Throughout Friday’s half-hour meeting with the media, Irving and the Celtics brass took the high road amid a barrage of questions about the six-week soap opera that led him from Cleveland to Boston.
The first query posed to the four-time All-Star point guard: Kyrie, you’ve said that you want to be in a place where you can maximize your potential. Why do you feel like Boston can be that place for you?
“Before we get to that,” Irving began, “I just wanted to say that sometimes we get lost in these two hoops and basketball. We lose track of the most humane things that make us human sometimes, and I want to take a timeout to send my heartfelt well energy to Jae Crowder and his mother, because that’s a hard situation to go through, especially when it gets up in all of this, as well as [Isaiah Thomas’] sister, and as well as all those affected in Charlottesville and those affected in Houston.
“That is all reality-based, and I live in that world,” he added. “Basketball, me perfecting my craft, is very important to me, but outside of this game I very much live a real life, and I appreciate all the people around me as well as all the human beings I end up meeting. I just wanted to say that my appreciation for the world goes deeper than a lot of people realize, and I pay my respects for all those people as well as anyone affected by anything. We’re all here with you, and my prayers are with you.”
Thomas lost his sister Chyna a day before Boston’s playoff run last season. Crowder’s mother died the day the Celtics agreed to deal him. The two players, along with Ante Zizic, Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round pick and a 2020 second-round selection from Miami, were finally traded for Irving on Wednesday.
Irving’s poignant remarks set the tone for what was a thoughtful 30 minutes in Boston, but the elephant in the room lingered until the morning’s final question: What’s your relationship with LeBron now? Have you spoken with him since this whole process began with his asking for the trade?
“No. I haven’t spoken to him,” said Irving, pausing for a moment before crediting James for his growth.
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“I’d be lying to you guys if I didn’t tell you how much I learned from that guy,” he said. “The perfection of the craft comes in a variety of forms, and you ask a lot of the great players, ‘What does it take to be great?’ I’ve had the unique opportunity to play with one of the greats, and it was awesome. …
“When you look back and you’re eternally grateful for the moments you’ve had and you’ve shared, you’re able to put peace with that journey and start anew. This was a very, very challenging decision at first, but after a while, you understand and you have that confidence in yourself to understand the magnitude of what you actually can accomplish and potentially can do with other great people.
“Now that I’m sitting here, it just echoes in terms of me being very appreciative of the Cleveland fans and all of Ohio, as well as Bron incorporating me into that special team that we had, because three Finals in a row, all the shared memories with all the individuals … the brotherhood exists, even without all of this, and it will continue. That’s exactly where it is, and I’m very appreciative of it.”
But if anyone came to the press conference looking for a sound bite to play before the Celtics and Cavaliers meet in the opening game of the NBA season on Oct. 17, they weren’t going to get one beyond Irving turning to new Boston teammate Gordon Hayward and saying, “It’s about to be crazy, G.”
Much of the media session was filled with cliches about the Celtics tradition. Getting an opportunity to be a part of such an illustrious organization as the Boston Celtics, man, I grew up watching so many different films,” said Irving, who will wear his father’s No. 11 in Boston, “and I asked Danny when we were at dinner if I could get a few of his VHS tapes from those championship runs that they had.”
There was chemistry with Hayward, who was an afterthought at their introduction. The two discussed their days as USA Basketball development teammates and the time Irving tried recruiting Hayward to Cleveland in 2014 free agency. “And then LeBron came and that kinda squashed that whole thing,” said Hayward, who will wear Ray Allen’s No. 20. There was even a joke about Hayward’s days at Butler, when he just missed a shot that would have upset Duke the year before Irving joined the Blue Devils.
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Kyrie on Gordon: “This is a bad dude to the left of me. This is a bad dude."
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Irving reportedly requested the trade hoping to escape LeBron’s shadow, leading to much speculation about their relationship, but the closest Kyrie came to ribbing his former teammate was in response to a question about what he said on social media on Thursday, “There are no other ulterior reasons, other than being happy and wanting to be somewhere where you feel like it’s an environment that’s conducive for you maximizing your potential as a human being, and as a player perfecting their craft.”
Even then, Irving only vaguely referenced “learning the hard way” and “a few things for me to go through in Cleveland” that led him to believe a change of scenery would benefit his development.
“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 honestly being in an environment that’s conducive to my potential,” Irving elaborated on Friday. “I think that statement is self-explanatory, because it’s pretty direct in terms of what my intent is: To be happy and to be with a group of individuals that I can grow with.
“And that’s not a knock on anything that’s transpired in my six years [on the Cavaliers], because it was an unbelievable experience. … So, me leaving wasn’t about basketball. It was more or less about creating that foundation of me in Cleveland, and then now taking this next step as a 25-year-old evolving man and being the best basketball player I can be.”
