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Drederick Irving answered his phone and explained he was not interested in any extended back-and-forth about his son. He said he had his own time as a player in the ’80s and ’90s and mentioned he has a pact with Kyrie that he will not try to shape the public’s perception of him.
But in a brief, cordial conversation, the man the Brooklyn Nets’ point guard has called his hero, idol, best friend and favorite player made it clear he has not been pleased with the media’s recent coverage of his 29-year-old son. “Kyrie is probably the most misunderstood person in sports,” his father said.
He talked a bit about his own basketball career at Boston University with the caller who had seen him play at Marist, where Drederick, then a spindly, 6-foot-4 sophomore, fearlessly penetrated and attacked a huge front line that included 7-4 Rik Smits, scoring 18 in a victory. Drederick rang up nearly 2,000 points at BU, got his jersey retired and got cut by the Celtics before lighting up a pro league in Australia, where Kyrie was born. All these years later, when the subject of his son’s philanthropy is raised, Drederick points out that Kyrie does not seek publicity for his good deeds.
Buying George Floyd’s family a new house? “I didn’t even know he did it,” Drederick said.
Everyone who knows Dred’s son knows that basketball doesn’t define him. In Kyrie’s case, the game provides a platform for the human being more than it serves as a proving ground for the athlete, which is an interesting thing to say about a point guard who is being paid $33.3 million this season to get past his old team, Boston, in the first round, and to ultimately win the city’s first basketball championship since 1973.
We have had private, distant and mysterious athletes before in New York, from Joe DiMaggio to Derek Jeter, but we have never seen or heard anything quite like Kyrie Irving, who chose last week, after the season’s penultimate game, to reject all questions about Brooklyn’s title bid, or James Harden’s return, or Big 3 chemistry concerns, to instead address Middle East conflict and human bondage. How many players would say basketball “is just not the most important thing to me right now” while standing on the doorstep of the playoffs? How many athletes could seem so removed from the all-consuming, winning-is-everything nature of pro sports the night before becoming only the ninth NBA player ever to finish a season shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the line?
The Nets fan who cares mostly about wins and losses worries more about the point guard as a potential distraction to the team, rather than about the team’s objective as a potential distraction to the humanitarian point guard. When Irving was asked about that fan in January, after he returned from his first personal leave, he said, “The beautiful thing about that is that I started off as a fanatic, and I started off as a fan. I’ve been invested in this organization since I was a kid and … to the fans out there, I want to apologize to them as well. My commitment has always been to bringing something special to Brooklyn. It wasn’t just a championship. It’s unity, it’s equality, it’s just bigger things than just the game itself.”
Irving has hardly pitched a perfect game across two seasons in Brooklyn. If he didn’t get Kenny Atkinson fired, he sure didn’t help him remain employed either. He guaranteed two extra migraines for his rookie coach, Steve Nash, by stating, “I don’t really see us having a head coach” on Kevin Durant’s podcast, and by starting Nash’s new career with a media boycott before calling reporters “pawns.” During two weeks away from the team, Irving appeared on a video-call launch party for a Manhattan DA candidate, on game night, and violated the league’s COVID protocols when he didn’t wear a mask at his sister Asia’s birthday party. There’s a whole lot to the Kyrie Irving Experience — go ask his old friends in Boston — and even his closest supporters concede that not all of it is defensible.
And yet the good still outweighs the bad, by a lot, especially here in New York. If LeBron James and Brad Stevens have different ideas about that, so be it. The fact Irving couldn’t find contentment with the sport’s greatest player (James), or most storied franchise (the Celtics), might suggest he will never find contentment on a basketball court.
Or it might suggest he knew he needed to get home, near his father and sister and inner-circle friends, to find what he was looking for.
After Irving drained the big Game 7 shot to win Cleveland the 2016 title, one of his family confidants, Richard Codey, the former governor of New Jersey, kept telling his friend Steve Mills, then the Knicks’ president, “Steve, I know Kyrie wants to come back.” Mills couldn’t close the deal that Brooklyn GM Sean Marks closed in 2019. In stark contrast to the franchise’s last visionary guard, Jason Kidd, Irving has always wanted to be a Net. He has always wanted to get back home.
Raised in West Orange, N.J., by his father — a son of the South Bronx and a Twin Towers survivor of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — Irving is the right guy to end New York’s endless basketball drought. He is the right local star to become the first local star to win a basketball title since Long Island’s Julius Erving won two for the 1970s Nets of the ABA.
Is the mystery man up to it? Before explaining where Irving is now, it makes sense to explain where he has been.
They saw it happening at Duke, everything the freshman would become in the pros packed inside an 11-game college career. The brilliance. The drama. The maddening conundrums of a playmaker who had trouble staying on the floor.
The Blue Devils had won Mike Krzyzewski’s fourth national title the year before, in 2010, and people inside the program thought with Irving they could become the first undefeated champ since Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana team. Irving was making Coach K rethink all that was possible with the ball in a prodigy’s hands.
