Nicknamed the “Isolation Assassin,” Irving has earned the distinction as the most incredible isolation player in the league, outperforming rivals such as Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook with his crossover dribble, drives to the basket, stop‑and‑go moves, and smooth, feathery jumpers, a distinction borne out, moreover, by his championship-clinching shot against Curry’s Golden State Warriors in 2016. Yet while he speaks of maximizing his talent, he has shown reluctance to maximize the production of his teammates by passing the ball, as well as his overall defense. Irving expresses his desire to win championships yet demanded a trade away from the franchise best suited to deliver him a second.
Off the court there is no one like Irving either. An educated individual who claims that the earth could be flat and that dinosaurs perhaps never existed, Irving is a man of puzzling contradictions who seeks self-actualization and contentment through a variety of pursuits, including reflection, music, and acting. Gitlin, a veteran writer who has followed Irving’s career from the beginning, has much to tell about one of the most mysterious and sensational athletes of our time whose appeal transcends his sport.
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The Prodigy from Down Under
The toddler stared intently from the stroller. The intricacies of the action in front of him were beyond his comprehension, but he was too fascinated to look away. He gazed at men racing up and down the asphalt court. The thirteen-month-old watched all the basketball players, especially his dad, Drederick, who would occasionally saunter over with a bottle of milk to keep his son happy and fed.
It was the spring of 1993. The site was one of the legendary playgrounds of New York City, where pro-am league games entertained hoop-thirsty crowds. Not a soul showed greater interest than that young boy named Kyrie Irving, who yearned for a piece of the action after being freed from the constraints of his buggy. He invariably asked for a basketball and handled it remarkably well for his age, dribbling with one hand as his eyes remained fixed on his father. Proud papa kept footage of such scenes to prove to future doubters that his son could indeed handle the rock just a month beyond his first birthday.
The chip off the old block had a willing and loving role model. The man friends call Dred embraced the sport of basketball growing up alongside five siblings in the Mitchel Houses, a South Bronx project. He learned the value of industriousness and the struggles of solo parenting from his mother, Lillian, who was forced to raise her children alone after her husband abandoned the family when Drederick was six years old. She worked two jobs, took care of the kids, and still managed to further her education in community college.
Basketball proved an escape for the boy from the drugs, gangs, and guns that wreaked havoc with other neighborhood youths. Along with his best friend, Rod Strickland, who emerged as one of the premier point guards in a long and fruitful NBA career, Drederick honed his skills on the same courts to which he accompanied his son years later. He blossomed into a standout at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in the Bronx before landing a scholarship at Boston University, where he earned a degree in economics and shattered the school's all-time scoring record with 1,931 points as a six-foot-four shooting guard.
The elder Irving led the Terriers to four North Atlantic Conference title games and an NCAATournament berth in 1988. Ironically, they lost in the first round to Duke, where his son would nearly a quarter century later earn the spotlight as the finest college talent in the nation. Though Drederick remained undrafted, his potential proved intriguing enough to land him a tryout with the Celtics. His strengths and style of play did not meld with the Boston offensive system, but he tried to adapt to it rather than display his own skill set. After he failed to secure a roster spot, he was invited by fellow Boston University alum and future Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown to join the Bulleen Boomers of the South East Australian Basketball League.
Drederick had by that time married the woman of his dreams. He had met Elizabeth Larson at a campus convenience store as a sophomore. Drederick recalled wistfully that his world stood still upon first glance despite her rather unsexy volleyball attire that included kneepads and red-and-white shorts. The couple struck up an immediate friendship before he began dating the woman he called "beautiful, inside and out."
The half-black, half-Native American freshman and adopted daughter of a Lutheran minister was a classically trained pianist and fine athlete who yearned to become president of the United States; she performed with an intensity on the court that reminded her father of Kyrie. "When Elizabeth played, she would get this look in her eye," said George Larson, her dad. "We called her Bessie Warbonnet. And her son plays basketball with the same look. You can see he zones everything out and he's just laser-focused."
Elizabeth Larson became Elizabeth Irving after Drederick's graduation and followed him to Melbourne, Australia. And on March 23, 1992, fourteen months after giving birth to daughter Asia, the couple welcomed into the world son Kyrie Andrew Irving, who was named by Elizabeth's minister father. Drederick's boyhood friend Strickland, who had already gained stardom with the San Antonio Spurs after a brief stint with his hometown Knicks, accepted a request to serve as Kyrie's godfather.
Drederick and Elizabeth had become quite the nomads before the birth of their son. They had moved cross-country to the Washington State town of Puyallup, where Asia was born, before relocating halfway around the world to Australia. Drederick destroyed the competition at that level, averaging 30 points per game for the Boomers, but their stay down under proved short-lived. They eventually returned stateside and settled near Seattle to raise the kids. Meanwhile, Drederick scoured Manhattan to seek work in the bond market. He sought the financial security for his family that he could never enjoy during his upbringing.
