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The complicated legacy of Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, While We’re Waiting

Kyrie Irving
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

And happy Cavaliers season tip-off day!!!

I can’t speak for everyone, but me? I need this. After the sudden and surprising end to the Cleveland Indians season, and after six weeks of frustrating Cleveland Browns football, I need something good. Something exciting. For at least one more season, we still have LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said I was extremely confident about this season. I’m hoping for the best, but bracing for chaos. There are an awful lot of moving parts to this Cavaliers season and a lot of new pieces to integrate. Indeed, only seven players are returning from last season, and one of those seven, Kyle Korver, only played half the season in Cleveland. That means that of the 15-man roster, nine players will be playing their first full season in Cleveland.

For some reason I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting that the Cavaliers only made minor changes, that this is more or less the same Cavs team. Yet only two starters, LeBron James and Kevin Love, remain in the starting lineup. Tristan Thompson and JR Smith will be coming off the bench. It’s just a lot of change.

I have no clue what’s going to happen this season, I don’t know what LeBron’s going to do after this season, I don’t know what the Cavaliers will look like next year. I’m not worried about any of that today. Today, I’m just focused on the excitement of having NBA basketball back!

And of course, because fate has such a fantastic sense of humor, of course Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics are opening the season tonight in Cleveland. No time to get used to seeing Kyrie in another uniform. It’s time to deal with the Kyrie situation now.

So here’s the thing, what are we as Cavs fans supposed to feel about Kyrie’s return? Kyrie’s legacy in Cleveland was extremely complicated while he was still in Cleveland, but now it’s somehow even more complicated. But let’s back up first and look again at just why Kyrie’s legacy in Cleveland was so complicated.

The year after LeBron James left for Miami, it was a brutal season for the Cavaliers. The team suffered through a brutal then-record 26-game losing streak1. That winter felt so eternal and dark. Of course, midway through that season, the Cavaliers traded Mo Williams to the Los Angeles Clippers for an unprotected draft pick. That pick, of course, became Kyrie Irving.

The following season wasn’t much better in terms of wins and losses, but Kyrie Irving dazzled Cavs fans with his penchant for coming up big in 4th quarters, earning him the nickname “Mr. 4th Quarter”. Kyrie won the MVP of the Rising Stars game. When taking pictures with the trophy in his Cavs uniform, he told the camera operator to “Make sure to get the ‘Cleveland’ [on the jersey].”

Kyrie would go on to make four All-Star teams, win an All-Star Game MVP, represent Team USA in the Olympics where he brought home a gold medal, win a USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year award, and drill the biggest three-point shot in team history to help win Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals and bring home Cleveland’s first ever Larry O’Brien Trophy and the city’s first title in any major sport since 1964. He was special, for sure, but the relationship with the fans was uneven.

At the end of Kyrie’s second season with the Cavaliers, a frustrating season with high expectations left unmet, Kyrie stormed off the court with participating in Fan Appreciation Night. When Mike Brown was hired, Kyrie and Coach Brown clashed and Kyrie played arguably his most uninspired basketball of his career that season. Fans began to turn on Kyrie a bit. Twitter was routinely lit up with fans questioning if the team wouldn’t be better off just trading Kyrie. It got to the point where otherwise serious basketball fans actually began to question if the team wasn’t better off with Matthew Dellavedova than Kyrie Irving.

It certainly wasn’t one of Cavs fans’ brightest moments, but there was a palpable cooling of the relationship between Kyrie Irving and the fans. Whispers of Kyrie’s desire to leave Cleveland soon began to grow louder and louder, and as Kyrie approached his restricted free agency, fears began to grow that Kyrie would try to sign elsewhere. After going through the LeBron rejection just a few years prior, Cleveland fans reflexively began to brace for the worst. “Who needs Kyrie? Let him go somewhere else if that’s what he wants. We don’t need him.”