Years before he stated publicly that the Earth is flat, Irving talked about the planet with senior backcourt partner Nolan Smith. They shared a room on the road, Smith said, “and the level of conversation I could have with an 18-year-old, they just weren’t normal college-kid conversations. We talked about so many different things that didn’t pertain to basketball or our college lifestyle, and that’s what always made him special to me.”
They were connected by a profound sense of loss. Smith was 9 years old when his father, Derek, a former NBA player and Louisville national champ, died of a heart defect; Irving was 4 when his mother, Elizabeth, died of sepsis. They remain friends to this day, the Duke assistant coach and the seven-time NBA All-Star. Smith calls Irving “a pure human being, good-hearted.” And unique.
“Kyrie was always different,” Smith said. “He always thought different, and moved different.”
In preseason pickup games, Duke’s frontcourt players looked ridiculous as Irving scored over them with the greatest of ease. “He was making our big guys swat at a fly that they couldn’t catch,” Smith said. “He was laughing at them while shooting floaters with his right and left hand.” Before a game against Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Irving told his teammates, “I got us. Watch this.”
He dropped 31 on the Spartans to lift top-ranked Duke to 7-0 entering its title-game rematch with Butler in the Meadowlands. Irving sank 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions that effectively sealed the game, and afterward Krzyzewski called him “a really good player and a beautiful kid.” Coach K never thought he’d have a better New Jersey guard than Bobby Hurley and Jason Williams, but this might have been the one. “Everything Coach K said he’d do for Kyrie, he delivered,” Drederick Irving said.
Brad Stevens, then Butler’s coach, would tell people that a Duke play he’d studied on film — a high screen for Irving, with Smith and Kyle Singler spaced out and ready to fire, and with the screener, Mason Plumlee, rolling to the basket — was the toughest action he ever had to prepare for because of Irving’s genius with the ball. But the Duke point guard had suffered a toe injury after scoring 17 of his 21 points, one that was more serious than it appeared to be right after the game. Krzyzewski and his staff were devastated. When it appeared Irving wouldn’t return, the light in his eyes dimmed. He had been well-liked inside the Duke family since his recruiting visit, when he attended a barbecue at Coach K’s house and hung out with the team in the basement before falling asleep in his chair.
The coaches had detected some fairly benign immaturity in Irving before he went down, as he dealt with his exploding celebrity. After the injury, said one source, Irving was “off doing his own thing” and at times became a distraction to the team. A second Duke source said the freshman tested at an absurdly high body-fat level for a major college guard. And then when it suddenly seemed Irving had a chance to return for the postseason, that source said, “It was unreal how much body fat he dropped in two weeks.”
Krzyzewski asked his senior captains, Smith and Singler, if they were good with Irving returning for the NCAA Tournament. Yes, the Duke program felt the weight of the Irving enigma. “We get Kyrie back?” Smith said. “Absolutely, let’s go. But at the time you don’t think about the rhythm of playing so long without a guy like him. When you bring him back, those elevated roles get pushed back down a little bit, and things change within a game. That definitely messed with our flow.”
Irving scored 28 points in 31 minutes off the bench in his final college game, a Sweet 16 loss to Arizona. Smith, who averaged 20.6 points and shot 46 percent from the floor that year, missed 11 of 14 field-goal attempts and scored eight points. Three months later, Cleveland made Irving the No. 1-overall pick in the draft. (Smith would go 21st overall to Portland.) The Cavaliers sent a representative to Durham to run their prized draft pick through some drills.
“And Kyrie questioned everything the guy asked him to do,” said one source. “It was, ‘Why are we doing the drill this way? Why don’t we do it that way?’ ”
Irving was setting the inquisitive tone for the next stage of his life. He would challenge everything about the NBA. Everything.
By most accounts, on his difficult days, Kyrie Irving can be an eccentric pain in the ass — something (let’s face it) that can be said about a lot of people in the tri-state area. “There is a lot of Jersey in Kyrie,” said one Duke official. “A lot of Jersey.”
Irving is indeed a product of his environment. In his youth, his father would take him to the Mitchel Houses in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, the projects where Drederick grew up. “I was raised as a survivor,” Irving said. “My family comes from practically the bottom, from the South Bronx, from out of some extreme conditions.”
After the sudden death of his wife, a former volleyball player at BU, Drederick had moved with their children from Elizabeth’s Tacoma, Wash., roots back to the New York area. He held jobs at Cantor Fitzgerald and Garvan Securities inside the World Trade Center before leaving for a job as a bond broker for Thomson Reuters seven months before the hijacked planes flew into the Twin Towers. On the morning of 9/11, Drederick was walking through the towers as part of his daily commute to Thomson Reuters when the world changed forever, the sonic boom and wind blast forcing him to flee the building and run for his life. Once safely outside, he told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan in 2012, “I was standing there watching the debris fall from the sky, and then I realized, ‘That’s not debris. Those are bodies.’ ” Drederick would be haunted by those images for years.