Is Irving saying Cleveland wasn’t “an environment that’s conducive to my potential” and the Cavaliers aren’t “a group of individuals I can grow with”? More specifics, please. Except, they never really came.
“I knew I wasn’t going to come up here to specifically point at individuals and what the issues were, because that’s not important to me — at all,” Irving said when asked to get more specific. “It’ll be an unbelievable experience for something new, and to be in a place like this where everyone will gravitate not only to us as individuals, but us as a group and a team, and they’ve done it in the years before us and will continue to do it for the years after us, and I just wanted to be a part of that.”
Ah, the old Celtics tradition cliches. Couldn’t the Boston media feast on at least one jab at LeBron?
“Is there ever such thing as just one person carrying a whole team? I don’t think so,” Irving said in response to a question about getting his chance to be the man. “When you have a collection of individuals who all have one mission and one goal and collectively get better every day, there are a lot of moving parts, and you have to depend on those moving parts to do their job at their ultimate ability that only they’ll know. It’s our job to bring the best out of one another every single day.
“That’s been echoed through this whole entire organization, as well as the players and the tradition that’s here in Boston. There is no one player. There are some very, very special talents, but I think the teams get remembered more than the players sometimes, even though you guys do have some Hall of Famers here. There are a few numbers retired in those rafters. The appreciation goes a lot deeper because of that team atmosphere. There is no such thing as putting a team on your shoulders.”
Are “no one player” and “putting a team on your shoulders” a couple shots at the shadow James casts over a team? Nope. Somehow, Irving still managed to turn a question about his reasoning for leaving LeBron’s side into eloquent commentary on the Celtics tradition. He even heaped some praise on the Cavaliers at the end: “That’s the common knowledge I have of this game that was given to me and the love that I have for it because of being on a special team like that and having special individuals and looking a man in the eye and telling them that, ‘You can depend on me.’ There’s nothing like that.”
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge refused to comment on Cleveland’s decision to reopen negotiations over concerns about Thomas’ hip injury. Irving again faced head on a question about the dramatic week between the deal being agreed to and finalized, and again came out clean.
“Throughout this time, I’ve been very patient in the approach,” said Irving. “I knew what the intent was when I asked for the trade initially, and it was just left at that — patiently waiting. It was honestly the most human thing I could’ve done, which is ride the rollercoaster wave of emotions, but the important thing at the time was coming off the Finals loss and not wallowing in my sorrows, but trying to figure out the next step in order to achieve that goal. In doing that, I just made a very courageous decision in order to take myself and my intent and wanting to be a part of something bigger than myself.
“And, ooh, when Boston came a knocking, I was answering.
“It was pretty awesome the way it all transpired, because throughout this time I didn’t say anything. Not a word. It was just assumptions and who said, this said, and this camp and this source. I don’t want to dive into that, but I didn’t say anything purposely, because that’s not the real life I live in.”
If you’re looking at those comments through Cleveland’s wine-and-gold lens, you might take issue with Irving calling his trade request “a very courageous decision,” but considering the ringer he was put through for wanting off a team that featured one of the game’s all-time greats and seemed sure to make a fourth straight Finals appearance, you have to admit asking out when he did took some guts.
When Irving was done, it was Hayward’s turn to take the high road. He was asked whether the departure of Thomas, who helped lure him to Boston in July, changed his feelings about the Celtics.
“IT did a tremendous job in terms of recruiting me here to the city of Boston,” the All-Star forward said. “He talked about Boston, the fans, the organization, the coaches, the people who are involved behind the scenes, and he was somebody I was definitely excited about playing with. He’s an unbelievable player, had an unbelievable year last year. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the truth, but I’ve been in this league long enough to realize it is a business. Things happen, things can change. I go from an opportunity to play with IT and the rest of the guys that moved on to now playing with Kyrie Irving, who’s one of the best basketball players in the league, and another great opportunity for me.
“The same goes for the other players as well. Jae Crowder is a tremendous basketball player. Unfortunately, I won’t get a chance to play with him, but at the same time we get Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, two young guys — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — Al Horford. … So the opportunity is still there for me. Going through it is something I’m excited about. I’m excited about coming here, moving to Boston, moving my family here, and thrilled to get the season going.”
Yup, it was a real kumbaya moment for Boston, free from the barbs talking heads may have hoped for.
In contrast to the last time a superstar left Cleveland, there were no welcome parties or championship promises. There was just this from the ex-Cavaliers point guard: “I’m glad to be here.” If you want drama between Kyrie and LeBron, you’ll just have to wait for it to unfold on the court opening night.
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