Of course, then-GM David Griffin had other ideas. He met with Kyrie at midnight that free agency period and sold Kyrie on Cleveland. He sold him on the idea of building a franchise around him. After years of Chris Grant putting duplicate skill sets around Kyrie, Griff assured Kyrie that he was going to actually build complimentary pieces around him. Gordon Haywood was going to be the first target. Kyrie was all-in. Barely an hour into free agency, word came out that Kyrie Irving was staying in Cleveland. He signed a max contract to stay for the maximum number of years.

That was a good night for Cavs fans. At least, for those of us who never wavered in our support of Kyrie. Of course, nobody could have guessed what was about to happen next. A mere ten days later, ten days that seem like an eternity, LeBron James told the world he was coming home. Suddenly, this was no longer Kyrie’s team. Rebuilding around Kyrie took a backseat. Haywood, a player Kyrie was heavily recruiting to come to Cleveland, was cast aside. Instead, the team focused on trading for Kevin Love, the player that LeBron had hand picked to join himself and Kyrie.

This wasn’t exactly what Kyrie signed up for, but come on. It’s LeBron freaking James, right? Surely they would learn to coexist and do incredible things together. Suddenly Kyrie no longer had to carry the weight of a franchise while dancing around the shadow of the former star who left. Instead, he was now playing directly in that shadow.

And for a while, everything seemed pretty great. Kyrie and LeBron got off to a slow start, taking time to bond and get on the same page on the court. Imagine the culture shock of going from being the singular focus of the franchise to instead dealing with a passive aggressive megastar who was using the media to publicly chide you for the way you played. It couldn’t have been easy for Kyrie. But he never complained about it publicly. And over time, a real relationship seemed to form between Kyrie and LeBron.

Watching Kyrie and LeBron soak in the fans the day of the Championship parade in Cleveland, nobody could have ever guessed that Kyrie was unhappy. But privately, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Kyrie was already thinking about asking for a trade. He was already planning his exit from Cleveland.

After losing the deciding Game 5 of the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors in 2017, Kyrie waited for LeBron in the hallway leading to the locker rooms. When LeBron approached, the two teammates embraced in a warm hug, with LeBron telling Kyrie, “We’ll be back.” Later that evening, on the podium, Kyrie and LeBron both talked a bit about the eventual passing of the torch. Kyrie talked about how it was hard, at times, to wait his turn, but how he had grown to understand the importance of winning and that he knew his time would come eventually.

A month later, Kyrie’s trade request was made public. It was all over. Somehow, this superstar PG who was competing year-in and year-out for NBA Championships with LeBron James, wanted out. Not just out, he wanted to get away from LeBron James. He wanted away from Cleveland. He wanted to walk his own path, and he wanted to do it somewhere else.

Now, as Kyrie comes back to Cleveland, that complicated legacy is put more into focus. Even had he stayed, how would Kyrie be remembered? Would he ever be more than that guy who helped LeBron James bring a Championship back to Cleveland? Sure, he hit the shot to win it, but LeBron’s block of the Andre Iguodala layup got almost as much, if not more, attention than the game-winning shot. Again, it’s complicated.

So how will Kyrie be greeted by fans in The Q this evening? A lot has been said about what fans “should” or “should not” do. I’m not in the business of telling fans how to feel or react. This is a player who signed a contract, and then asked to be traded. This is a player who blew up this entire franchise’s plans for both the near future and the long-term future post-LeBron. This is a guy who told the media he was thrilled to go to a “real-life sports city”. He’s also a player who gave Cavs fans six incredibly seasons. He’s a player who won the NBA Championship with his shot. He’s a player who gave us so much joy to watch night after night in those cold, dark midwest nights.

I don’t know how the fans will react, and I don’t even know what I hope they’ll do. I’d like to think the fans could give Kyrie a warm standing ovation before the game to show thanks one last time for everything Kyrie did for the Cavs. But then once the game starts, fans can boo Kyrie mercilessly every time he touches the ball. He’s the enemy, now.

But again, it’s complicated. For all we can say about LeBron’s televised “Decision” special to announce he was breaking up with Cleveland, the fact is, he honored his contract and he was leaving a team where the second-best player was Mo Williams to go play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Kyrie didn’t honor his contract, he asked for a trade, and he was leaving a team that was primed to compete for Championships the next few years. It’s not a simple, black-and-white scenario.

