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Kyrie Irving: A rising star heads to Duke to lead the Devils

"N-I-T! N-I-T!” On March 6 Cameron Indoor Stadium came alive. Literally.

More than 1,200 undergraduates squished themselves into the student section. Jumping up and down on the creaky wooden bleachers, the Cameron Crazies stood parallel to the court so more students could fit. Blue body paint was everywhere—if you had not painted yourself, well, you surely had a smudge or two off someone else’s sweating body. The Crazies had gigantic printouts of the players’ heads—a four-foot Andre Dawkins, Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer, and others, dotted the student section. Some had slept in a tent for two months for this night. Others had braved three days and nights with only a sleeping bag on the concrete sidewalk.

Those decisions were vindicated in the warm, thick air of Cameron Indoor Stadium on that glorious Saturday night.

Duke 82. UNC 50.

“N-I-T! N-I-T!” The walls themselves appeared to join in as well.

Seniors had waited their whole undergraduate careers for a home victory against Carolina. The entire Duke community had waited four years to let a bonfire rage on the Main Quad. That night in Cameron, though, a 17-year-old high school senior experienced Duke basketball in the hallowed stadium for the first time.

Just like the rest of the crowd, he had been waiting for a certain event too.

He had to wait—and still is waiting—for his chance to see his face blown up on a poster in the student section and to shine on Cameron’s hardwood floor.

For his chance to dribble up the court, fake left, go right, slash through the lane, jump, change direction mid-air, and throw down a one-handed slam for two points, right in the face of some sorry Tar Heel.

For his chance to hear his name called and for the fans in the stands to think, “this is the future of Duke basketball.”

“A six-foot-two guard from Elizabeth, New Jersey… KYRIE IRVING.”

Don’t try to define Kyrie Irving. His persona defies neat packaging in one label. Working out every day with a coach who does not have a cell phone? That’s old school.

“Old school,” though, does not fully describe a player who drives athletically to the basket at will.

“[Duke fans] are going to see spectacular drives, the acrobatic shots in traffic that are going to amaze people,” said Kevin Boyle, Irving’s high school coach. “As a point guard, his ability to also dunk the ball—he seems like he jumps and then jumps again when he is already in the air, it’s a second level he goes to.”

Point guards from New Jersey, like Irving, have historically had the type of success at Duke that raises new banners in Cameron. Bobby Hurley raised Duke’s first two national championships in 1991 and 1992. Jason Williams hung the third banner in 2001. Hurley’s No. 11 and Williams’ No. 22 now hang in the rafters.

Irivng, bearing the number one on his jersey, will take the floor this season. He’ll be the first to wear the number at Duke—Williams wanted to wear it back in 1999, but Krzyzewski told him no. Duke was number one.

Now, Irving is number one.

And he has the hype to go with it.

“Kyrie Irving—when it’s all said and done—he will be arguably as good as any guard who’s played in New Jersey,” Boyle said after a blowout win Irving’s junior year. “Any guard. Ever. Ever.”

The path that would eventually lead Irving to Duke began to take shape before he was born.

The second-seeded Blue Devils defeated Boston University 85-69 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament March 17, 1988. For Duke, the season would become the first of five straight Final Four appearances. For the Terriers, it was only their third NCAA appearance, and it was the final game of their then all-time leading scorer: Drederick Irving.

The elder Irving, who wore the same number that Hurley donned the next season, played professionally in Australia for a year after that loss to Duke. While there, his son, Kyrie, was born.

The younger Irving wasted no time following in his father’s footsteps.

“He just took a liking to the game at a very, very young age,” Drederick said. “It may sound a little peculiar about the age that he started dibbling, but Kyrie was about 13 months, I have it documented on video.... He has always had a ball with him. He has always had an interest in the game.”

Drederick moved his family back to the United States when Kyrie was about 2 years old. When Kyrie was 4, his mother suddenly passed away from an illness. Drederick “can’t put it into words to describe” the bond he shares with his daughter and son.

The feeling is mutual.

“I honestly call my father, like, he is my father and my brother,” Irving said. “He can attest to that, too. In this relationship that we have, we don’t keep anything from each other.”

Krzyzewski and the rest of the Duke coaching staff picked up on the closeness between father and son during the recruitment period. Texas A&M was thought to be one of Irving’s three final choices largely because of associate head coach Scott Spinelli, who played with the elder Irving at Boston University. Another finalist, Kentucky, had assistant coach Rod Strickland, a close family friend whom Irving refers to as his “uncle.”

Duke did not have any physical family ties to offer. But, as father and son both noted as a great piece of irony, the Blue Devils did have a tape of Duke’s first-round matchup against Boston University playing in the background when Coach K greeted Irving on his official visit.

