Kyrie Irving is about to speak to the huddled mass of media that surrounds him in the Cavaliers locker room. The Cavs just defeated the Sacramento Kings to earn their only three-game winning streak of the season. For the first time in my short tenure of covering the team with press credentials, the other media members seem to actually be in a jovial state. We’re all waiting on Irving to give us the okay to question him. He has this sort of informal ritual he does before speaking with the media in the locker room. On all the occasions I’ve seen him speak, he has been showered and in the process of getting dressed to go home before accepting questions. The media stands patiently around him. He buttons his shirt, shakes out his shoulders, and rubs his hands across his face. He’s ready to speak though I’m admittedly already not paying attention. I should feel somewhat irresponsible for this, but I don’t. I have plenty of questions I’d love to ask Irving. The problem is there’s almost no chance of him giving me an interesting response.
Irving is often described as “well spoken” and “mature” when it comes to interviews. I understand the sentiment, but the words that always come to my mind when listening to him speak are “calculated”, “boring” and “sterile”. That’s not to say Irving himself is a boring person. He’s a 21-year-old on the brink of NBA super-stardom. He has been put in the unenviable position of replacing the irreplaceable; filling the void left by LeBron James. There’s a real person of interest in there somewhere, just as in anybody. With Irving though, his true nature is suppressed in favor of a more media savvy mask. Irving is aware of his brand. His “Uncle Drew” commercials have been a popular Internet marketing hit for some time now. I remember watching the first iteration as a fan and feeling incredibly lucky. Not only did the Cavs draft another superstar, but it seemed like they had acquired one that would be fun for fans to root for. The personality that gave way to masquerading as an old man and spewing lines like “young buck” to promote Pepsi MAX unfortunately doesn’t often show itself in interviews or on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena. I myself have trouble interpreting my own feelings toward him.
To say Irving isn’t liked in Cleveland is inaccurate and lacks nuance; he has oodles of fans here. He also might have the most inventive handles in the league which gives his game a sense of flair other players don’t possess. It’s just that the city’s affinity for him as of late is not as strong as his performances would dictate. Rebuilding after LeBron’s departure was never going to be easy, but Irving is one of only two or three superstars to hit the league since the Cavaliers started reconstructing their roster through the lottery. There is no singular reason for the reticence from Cavs fans to embrace their All-Star point guard. It’s hard not to believe the insecurities wrought on the fan base by “The Decision” aren’t at the top of the list though. The national commercials, the rumblings of wanting to play in bigger markets, and the fact that he’s become an NBA media darling so soon make the parallels to no. 23 thick. Up until this recent winning streak, it wasn’t a rarity among Cavalier faithful to suggest that the team should at least consider trading Irving. What should sound absurd was palpable to some in fear that he leave like LeBron did, for basically nothing. Even Brian Windhorst suggested the Cavaliers brass would have to struggle with the question of whether to trade Irving or not if he refused to sign an extension this summer.
Where Irving hasn’t matched James early in his career is in the win column, which is where Irving’s sterile persona works against him. In the absence of winning, fans have little else to grab onto with their star player. He’s not a vocal leader. He doesn’t seem to give his all on the defensive end, which to a city that fell back in love with basketball under a Mike Brown regime is a big no-no. The game of blaming the players around the superstar has happened before in Cleveland with bad results and so, unlike with LeBron, Kyrie is often given a disproportionate amount of blame. It’s hard not to see it as unfair. He’s only 21. That doesn’t make him free from criticism. It does mean any conversation about him needs to exist in that context. What Irving is doing at his age is remarkable. What LeBron James did at Irving’s age is flat out unbelievable. I find the need to constantly remind myself of this.
Irving will start the All-Star game this weekend in New Orleans becoming only the third player in Cavaliers history to do so. Despite the rarity of the accomplishment here, the Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd responded to the announcement a few weeks ago by writing a somewhat scathing piece on Irving. Fast forward to the present and somehow, in spite of the firing of their general manager and countless stories of locker room dissent, the Cavaliers are at a zenith of sorts for the post-LeBron era. They are riding their first four-game winning streak with Irving being the driving force of much of it. Who knows if it’s a blip or an actual sustained change with the team, but I’m glad it happened when it did. Instead of entering the All-Star weekend feeling conflicted about Irving presence among the NBA stars, I can instead celebrate him because, even if just for now, it’s finally deserved.
Photo: Scott Sargent/WFNY