He would find it, but not before fate took a tragic turn. An overcast September day in early 1996 would prove far gloomier for the family when Elizabeth checked into Tacoma General Hospital with symptoms that would reveal a blood infection. Her condition headed downhill. Neither Drederick — nor his young children — could understand the depth of her plight. One can only imagine their monumental shock when she died at age twenty-nine from organ failure and an inflammatory condition known as sepsis syndrome. Four-year-old Kyrie was suddenly and shockingly motherless. No more would he fall asleep in her loving arms to the sweet strains of religious songs she learned from her father. All Kyrie would have to remember her by were stories from his dad and photographs.
Though Kyrie remembers little about his mother, he has faithfully and lovingly memorialized her. After gaining stardom in the NBA, he had her birth date, August 13, tattooed in roman numerals on the insides of his wrists, "VIII" on the left and "XIII" on the right. These same numerals are duplicated on the third edition of Kyrie's signature Nike sneakers. He also had a tattoo of her name with wings and a halo inscribed over his heart. "She's one of the reasons why I've come so far, why I have the drive that I do," he explained.
Those feelings remained with Kyrie to such an extent that he felt compelled in August 2018 to visit the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, home to the Sioux tribe into which Elizabeth had been born. He felt a sense of pride at a sacred naming ceremony in being given the Lakota name Hela, which translates to "Little Mountain." Irving spoke about the meaning of the experience to honor his mother while praising the inclusiveness of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and proclaiming them his second family.
Fortunately for the young Kyrie, his father, who was devastated at the loss of Elizabeth, refused to allow her death to diminish his parental duties. Quite the opposite — he became both a mother and father to his children. Only when his kids had been put to bed for the night did he feel free to cry himself to sleep. He strengthened his relationship with Kyrie as a friend, mentor, and teacher — even a character-building foe on the basketball court. Drederick also ensured their financial security by landing a job as a bond broker in Manhattan and settling the family in a fine neighborhood of West Orange, New Jersey.
The many roles of Drederick Irving often proved hectic and time-consuming. He demanded nothing from anybody. Rather than lament what many would consider overwhelming responsibilities, he embraced them with the help of his four sisters in the understanding that he was not alone. "A lot of women [are single parents] and they get no recognition," he said. "I don't want the recognition, to be honest with you. I just handled the responsibility as a father. There were challenges, but I think, overall, Kyrie and [Asia] have a good life, and I just tried to provide to the best of my abilities."
Basketball remained Drederick's passion, one that he sought to instill in his son. That was not a difficult task — the boy who could dribble one-handed soon after his first birthday not only associated the sport with his dad's love and attention but also simply enjoyed playing. As the younger Irving grew older, he learned more about his father's career. He came to understand the emotional and mental pain Drederick felt at failing to earn a spot in the NBA. That pain planted the seeds of Kyrie's desire to take his own budding talent to the ultimate level. He was inspired to track his height by scratching notches into his bedroom door and, in fourth grade, writing "I'm going to the NBA" and underlining "Promise" on a wall.
Drederick understood that such a goal would take far more than inspiration. Kyrie had the desire to maximize his talent at that age, but not the confidence on the court in the earliest stages of youth basketball. His father noticed that firsthand as the coach of his son's fifth-grade travel team. While his teammates reveled in displaying their natural abilities, Kyrie shied away. He watched the others while wandering around the court despite Drederick's appeals to show off his own gifts. The killer instinct that became a Kyrie trademark had yet to emerge, because it was not his natural state of mind.
"I worked on Wall Street for years, and I can tell you that Kyrie's not a type A personality," Drederick said. "Those people are really strong-minded. They don't lack in confidence. They try to dominate conversations. That wasn't Kyrie."
It wasn't only that. The young Kyrie, who years later would be criticized for hogging the ball and failing to involve his teammates offensively, felt compelled to please those that wore the same uniform rather than stuff his own stat line. But he also learned later in life that such a mind-set was the product of a lack of faith in his abilities. "I was afraid to be the best," he said. "Confidence, confidence, confidence: That's all my dad preached. He'd always tell me, Kyrie, you could be this. You could be that. My dad had more belief in me than I had in myself."
Drederick almost lost his chance to instill that confidence in his son when he had a narrow escape from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Drederick had spent several years working as a financial broker with Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. He then landed another job at Garvan Securities in the same building but, inexplicably, felt a sense of dread about it. Only those who believe in premonitions might claim that Drederick sensed disaster, but he did quit that job after only three weeks for one at Thomson Reuters on Financial Square.
Drederick walked through the World Trade Center building every morning from the train station, and the hustle and bustle of what seemed to be a typical scene was interrupted that fateful morning by a booming noise that sent him reeling. Bedlam ensued. Walls began to collapse as panicked people escaped the suffocating smoke and began to race for the exits, but stopped out of fear as debris descended from the sky. "I thought the boiler exploded," Drederick recalled. "The boom was so loud, the force of wind so powerful. There was shattered glass everywhere. ... All I could think of was, 'I've got to get to my kids.' ... I stuck my head out and tried to see, but I couldn't tell what it was. Pieces of the building, pieces of the plane, a lot of paper."
