Meet a reporter.
You need not know his name, because he does not know Kyrie Irving’s name.
“KEER-ee,” the question begins, and the smile fades from Irving’s face as he fixed his gaze on the reporter.
“It’s KI-ree,” Irving says, pointedly. The reporter chuckles nervously and fumbles for an excuse.
Irving has already moved on: “What was the question?”
The reporter repeats, taking care to pronounce the name correctly. Irving answers without hesitation, as if the whole incident hadn’t happened.
But the point is clear: Kyrie Irving is a man who knows what he wants. Wednesday, he wanted his name pronounced correctly.
Thursday, he wants to be the first overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, which takes place at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. In pursuit of that goal, Irving has worked out privately for only one team—the Cleveland Cavaliers, holders of that first pick.
In a broader sense, he wants to play in the NBA, and has wanted that for some time now.
“In fourth grade, I wrote in my closet that I was going to make it to the NBA,” Irving said, “and I put ‘promise’ and I underlined it three times….On the sheetrock.”
One of the final steps in fulfilling that promise was to choose a college. He chose Duke, but not without the ultimate goal of the NBA in mind. He agreed to play for head coach Mike Krzyzewski, but made it clear to Krzyzewski that he intended to stay at Duke no more than two years.
“Coach [Krzyzewski] knew how talented I was,” Irving said, “and my father knew how talented I was, and we just had to face the reality that I wasn’t going to be in college that long. So when I did commit, Coach said he was going to have me for one or two years.”
Expectations were high for him at Duke, and he met, if not exceeded, all of them. Through his first eight games, he averaged 17.4 points, including a 31-point outburst against then-No. 6 Michigan State. He then suffered an unusual toe injury and missed the next 26 games. After several weeks in a cast, another month of rehab, and wearing a special shoe made for him by Nike, he was cleared to play in the NCAA tournament.
NBA scouts had seen the talent, but were uncertain about his durability, and Kyrie said he “wanted to limit all those questions on [his] health.”
“Once I got cleared to play, they left it up to me to decide to play, and I was all for it,” he said. “I wanted to get back out there with my teammates.”
He used the tournament just as he said he would, to prove the doubters wrong, and after playing well in limited action in the postseason his spot in the NBA lottery was assured. Though he hinted many times that he might return for his sophomore season, he wouldn’t pass up his NBA dreams for another year as a Blue Devil.
“I talked to the coaching staff almost every single day about my decision, just weighing out both sides,” Irving said. They weren’t leaning me either way. They just told me if you’re going to decide to go to the NBA, you can’t have any doubts. Which I don’t. You’ve got to go in full force, and that’s what I’m doing.”
Meet Derrick Williams.
Williams is one of a few players that the Cavaliers are reportedly considering with their first pick, and the former University of Arizona forward will be one of the top picks even if Cleveland doesn’t select him first.
Duke remembers him well from last season, when he dropped 32 points and pulled down 13 rebounds as his Wildcats ousted the Blue Devils from the NCAA tournament. Williams doesn’t lack for confidence—in fact, he’s been described as one of the most confident players in this year’s draft—but he exudes it in a quiet way. He’s unassuming despite his 6’8” frame, and refreshingly self-effacing. When asked how his monster performance against Duke helped his draft stock, he reminds the collected media crowd what a good game Irving had that day, even recalling Irving’s point total from the game.
“I think it really raised my stock a lot,” he said. “A lot of people said I was top ten, and after that game, I moved into the top three. But a lot of people forget what Kyrie did in that game. Twenty-eight points…. I think whenever you come off an injury like that, and you play so well, you have to be in the talks of the number one pick.”
Irving, though seven inches shorter and far slighter of frame, carries his confidence differently, with a showmanship that instantly draws the spotlight. He’s an instinctive entertainer, effortlessly keeping his listeners engaged while clearly enjoying the attention being lavished upon him. The sea of reporters gathered in a ballroom at the Westin Times Square parts for Irving to pass through, in a crisp white shirt and gray slacks. The other players sport plus-size dress shoes, but Irving has eschewed formal footwear for a pair of Converses. The first question of the interview session comes from Irving himself: “How long is this?”
Meet Gerial Gonzalez.
Gonzalez is soon to turn 21 years old, but he’s still enrolled in a Manhattan high school due to a learning disability. One of the assistants with Special Olympics New York describes him as a “huge teddy bear,” and he looks the part, with a pudgy frame and a lively, sincere grin. He’s a participant at the NBA Cares outreach clinic where Irving and several other top draft prospects are giving instruction to Special Olympics New York athletes.
In between drills, Irving poses with former BYU star Jimmer Fredette as dozens of cameras click. It wouldn’t be difficult for these players to write the event off as a press stunt—there are almost as many media members in the gym as there are attendees of the clinic—but neither player is interested in participating halfheartedly.
When the prospects lead their charges in high-knee exercises, some of the other players are barely doing more than jogging. But there’s Irving: shoulders back, arms pumping, knees rising all the way up to hip level with each repetition.
While the 19-year-old Irving participates in each drill, 22-year-old Fredette leads them. The two have starkly constrasting personas; Irving’s palpable charisma is complemented perfectly by Fredette’s impressive maturity. Despite the dozen or so prospects in attendance, few in the media can look away from the unlikely duo.
Irving now stands at one end of the court to lead some of the participants in ball-handling drills. As Gonzalez bounces the ball frenziedly out and around a cone, Irving cheers for him.
“Fastbreak, baby, fastbreak!” Irving shouts. “You’re Charles Barkley!”
But that’s not enough for him. To those attendees who seem more comfortable than Gonzalez with a basketball, Irving playfully steps up and begins playing defense.
He pokes the ball away from another young camper. “Do I make you nervous?” he asks. The kid would respond, if he could only stop smiling long enough.
Meet LeBron James.
You know LeBron James. Irving names James as one of his top mentors, and at one time Irving was the only college player that James followed on Twitter. Since the NBA’s most recognizable face unceremoniously left the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat last season, and now the Cavaliers might draft Irving, several reporters feel the need to ask how Irving will handle the expectations of replacing the King.
“I’m not the next LeBron,” he said. “My name is Kyrie Irving.”
And make sure you pronounce it correctly.
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