Irving continued to progress throughout his early years through tournament teams and one-on-one games with his father. As a seventh grader at Montclair Kimberley Academy, Irving squared off and lost to a small private Jewish school that happened to be coached by a New Jersey basketball legend Sandy Pyonin.

As coach of an AUU team, the New Jersey Roadrunners, Pyonin has trained 31 current and former NBA players. Two of those 31 are the famed Duke point guards who raised the first three championship banners: Bobby Hurley and Jason Williams. At the time, Pyonin thought Irving was “a good player, not a great player.” Three years later, Pyonin helped Irving make the jump from good to great.

“Tenth grade going into 11th grade, I was training him every day, and he made a big jump,” Pyonin said. “He lived down the street from me, like five minutes away. And I picked him up every day, and we just trained.... Monday through Friday and Sundays.”

Irving would sometimes tire during those four-hour sessions, but they helped develop his insatiable work ethic. Pyonin taught Irving the nuances of the game that would make him like a coach on the floor. And Irving soaked in all that knowledge.

“Guys like Al Harrington, who I trained personally, and Kyrie, they pick up what I’m saying like at the 98th percentile,” Pyonin said. “It’s like one adult speaking to another adult, most of the time you are on the same wavelength.... If a kid meets me halfway, that’s what happens. Kyrie is a kid who met me halfway, he gave his effort and I gave my effort, and, you know, he got high results. Great kid.”

Irving’s big basketball jump included a switch of schools. He left the cozy confines of his nearly $30,000-a-year suburban prep school and transferred to St. Patrick High School, an inner-city basketball powerhouse at the end of his sophomore year.

By the time Irving landed at the higher-profile St. Patrick, big-time college programs were starting to take notice, including Duke. That Fall, associate head coach Chris Collins came to see Irving play first hand.

“I really kind of fell in love with his game, and it kind of went from there,” Collins said. “He was new to the school… so he was still kind of finding his way. But you could still see in his game, the way he held himself on the floor, the feel for the game he had, the ability to make plays, you could see that there was something special about him that you don’t see in most guards out there.”

Irving led St. Patrick to the state championship that year, and was poised to repeat this past season. St. Patrick started out the season ranked No. 1 in the USA Today’s preseason rankings. By averaging 24.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 4.5 steals and 2.0 blocks a game, Irving did his part, but St. Patrick was disqualified from postseason play for violating a rule barring coaches from visiting off-season workouts. Irving and his team watched Trenton Catholic, a team they had beaten by 26 points in the regular season, take the title.

The setback proved to have a silver lining.

“It helped me grow,” Irving said of the experience. “Also coming out of that situation, I got to go to my first Duke game, Duke versus North Carolina. So, I was in attendance there. Out of all of the bad stuff that happened... that was one of the only positives.”

In July 1, Irving will arrive at Duke and immediately jump into summer classes and summer workouts. In the Fall, Krzyzewski will hand him the No. 1 jersey, which will further deepen the link between Irving, his father and the New Jersey point guards that came before him.

“People who have been in basketball, sometimes you have a number—with Kyrie, it was No. 11,” Collins said of the number Drederick Irving wore. “And because it’s retired and Bobby Hurley had that number, really, it was something that we came up with for him, you know, instead of going with 11 to wear No. 1. It was just a number we had not used, and we felt like he would be a great guy to be the first guy to wear that number for us.”

Duke’s No. 1 stayed in shape by playing in a series of high-profile offseason games, including the Nike Hoop Summit, the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic, where he was Co-MVP along with North Carolina recruit Harrison Barnes. These games, in addition to coming from a national high school basketball powerhouse, have given Irving a small taste of the spotlight that will be on him at Duke.

“When you are a point guard at Duke, no matter what [your] credentials are, you are going to have high expectations, and you are going to have pressure,” Collins said. “I think that is one of the reasons why he chose to come to Duke, because of that pressure. He wanted to be in that position of being the Duke point guard.”

How long Irving will be the Blue Devils’ point guard is up for debate. Almost every NBA 2011 mock draft has him going in the top 10, and nbadraft.net has him as the No. 3 pick. A potential NBA lockout next year might keep him in Cameron longer, but, regardless of the timeline, Blue Devil fans will witness the acrobatic performance of No. 1 for at least the 2010-11 season.

For students, Irving brings the immediate hope of another Carolina bonfire, another NCAA championship.

He is ready for the spotlight.

“Yeah I’m definitely excited.” Irving said. “In terms of exposure, college basketball is just going to be on another level. “

In the place where New Jersey point guards have ruled the hardwood and lifted banners to preserve the accomplishments of the past, the empty spaces in the rafters hold challenges for the future.

For Kyrie Irving, the future is now.

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