On opening night a 39-year-old Cavaliers season-ticket holder named Jason Herron walked into the team shop at Quicken Loans Arena, fished out his debit card and paid $25 for the last available Kyrie Irving jersey T-shirt. This one, he figured, he’ll never have to burn.
Herron holds an incendiary place in Cleveland history. Nearly seven months earlier, on July 8, 2010, he drove to Harry Buffalo bar and restaurant in Lakewood, Ohio, to celebrate the re-signing of LeBron James. But like any longtime Cleveland sports fan, he allowed for the possibility that something might go wrong. So he pulled over at a gas station and bought a bottle of lighter fluid, just in case. When James announced he was heading to Miami, Herron marched into the parking lot, where he convinced another customer to peel off his wine-red number 23 jersey. “Are you really going to wear that again?” Herron asked. A cameraman from Channel 5, the ABC affiliate in Cleveland, scrambled into position. The jersey went up in flames, followed by Herron’s PLEASE STAY LBJ T-shirt, and dozens like it. One patron tossed his LeBron sneakers into the bonfire. Judging from news reports that night, you’d have thought souvenir stores were ablaze across the city, but most of those reports were based on one jersey in one clip at one suburban bar. “It was just us,” Herron says. “I saw on YouTube that someone else burned a jersey, but that was later.”
Herron was back at Harry Buffalo on Jan. 29 of this year, sipping a Bud Light alongside a few of his partners in pyrotechnics. The television at the bar was again tuned to Channel 5. The Cavaliers were in Boston, the city where James played his last game in wine red, and Irving was running figure eights around the Celtics. With 22.2 seconds left and the Cavs down a point, coach Byron Scott called a play for Irving. He instructed the rookie point guard, picked first in the 2011 draft, to hold the ball for exactly 15 seconds and then attack. Scott’s assistants thought Irving should initiate sooner, given that he had played only 18 NBA games and might not be ready for a last-second shot against Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. “Let the young man have it,” Scott said.
Irving glanced at his father, Drederick, in a courtside seat. Herron rose from his barstool. The Boston crowd chanted for defense. Irving dribbled down the clock, rushed around a screen at the three-point line and found himself isolated against Celtics forward Brandon Bass. Irving froze him with a slithery crossover between the legs before splitting Bass and point guard Avery Bradley with a cyclone of a spin move at the right elbow. The Celtics crashed the paint, but Irving was too fast, and with a flick of his left wrist he laid in the game-winner.
Irving pointed at his dad, who was sprinting down the sideline. Herron was twirling a brunette through the air. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert tweeted gleefully, “I think I am pretty pleased with the 1st pick, how about you?!” Anger and disgust over James’s departure had been smoldering in Cleveland for a year and half. Fans couldn’t let go. Now the Age of LeBron was over. The Irving Era was underway. “This is a new beginning,” Herron says. “A lot of the hate here has subsided. There is hope now. And it’s because of Kyrie.”
Cleveland is falling in love with another basketball player.
Irving is as close as you’ll find nowadays to a high schooler in the NBA, a 19-year-old from New Jersey who played just 11 college games at Duke and three months ago was on campus taking classes in psychology, theater and African-American history. The lockout robbed him of summer league and a full training camp, and on opening night he felt comfortable calling only one play, which is why he kept jutting his right thumb in the air. “His breath smells like Similac,” said Scott, familiar with brands of baby formula, having weaned Chris Paul in New Orleans. In his second game Irving forced himself to call different plays and found that he could run them just fine. In his next he took a last-second shot and accepted responsibility for the loss when it missed.
Today’s NBA is full of enthralling point guards, but none more precocious than Irving. At 6’ 3", 191 pounds, he is not as strong as Derrick Rose, as explosive as Russell Westbrook or as flashy as Ricky Rubio. Irving is defined by the sum of his skills, a driver who can shoot, a scorer who can pass. Like a young Steve Nash, he constantly changes speeds and directions, finishes with either hand and spins layups high off the backboard as if he’s hitting feathery flop wedges. “He comes to compete,” says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “He doesn’t come to put on a show.” No one in Cleveland will replace James, and no one is asking Irving to try, but his 21.1 points per 36 minutes are more than James scored as a rookie, with a higher field goal percentage. His efficiency rating of 20.7 is better than Magic Johnson’s when he was a rookie. Last Friday night at All-Star weekend in Orlando, Irving won MVP of the Rising Stars exhibition, with 34 points on 12 of 13 shooting.