I don’t really mind what the fans do, I just know that for me, personally, I’ll be watching the game while still trying to figure out how I feel about this whole situation. Welcome back to Cleveland, Kyrie. I hate that it ever came to this.

  1. The record is still tied for the longest single-season losing streak. The 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers tied that record, and the 2014-15 and 2015-16 76ers set a new record for losing streak over multiple seasons when they ended 2015 with a 10-game losing streak and then began the 2016 season with an 18-game losing streak. Thank goodness for the Philadelphia 76ers []

  • RGB

    2018 Browns Draft Position Watch.
    Currently: #1, #15

    Week 5: #2, #12
    Week 4: #1, #12
    Week 3: #1, #7
    Week 2: #7, #11

  • mgbode

    Kyrie wants to be the heel as depicted from all of his specific quotes since he left. I suspect the Cleveland fans will oblige him.

  • Chris
  • Du

    Agree Andrew…I would prefer to take the high road. What Kyrie did for this town can never be taken down and the evidence will continue to hang in the rafters at the Q. Think he deserves a standing ovation at and only at the start of the game. Let’s not stoop to his level. BUT…once the game starts would boo the crap out of him. Then make him feel the pain as LeBron, Love, TT, etc. remind him that the Celtics are nowhere near on the same level as the Cavs.

  • JNeids

    When his trade request was made public, I was confused like most, but tried my best to understand where he was coming from. Maybe I tried harder than some because I wanted to justify still wanting to watch him regardless of what team he was on. After all, this is the player for whom I repeatedly used the phrase “basketball porn.” This is the player that actually made me stop to think – “Who would I rather watch for the next 5-10 years: Lebron or Kyrie” – and I don’t know that I ever settled on an answer. So when he was traded, I came to terms with it. Even though he was the one who asked for the divorce, I was still willing to love him.

    But Kyrie couldn’t just leave it at that. He had to run his mouth and take shots at Cleveland. He had to drop trou and shart all over us like Steph Curry on the court of the Q. Now I’m forced to pretend like I’m unimpressed when he pulls a magic act to get to the hoop and lay it in from an impossible angle. Ugh. It didn’t have to be this way.

    Thanks for the memories and all that. Can’t wait to sweep you in the ECF.

  • Allen P
  • MartyDaVille

    I think the video tribute to Irving is a well-meaning but tone-deaf move by Cavs management, one that they’ll regret. It’s likely to just trigger more booing. Tonight is not the night to honor him.

    I’ve never noticed this before, but that photo of Irving standing on the car roof with his arms outstretched looks like he’s imitating Lebron’s pose in the big poster hanging on the building behind him. As if to say, “Me too.”

  • Chris

    I still wish he was traded to the Lakers.
    1) Get smoked by Oakland as often as possible
    2) Guarantee LeBron doesn’t go there next year
    3) Overshadow LaVar (err… I mean Lonzo) whether he’s part of the trade or not

  • Kyrie hit the greatest, most important shot in the history of the franchise and ended a 52-year title drought for the city of Cleveland. THAT is his legacy as a Cleveland Cavalier, and it is not at all complicated. If folks want to take offense to his wanting out (does anyone here NOT agree that LeBron James the teammate would be…exhausting…at some point?) or to get all worked up because he doesn’t appear to be showing the proper reverence for his former town, go right ahead. But if you’re letting that affect your opinion of Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavalier, then I think that’s more of a “you” problem than a “Kyrie” problem.

  • Chris

    Ricky Davis’ shot off his own backboard was pretty important.

  • As a player for an opposing team (and supposed playoff threat to us), boo all you want when the game starts, if you must. But the guy deserves a thunderous, “registers on seismographs on the West Coast”-sized ovation when introduced and honored.

  • RGB

    Proper guests treated like royalty by their hosts don’t poop on the rug on the way out.

