RIO DE JANEIRO – Kyrie Irving can’t call it luck because he knows that chance favors the prepared. And he can’t be described as indestructible because he’s been knocked down more than enough times to have his durability questioned. What Irving has going for him is a knack for overcoming the challenges of his basketball career with some astounding happenstance that couldn’t have been scripted.
Who else injures his right toe so badly that he’s limited to 11 games in college but still gets selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft? Who else struggles mightily with leadership and playmaking early in his career but has a four-time MVP decide to come play with him and assume those responsibilities? And who else fractures his knee cap in Game 1 of the NBA Finals and not only returns a year later to hit the championship-series-clinching 3-pointer in Game 7 but also drills that shot roughly eight feet from the exact spot where he was injured?
“Some things have happened in my life that have positioned me in different types of ways that I didn’t even imagine,” Irving said. “It’s crazy to see how it’s worked out.”
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The aw-shucks quality of Irving’s response to his fortunate hoops rebounds kind of belies what also was at play in those situations. Irving only needed to show flashes of his prodigious talent at Duke to prove himself as the top talent in his draft class. He made two All-Star appearances and won an All-Star Game MVP before LeBron James ranked Irving just below his altruistic desires to bring a title to Northeast Ohio when deciding to return to Cleveland. And that game-winning jumper with 53 seconds remaining at Oracle Arena in June is one that Irving has practiced so many times that the immensity of the moment got lost in the routine.
But now that he is in position to complete a historic summer by becoming the fourth player to ever win an NBA championship and Olympic gold medal in the same year, Irving can’t ignore what brought this moment together for him – how the man who helped him see a future with USA Basketball also happened to be the one whose recruiting pitch persuaded him to attend Duke. Irving was 17 and mulling over an invitation to play for Australia – the country in which he was born and spent the first two years of his life – on its under-18 team. Coach Mike Krzyzewski, in the middle of a Team USA tenure that has resurrected America’s supremacy in the game, then told the youngster he needed to think bigger.
“It was very serious,” Irving said of how close he came to playing for Australia, which would’ve later made him ineligible to play for the nation where he grew up. “It was a legit thing, until Coach K intervened. He strong-armed me. As a young fella, he did tell me I had a chance to be a part of something bigger than myself. He said, ‘You could be the starting point guard on the U.S. Olympic team.’ I never thought it would happen as soon as it has, but I had aspirations and dreams of being a guard on an Olympic team.”
Krzyzewski wanted Irving to see for himself the potential he had and pushed one of the more unlikely one-and-done talents to pass through Duke’s program in that direction. “When I saw Kyrie as a youngster, I told him, ‘You’re going to be a great guard. You could be the guard of your era,’ ” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve always had that vision, and I think he has that vision. But, more than having that vision, he has the ability. And, it’s not just physical ability. It’s mental. He’s really smart, and he gets it. He’s really mature about everything. The great players have that.”
When Irving was a member of the select team in 2012, Krzyzewski was supposedly set to complete his run in London with Team USA but chairman Jerry Colangelo persuaded him to go through one more cycle. Krzyzewski’s decision to return gave him a chance to coach Irving on the stage he promised would one day be his.
Irving and Krzyzewski didn’t spend much time together at Duke, but USA Basketball has allowed them to make up for what they missed while maintaining a close player-mentor relationship. They won a World Cup together in Spain in 2014, with Irving winning tournament MVP honors with a predictable embrace of big-stage pressures. And this summer has already provided a snippet of their bond when a short video of Krzyzewski cursing at Irving during training camp in Las Vegas went viral.
Krzyzewski was explaining an alley-oop play to the team when the ball bounced in his vicinity. Irving began mockingly yelling for Krzyzewski, who is 69 and has had multiple surgeries on his knees and hips, to, “Go get it! Go up and get it!” A perturbed Krzyzewski glared at Irving and shouted, [Expletive] you, Kyrie! [Expletive] you!” Irving nearly doubled over laughing.
“I don’t think we would be able to speak genuinely about each other if we didn’t have a genuine relationship,” Irving said. “It’s so comfortable. I’m glad I get to be a part of his last Olympic journey.”
If Irving ever needs a reminder of how far he’s come in the past year to possibly rule the summer of 2016, he only needs to wake up and look down at the scar on his left knee, the remnant of the foul-line collision with Klay Thompson in the 2015 NBA Finals. This time last year, Irving was still bedridden, still in a brace, still on crutches and still teaching himself how to walk again. Since then, he has returned to outplay the unanimous MVP in the NBA Finals, gone shirtless through a championship parade in Cleveland that was 52 years in the making and might soon share the same rarefied air as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and James with a diamond-crusted ring and gold medal.
“It’s been a lot. But it’s what my dad [Drederick] prepared me for. He prepared me for going through ups and downs in life. How you respond and how you come out of it is the true definition of your character,” Irving said. “Those days, when you’re knocked down and you’re by yourself, those are the days that define you. It’s the way your life is going to be shaped. Me fracturing my kneecap is the biggest thing that I’ve had to deal with. It was very emotional.
“It was great what I accomplished in the last year. I tried to downplay it, because I don’t want any sympathy from anyone because I don’t need it. Ever. I’m glad, but it’s not over. I still have one more thing to do, and that’s get a gold medal with this team.”
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