The Cavaliers will take the garish numbers, but they also appreciate Irving’s modest gestures. He showed up to his introductory press conference with an entourage of one, his dad. He moved into a downtown apartment instead of a suburban mansion. The first thing he bought with his new contract was a pair of dress socks. “They were kind of expensive,” Irving says. “Big-boy purchase.” He goes out for dinner with rookie forward Tristan Thompson, drafted three spots after him, but they avoid VIP rooms. “We don’t feel entitled,” Thompson says. The day after the Cavs beat Boston, the fourth-grade class at Center Elementary School in Mayfield Heights stopped by the team’s practice facility for a fitness program, and Irving joined in with a pink jump rope. When the event was over, he stuck around and played one-on-eight with the kids, exchanging G-rated trash talk. A club official finally had to remind him the Celtics were back in town the next day. “You wouldn’t know he’s the Number 1 pick,” says guard Anthony Parker. “I think that’s what this organization likes most.”
At 13–18, Cleveland is in ninth place in the East, but it’s far removed from the 26-game losing streak that stained nearly two months of last season. Needing to build, the Cavaliers traded point guard Mo Williams to the Clippers for Baron Davis, his burdensome contract and a first-round pick. The Clippers ended up in the lottery, but just barely. The Cavs had a 19.9% chance of winning the lucky Ping-Pong ball with their own pick, a 2.8% chance of winning it with the Clippers’. Gilbert treated the lottery like a road game in the playoffs, taking a private plane to New Jersey with his family, staff, and good-luck charms Joe Haden and Josh Cribbs, who play for the Browns but were outfitted in Cavs jerseys. Gilbert’s 14-year-old son, Nick, who suffers from a neurological disorder, represented the team on the stage, sporting a bow tie. When Wizards point guard John Wall, the No. 1 pick in 2010, saw the Cavs’ colorful contingent, he approached Irving in the audience and whispered, “Cleveland.”
Over the years the lottery has produced story lines so poetic that they can seem contrived. Cleveland won in 2003, when the top prospect was a wunderkind from Akron, and they prevailed again the year after he left, on the Hail Mary from the Clippers. “It was like winning the actual lottery,” says Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant. Nick threw his fist in the air. Haden and Cribbs rushed the stage. Gilbert hugged Irving. “Shocking events took place last summer, and it was a slow, long, painful haul to get through it,” Gilbert said that night. “Maybe this will be the final straw in getting over the hump, getting to the other side.”
Irving never thought much about James’s move, beyond the effect it would have on NBA video games, but his father was sensitive to it. “I think Cleveland has the greatest fans in the world,” Drederick says. “They’re human. What happened to them was devastating. It’s natural to want some kind of replacement. I told Kyrie to understand that people are going be apprehensive at first because they don’t know much about you. But they will.”
Kyrie’s mother, Elizabeth, died of a blood infection when he was four, leaving Drederick to raise him and his older sister, Asia. Dred, as he’s known, grew up playing basketball at the Mitchel Houses in the Bronx, was MVP at Rucker Park and the second-leading scorer in school history at Boston University. He played professionally in Australia, where Kyrie was born, and during pro-am games he parked the stroller at the end of the bench. If Kyrie was fussy, Dred called timeout and fed him a bottle. “He watched everything,” Dred says. The family settled in West Orange, N.J., where Dred ran Kyrie through Mikan drills in the backyard and showed him how to spin layups off the cracked backboard. On weekends Dred took him to the Mitchel Houses for a taste of the blacktop.
A senior bond analyst at Thomson Reuters, Dred insisted on a broad education and sent Kyrie every summer to Elizabeth’s parents in Port Orchard, Wash., where the boy paddled canoes and picked blackberries. In fourth grade Kyrie learned to play the baritone sax, hauling the five-foot instrument home on the bus. Entering high school, he spurned the local basketball hothouses for $33,000-a-year Montclair (N.J.) Kimberley Academy, and he made the honor roll.
Strange as it sounds, Irving was no prodigy. In one of his first games at MKA he shot a jumper off the side of the backboard, and from then on he spent free periods studying film in the athletic department. He came off the bench for his AAU team, the New Jersey Roadrunners. As a sophomore at MKA, Irving scored 47 points in one game and 48 in another, prompting athletic director Todd Smith to nominate him for SI’s FACES IN THE CROWD. He was rejected. When Irving transferred as a junior to powerful St. Patrick in Elizabeth, N.J., where he would be promised more exposure, Smith didn’t worry much about the effect on the team. “It was the school that really missed him,” Smith says.
The St. Patrick coach, Kevin Boyle, had never seen Irving when he applied. The principal, Joe Picaro, didn’t know his name. Irving worked out every day at the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association, in a windowless basement gym that could reach 120°, where he played full-court games of one-on-one to 100 with his AAU coach, Sandy Pyonin. At St. Pat he added late-night one-on-one games against a Panamanian priest who lived across the street. “Kyrie was a mystery man,” says Tristan Thompson, who played for rival St. Benedict’s. “You heard about him, but you didn’t know what he could do.” Irving often stood on the perimeter and passed. Coaches begged him to score.