Drederick made a run for it, using the same elusiveness that came in handy on the basketball court, as he dodged hunks of steel falling from the building that would have added his name to the list of fatalities. He phoned his friends from Cantor Fitzgerald. No answer. He stared at the great skyscraper in flames and realized the horrifying, sickening truth. That was not debris coming off the World Trade Center. Those were bodies choosing forced suicide over burning up. It was an image that Drederick could not remove from his consciousness and gave him nightmares for years.
He knew how close to death he had been. Thoughts of his own demise raced through his mind. What if he hadn't escaped? What if he had been felled by a piece of metal hurtling down from a thousand feet? What would have happened to his children? Who would take care of them? As those frightening reminders of the fragility of life permeated his thoughts and emotions, he realized that the roads were blocked, trains were stilled, and phone lines were down. He began a nine-hour journey to return home.
Meanwhile, nine-year-old Kyrie felt the fears of uncertainty. He knew that his father no longer worked at Cantor Fitzgerald in the World Trade Center, but he was keenly aware that his daily routine passed him through the twin towers. He sat in school as harried parents arrived to escort other students away. His own comfort would have to wait as he experienced the tragedy of an unforgettable day. "There were a bunch of teachers crying, a bunch of them leaving the classroom," Kyrie said. "No one knew what was going on. Everyone left with their parents. My sister and I had to wait until school got out."
Even then, no father. They returned home to their babysitter and television reports of the horror that intensified the dread that Drederick was dead. He walked six hours and nine miles from Wall Street to the Bronx, where friend Larry Romaine drove him home to his relieved children in New Jersey.
The experience strengthened his resolve to play a significant role in the lives of Kyrie and Asia. He stressed education and athletics. He had enrolled them at a young age in a private school in New Jersey and yearned to provide Kyrie with the best hoops education he could find; so at weekends he accompanied him to the playgrounds near the Mitchel projects, where he had honed his skills as a youth. The games and the kids were tough there, and Dad wanted Kyrie to gain experience competing in what could be an unsettling on-court environment. The nine-year-old was at first intimidated by the trash-talking New Yorkers, motivating Drederick to give him a ninety-minute lecture on the fear of failure and the benefits of self-confidence against the most daunting competition. It was a pep talk that would inspire his son to greatness. He would later in life credit his father for the fierce competitive spirit he soon developed.
Drederick encouraged Kyrie to become well-rounded. The result for the boy who had inherited his mother's musical gifts was lessons in the trumpet, saxophone, and baritone horn. But Dad knew basketball best and was most successful teaching Kyrie the intricacies of that sport. He formulated a plan that would not only make the most of his physical skills but also cure him of any lingering fearfulness on the court through repetition. Father and son regularly played one-on-one games in their narrow driveway that encouraged Kyrie to attack the basket and take high-percentage shots.
Then there was the Mikan Drill, which was drilled into his head. Once Kyrie had completed his homework, Drederick would illuminate the driveway with his car lights and his son would shoot lay-ups. Right-handed. Left-handed. Right-handed. Left-handed. On and on and on into the night off a backboard missing part of its right side, forcing Kyrie to gain even greater accuracy. The smaller target aided him in learning to lay balls in with spin and finish despite difficult angles. Drederick would then appear with three cones, around which Kyrie practiced his ballhandling. He would dribble two balls simultaneously. He would dribble a tennis ball. He would dribble in-and-out, dribble at various speeds, dribble behind the back, and work on the crossover that would prove deadliest of all against exasperated NBA defenders. Kyrie learned to handle the basketball like it was a yo-yo and he was a yo-yo champion. Soon the competition in New Jersey and New York would be marveling at his amazing skills.
Among those duly impressed was future New Jersey governor Richard Codey, who often coached Irving in AAU games. Codey, whose son Chris later teamed with Irving at Montclair Kimberley Academy, recalled his impressions. "His instincts were tremendous," Codey said. "Like on a breakaway, he would slow up just enough to let the kid catch him and he could get the lay-up and the foul. And he did it better than any kid I've ever seen in my life."
Drederick knew his son was something special, but he wanted him to know it as well. "Like it or not," he told Kyrie, "God blessed you with a Bentley engine. If you don't go, the team doesn't go."
That Kyrie was blessed had become evident well before he reached high school. But to what extent he could use that enormous talent to maximize team success remained debatable nearly two decades later.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Kyrie Irving"
Copyright © 2019 Martin Gitlin.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
1. The Prodigy from Down Under,
2. Rising Above the Ballers of Jersey,
3. Steppingstone to Stardom,
4. Rocking and Rolling to Cleveland,
6. Old Story and New Contract,
7. Changing Expectations,
8. The Ecstasy and the Agony,
9. Spreading His Wings,
10. The Run and "The Shot",
11. The Off-Season of Dreams,
12. Swan Song in Cleveland,
13. Say What?,
14. The Great Escape,
15. Speaking and Saying Nothing,
16. Going Green,
17. A Question of Value,
18. A Recovery and ... a Reunion?,