The first time I saw LeBron James play high school ball, it was nothing short of love at first sight. My experience with Kyrie Irving, however, showed you can’t always put too much stock in your first impression.
As a Duke grad living in North Jersey in 2010, I’d heard tons of buzz about Irving, a future Blue Devil playing for a loaded St. Patrick of Elizabeth squad that also included Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. That January, I made the half-hour trip to Kean University to see what all the fuss was about, and I wasn’t necessarily blown away. Kyrie scored 18 points in a win against overmatched Union, but he didn’t dominate and looked a little out of sorts.
St. Pat’s had a fairly sizable and passionate base of supporters, and the fan sitting next to me noticed that I was somewhat nonplused by Kyrie’s performance.
“You really need to come back and see him again,” he said almost apologetically, adding that Irving was coming off an illness and the team was jet-lagged after a recent trip to California. “He’ll give you a breakout game soon enough.”
I went back five days later, and my new friend was on the money. In scoring 25 points against Westfield, Kyrie had it all: slick handle, nice jumper, defensive chops, creativity in traffic. Never mind college, he looked like a professional point guard in every way but demeanor; if he missed a shot or something, he tended to hang his head for a bit. But then, he was merely 17 years old.
Enamored by his talents, I spent that winter going to see St. Pat’s every time I had the opportunity, a half-dozen games in total. Kyrie possessed equal parts steak and sizzle, flush with fundamentals and seamlessly dribbling it between his defender’s legs on fast breaks.
I watched St. Pat’s lose by one point three separate times, but even in those defeats, Kyrie would generally be nothing short of spectacular. He scored 26 in a riveting duel against future Texas point guard Myck Kabongo and St. Benedict’s, perhaps the best game I’ve seen on the high school level. Irving put up 28 in a classic against perennial powerhouse Oak Hill. And on national television, he went for 30 against Findlay Prep in a superhuman effort, albeit in a losing cause.
By all accounts, off the court, Kyrie was a well-rounded kid who starred in the school musical, never turned down an autograph request, and returned after graduation to support his high school at fundraisers.
“I don’t want to just be labeled as a basketball player,” Irving said at the time about his acting pursuits. “You know, I laugh, I joke. Everyone kind of gets me confused because I’m in the spotlight so much, but I’m just a normal kid. Plays … I’ll do anything just to get out of my element. I just like to have fun.”
The good times kept rolling at Duke. For starters, Kyrie tried his hand at improv. And though a toe injury limited him to 11 games — he told me later he believed they’d have gone undefeated had he not gotten hurt — he was magnificent when he did play. It would have been interesting to see Irving return to take care of unfinished business; I doubt Duke would have lost to Lehigh in the first round, for starters. But even with a limited NCAA resume, he was a no-brainer No. 1 pick for Cleveland in the 2011 NBA Draft.
“I still get chills watching my past games at Cameron,” Irving said after his departure. “When I was making my decision about going to the NBA, (Coach K) really just told me whichever way I decided, just to go full-on. Whether it was to stay at Duke or whether it was to go into the NBA, I couldn’t have any regrets with any decision I made. It was the right decision for me and my family, and he understood that.”
Though he admits to some growing pains on a losing team his first few years, going pro was ultimately the right call. Kyrie won Rookie of the Year in 2012, and he was named All-Star Game MVP in 2014. Playing with LeBron James this season, Irving has two 50-point games under his belt and harbors a legitimate shot at a championship.
Not to mention, his fan-friendly game and clean-cut image have made him eminently marketable. This winter, he joined a proud lineage of Nike signature point guards with the debut of the Kyrie 1, which releases in the Infrared colorway this week at Champs Sports. (For what it’s worth, though your experience might be different, I’d say to go up at least a half-size.)
With the Cavs poised to make major noise this spring and Kyrie having just turned 23, it appears his golden era is just getting started. But for my part, I’ll always hold a particular fondness for those halcyon days at Harwood Arena.
For the few hundred people who made the trip to Kean, it was kind of like seeing Nirvana play at Maxwell’s two years before Nevermind dropped: He was already great, but not everyone really knew it yet. There’s something to be said for everyone else finally seeing what you did way back when, but it’s still sweet to think back to a simpler time when, if you looked closely enough, you could see the future literally taking form before your eyes.
Follow Bryan on Twitter at @sportsangle