In the summer of 2009, St. Patrick flew to Orlando for the annual Super Showcase tournament, but star forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist chose to play with his AAU team instead. The onus was on Irving. In a span of six hours he scored 59 points and orchestrated upsets of the two best club squads in the nation, one led by Kidd-Gilchrist (now at Kentucky) and the other by future Ohio State phenom Jared Sullinger. Between games Irving sat on the bench with his friends from the Roadrunners and passed out cups of water. “Everything changed for Kyrie that day,” says Duke assistant coach Chris Collins. “It was the day he figured out how good he was.”
Irving committed to Duke for the 2010–11 season even though Kentucky was cranking out lottery picks and his godfather, former NBA point guard Rod Strickland, is on the staff there. And Irving was among the best players in the country through the first seven games of last season. In the eighth he returned to New Jersey to face Butler. The game was at Izod Center, on the Nets’ home court, where Irving played as a fourth-grader and then rushed home to write behind his closet door, “I’m going to the NBA!!” Against the Bulldogs, Irving made an awkward move on the baseline and thought he stubbed the big toe on his right foot. Tests revealed ligament damage. He cried with Collins in the coach’s office. Irving healed by the NCAA tournament, scoring 28 points in a Sweet 16 loss to Arizona, but most of his season was spent studying Duke senior Nolan Smith from the bench. When Irving declared for the NBA draft, he promised Dred he would get his degree within five years.
Agents recruited Irving as hard as colleges, but their global-icon pitches resonated no better than Kentucky’s had. He signed with Jeff Wechsler, who represents only three NBA players and met Irving for the first time during their interview shortly after the tournament. “But it was different than any other interview,” Irving says. It included an appearance by the chairman of a publicly traded company, who instructed Irving to save half his earnings from every paycheck, and another by the founder of a nonprofit group, who pushed him toward philanthropy. “I told him, ‘There are so many distractions in the NBA with money and fame and women, it’s hard to keep your head screwed on straight,’” says Anthony Shriver, the founder of Best Buddies, which fosters friendship and employment opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “This is a way to keep you grounded.”
Irving promptly moved in with Wechsler’s family in South Florida, volunteered at Best Buddies in Miami and set up a savings account he is not allowed to touch, called Kyrie’s Bucket. He is now talking with Shriver about building the first Best Buddies office in Cleveland.
Kyrie means Lord in Greek, but the Cavaliers are not pitching him as a savior, not after their experience with the King. When he appears on a billboard, he is not alone, the message being that the Cavs will build with him, not around him. Irving describes every win as a team win, and in front of cameras he comes across as polite but dry. Away from them he is animated and theatrical, what you might expect from a drama student at Duke who starred in the St. Patrick production of High School Musical. Irving sings Broadway show tunes in the car, with a buttery voice he inherited from his mother.
He prays to his mom before every game and takes a Bible on every road trip, his name embroidered on the front. The Bible was a gift from Jackie Green, mother of Jeremiah Green, who collapsed during a practice at St. Patrick because of an enlarged heart. Irving carried Green to the sideline, accompanied him on hospital visits and kept a room in Green’s house during his senior year. (Green, who had to give up basketball, is Irving’s best friend to this day.) Given whom he has lost, and almost lost, it’s really no big deal to succeed the most famous free agent in the history of sports. “I just love the game,” Irving says. “Being in Cleveland adds to it.”
He believes in astrology and mentions that he shares a birthday with Jason Kidd, who has spent his career making teammates look better than they are. Irving can do the same, but the Cavaliers are still in the first phase of their rebuilding process, so he has to score. They will eventually need to find a complementary wing, and oddly enough the best one in the world keeps expressing his affection for them. James has sent nostalgic tweets recently about everything from Cavs fans to broadcasters. He expressed regret about his televised departure and said “it would be great” to return. “If I decide to come back, hopefully the fans will accept me,” he said. James has known Irving and Thompson since they were in high school, and he calls to check in. “The King returns?” Thompson muses with a laugh. “Anything can happen. I wouldn’t be surprised. To hate someone you have to love him. People kiss and make up.”
Of course, it’s far more likely that the Cavaliers will find their small forward through another high pick in this year’s draft, but James can opt out of his contract in 2014, and Irving has made every pipe dream seem possible. “If LeBron did it the right way,” says Jason Herron, “I’d lead the parade back into town for him.” Keep in mind, this is the guy who bought the lighter fluid.
Back in the real world, the Cavaliers are trying to sniff .500, and Irving is fulfilling his rookie obligations, driving 25 minutes with Thompson before every shootaround to fetch Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Scott still believes his breath smells like baby formula, to which Irving dramatically rubs the whiskers on his chin and challenges his coach to another shooting contest. Irving is sinking the long threes and tough twos against Scott and everyone else, lifting Clevelanders from barstools and courtside seats, and guiding them back to souvenir shops, where articles of faith are once again for sale.