He would raise son Kyrie and daughter Asia in West Orange, once home to Thomas Edison. With his father drilling him hard on their narrow driveway court, Kyrie became his own kind of inventor — creating finishing moves around the basket, with either hand, that nobody had seen before. Drederick had coached his son up until eighth grade before handing him over to a familiar face on the AAU circuit, Sandy Pyonin of the Roadrunners.
Irving was something of a Wild West gunslinger in those days. “Kyrie challenged everybody, and he was always the last one in the gym,” Pyonin said. “He would say, ‘Who’s left? Anybody else left?’ When nobody wanted to play him, then he would leave.”
Irving would play Pyonin in one-on-one full-court games to 100. “If you told Kyrie there was a game at 2 a.m. in the ShopRite parking lot, he would be there at 1 a.m. ready to go,” said Pyonin’s assistant, Ed Fahoury. “He was miserable when he wasn’t playing.”
Irving dominated at his first high school stop, Montclair Kimberley Academy, before transferring to national powerhouse St. Patrick of Elizabeth, which gifted him to Duke. Until he suffered the toe injury against Butler, Irving was scheduled the next day to take 1,000 practice shots with Pyonin, an exercise that could take an hour and 45 minutes.
After Irving won NBA Rookie of the Year, he gave Pyonin the Kia SUV that came with it. When a friend asked him what he was thinking when he made that epic Game 7 shot over Steph Curry in 2016, Irving said, “I was thinking I was in Sandy’s gym just shooting around.” Irving always projected that vibe of certainty.
He eventually chafed at his Robin role beside LeBron’s Batman, and then lasted only two seasons in Boston, where Stevens was less enamored of him than he was during that Duke-Butler game. Irving picked Brooklyn because family is everything to him. After his first Nets victory, over the Knicks, Kyrie ripped off his No. 11 jersey — worn in honor of his father’s retired college jersey — and handed it to his old man while wrapping him in a bear-hug.
Drederick had been Kyrie’s manager; he’s now a partner in Starfund, which connects start-ups with celebrity endorsers. His coach at BU, Mike Jarvis, later the coach at St. John’s, remembered that Drederick was called “The Chicken” back then because of an unorthodox shooting form at the foul line.
“When I watch Kyrie play now,” Jarvis said, “I see everything Drederick did as a player. The first time Drederick went in the weight room he could barely bench 100 pounds, but he was a great scorer who could put up numbers against anybody and everybody we played. He could beat you off the dribble, and he had these crazy moves, and I think he taught his son everything he knew. And then his son took it to another level.”
In a time of social and racial reckoning, Irving has all but set the celebrity athlete standard for caring, for giving and for impacting those in need. He’s talked to Codey, the former governor (and another of Irving’s former AAU coaches), about community initiatives already in the works. Codey, who calls Irving by far the most thoughtful player among the hundreds he’s coached, declined to offer specifics, and would say only that Irving’s is “a big agenda.” It’s been pretty big for a while.
Irving bought that house for the Floyds. He donated $1.5 million to WNBA players who had decided to forgo their paychecks rather than play for pandemic health or social justice reasons. He covered the tuition for nine students at Lincoln University, an HBCU, through his family foundation. He donated $323,000 to Feeding America and 250,000 meals to New Yorkers in need. He established KAI 11 Consulting to promote the growth of small businesses in underserved communities. The list runs longer than his list of NBA achievements.
The Nets want to give him the space to honor his calling. Sean Marks, who signed Irving to his $141 million contract, called the point guard “an artist” and said he “would never want to put him in a box.” On Irving’s multiple leaves and missed games for personal and family reasons, Marks said, “All Steve [Nash] and I have tried to do from Day 1 is have honest conversations with him, and we want those coming back our way as well. He doesn’t like to be surprised, and we in turn don’t like to be surprised.
“He’s never taken time when we didn’t know why he was taking time. He did catch flack for that, and he could have taken the easy route and come flat out and said, ‘This is what I’m dealing with,’ but because he’s very private, when it comes to his personal life he chose not to do that. … Family is very, very important to Kyrie. I don’t know if they’re his rock, or he’s their rock, but either way he’s in that happy place.”
Despite his grave societal concerns, Irving seems to be, in Nash’s words, “mentally and physically in a really good place now.” From a distance, his longtime friend and former Duke backcourt partner Nolan Smith said he now sees in Irving a joyful player, and a man at peace with his career because of his proximity to Drederick and Asia. It doesn’t hurt that Durant and Harden are there to help carry the championship-or-bust burden, and that the disarming Nash is a Hall of Famer who can lower the temperature on almost anything.
In the end, Nets-Celtics is going to be an intriguing, this-is-your-life first round for Irving, whose unforced errors in the fabled green will be rightfully and loudly revisited by the media and fans to the north. But Irving’s story isn’t really a Boston story anymore. This one is about New York. Irving is trying to mix his father’s Bronx toughness with his own New Jersey attitude to win a ring in Brooklyn.
If he face-plants early in the playoffs, the revenge of the pawns will be unleashed upon him. But the better climax is another huge Game 7 jumper, this one in July, to end the kind of drought in New York that he helped end in Cleveland. After all, Kyrie Irving is one of us.
This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Ian O'Connor