Excerpt: Kyrie Irving

The following is an excerpt from Kyrie Irving: Uncle Drew, Little Mountain, and Enigmatic NBA Superstar (October 2019). Author Martin Gitlin is a veteran sportswriter who worked for seven years at CBSSports.com and has won more than forty-five awards as a newspaper journalist, including first place for general excellence in journalism from the Associated Press.

Some details are sketchy, others clear. It was a late-winter or early-spring afternoon in 2018. I was taking a break from my writing with a toasted cheese sandwich in one hand and TV remote in the other. Most certainly I was viewing a taped rerun of some show such as The Twilight Zone or All in the Family that my wife and kids cite as evidence of my perpetual childhood and refusal to link pop culturally into the twenty-first century.

This typical scene in my life was interrupted by an atypical phone call. I recognized the id name immediately. It was Jeff Wechsler. Holy cow, I thought. That’s the agent for Kyrie Irving. How he learned I was authoring a biography of his client was obvious to me before I answered. One of a few Irving associates I had contacted to interview for the book must have informed him. It’s amazing how much speculation can filter through a mind in the moments it takes to pick up a phone.

Wechsler wasted no time getting to the point. He expressed unhappiness about the project. He was not impolite, but firm and far less than friendly. He did not want me writing the book, but he understood he could not stop me. He indicated he would urge those close to Irving to decline interviews. He made it clear that the extraordinarily gifted point guard would not speak with me. And before hanging up, he uttered seven words that will forever remain in my consciousness: “We control the narrative on Kyrie Irving.”

That ship, of course, had sailed more than a decade earlier. What Wechsler either failed or refused to realize was that the media had controlled the narrative on Kyrie Irving from the moment his incredible talent began warranting such attention. Several years before the soon-to-be-superstar hired Wechsler as his agent and joined the Cleveland Cavaliers as the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, reports of his brilliance had surfaced. The narrative indeed had begun to be written and voiced.

But there would eventually prove to be far more to that narrative than his wizardry with a basketball. There was the emergence of an enigmatic young man both on and off the court. What followed were more questions than answers, all of which remained through the first seven years of his NBA career. Is Kyrie Irving a great player or merely a great talent? Is he motivated by team goals or only individual achievement? Does he raise the level of play of his teammates or even care to? Does he feel disdain for the media, using it only toward his own ends? And does this highly intelligent, well-spoken athlete really believe that the absurd claims of the Flat Earth Society are worthy of discussion?

One might argue that the paradox of Kyrie Irving negatively reflects modern thought. I have heard many in the sports media not only equate his outrageous offensive skills with all-around greatness despite his never having earned a spot on the first or second All-NBA team but also praise his flat-earth claim, questioning that the moon landing ever happened, and expressing wonderment over the existence of dinosaurs as bringing much-needed personality to the NBA—truth be damned.

I recall vividly a 1970 Sports Illustrated baseball article featuring maddeningly underachieving Cleveland Indians left-hander Sam McDowell, whom slugger Reggie Jackson believed to have boasted the finest fastball, curve, slider, and changeup he ever saw. Author Pat Jordan offered that, to McDowell, the ability to achieve a goal and achieving it are one and the same, as are owning the greatest talent and being the greatest pitcher. Why then must he prove it? And in the end, McDowell proved nothing aside from demonstrating that talent alone sometimes triumphed.

The eventual revelation that alcoholism played a significant role in the demise of McDowell’s career weakens any comparison to Irving. But it remains to be seen if Irving suffers a similar fate due to a seeming lack of desire to maximize his potential through equal attention to defensive efficiency and willingness to fully involve his teammates offensively, as well as what could be interpreted as a motivation to further his personal brand rather than grow into the best all-around player he can be.

Kyrie Irving is a fascinating, complex man whose inspirations cannot be easily identified. He has searched for happiness and contentment through personal reflection, music, acting, intellectual pursuits, and even a 2018 trip to a Sioux reservation. It was there he found his second family, that of his mother of Native American heritage, whom fate cruelly removed from his life at the age of four.

Most athletes are so intrinsically tied to their athletic pursuits and achievements that the media and international fandom identify them strictly with the sports they play. Irving, on the other hand, is quite the Renaissance man. He is Kyrie Irving, but he is also known as Uncle Drew and Little Mountain. Unlike many athletes who embrace the trappings of their fame and fortune, he seeks self-actualization through a variety of pursuits. His primary goal as a player is rising to challenges rather than earning “max” contracts. His dreams extend far beyond the NBA arena.

Yet he is the ultimate enigma. He is a learned intellectual who has expressed beliefs only accepted by the ignorant few. He speaks about his desire to win championships, yet demanded a trade away from the franchise best suited to deliver him a second one, and listed among his desired destinations were teams eons away from capturing a title. He speaks of maximizing his talent but works toward that end only on one side of the floor as a ball handler and finisher. He is in many ways a walking contradiction.

This biography will explore the mysteries of Kyrie Irving. There are many to unravel.

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