. But he’s fully exposed in Boston, where the failings or successes of the team will rest squarely with him. Irving wants that pressure, wants to see what will happen when he’s atop the marquee like several of the other point guards with whom he’s been asked to tussle. “I think he wants to say, ‘I’m going to quiet some of the critics who say, ‘Before LeBron, how good were your teams? Can you win without LeBron?’ Let’s be honest: Would LeBron win that championship without Kyrie? Definitely not. Nobody is winning without another super player,” Boyle told The Vertical. “He’s good enough to say, ‘I’m going to prove it to you that I’m that good.’ So far, he’s been right about himself every time he’s gambled on himself.”
As Irving enters his prime, Chavannes is optimistic that there is much more in store. Irving has already bested a two-time MVP in the Finals, averaged more than 25 points per game while playing with James, and is set to star in his own movie that will be released next summer. “Every time you think you know how good he is, he still wows the crap out of you,” Chavannes told The Vertical.
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