  • WFNY_DP

    “first title in any major sport since 1948”

    Blanton Collier and Jim Brown would like a word…

    At any rate, I think we have to give him his due. He climbed all the way back from the knee injury and hit a shot that will go down in history for not just the franchise, but the city itself. With the way things are trending, that chip may be the first, last, and only for a long while, unless the Indians just finally change their name and mascot and stop meddling with the karmic powers they can’t possibly fathom or fight through.

    (The previous sentence was brought to you by sarcasm. Please don’t @ me. It was a joke.)

    That said, he made his choice. He chose to leave, and he chose to do it in a rather abrasive fashion. He deserves a nice round of applause for his work here, and then he deserves to be heckled mercilessly. He may get the last laugh tonight if the Celtics grab the win, but he made his bed. As TLue said, “whatever the fans do will be right.”

  • WFNY_DP

    What about pooping in the refrigerator after eating a whole wheel of cheese?

  • I stand corrected. SECOND most important shot.

  • RGB

    Even KI is not that amazing.

  • Chris
  • WFNY_DP

    He is most definitely not a miniature Buddha covered in fur.

  • Chris

    You’re going to keep us updated on Brooklyn lottery odds, right?

  • JNeids

    That’s fine, I’ll accept it as partly a “me” problem. That’s the beauty of sports: city = me (to a certain degree). As I said above, I was able to somewhat rationalize his trade request. Whenever a player wants off my team and out of my city, it’s gonna sting. But I was able to soften the blow by remembering the good times. And I will forever be grateful for what he did WHEN HE WAS WITH THE TEAM. But he CHOSE to attack Cleveland (read: me) UNPROVOKED, that’s when it also became a “Kyrie” problem. He can love his new sitchu all he wants, but he appears to be going out of his way to complete his heel turn. That says more about him than it does me.

  • WFNY_DP

    Also, I wanted to separate my personal experience, too.

    I got laid off from my job of 16+ years less than 36 hours after that shot that Kyrie hit. I blew off work the following day to go to the parade with two friends. In many ways, it was a miserable day, what with the transportation woes, the standing around for several hours, the heat, all of it.

    But man, did I ever NEED that. I needed it more than I knew at the time. And Kyrie helped to give me that. It’d be like getting divorced from the love of your life, but realizing you still had an amazing child from that relationship. You’re going to be hurt, mad, a whole range of emotions. But, the two of you still combined to create something amazing that you’ll have for the rest of your life, no matter what happens to that relationship.

    That’s kinda where I’m at.

  • I used that image for a reason. Glad someone actually noticed it.

  • Wow. Miserable brain fart on my part. I clearly still haven’t gotten over the Indians loss. Thanks for the heads up, I’ll fix it.

  • Harv

    I just can’t take his departure personally. That would presume he ever cared about me or Cleveland. He didn’t choose to play here initially, took the max deal to stay but didn’t choose to play with LeBron. When he wanted to leave he used his available leverage. Go try to be happy and fulfilled, Kyrie, that’s in your power as an elite athlete among the elite. Who are we to tell you your priorities are wrong since we don’t know you any better than you know any of us.

    Is he immature, is he a tool? Quite possibly, but no more now than at the parade. He’s still the same AAU created and talent enabled jock he was then. If I was going to the game I’d cheer him, because we – me and the team, me and all the teams – have a deal. Kyrie held up his end big time. Being a guy I like was never part of the deal. I mean, guys currently on this team have done far worse things and we love them, even find them cuddly. Well, as long as they’re here and playing reasonably well.

  • WFNY_DP

    No biggie. There are more important things afoot.

  • humboldt

    Great piece, Andrew.

    I have been in the “cheer him pregame, boo him thereafter” camp. The last few weeks have challenged that, as he has hardly made any attempt at a gracious exit from the city. His recent comments softly denigrating Cleveland as a middling “sports town” (whatever that means) felt particularly petty. And yet ultimately, as the day is upon us, I find myself returning to the hope that the Clevelanders who are on hand tonight will take the high road initially and offer a polite midwestern show of gratitude before filling the arena with boos. That would make me especially proud of the city.

  • humboldt

    Your last line x 100

  • mgbode

    How about how Irving is leaving for what he hopes is a championship contender and decides to do the heel turn w/ specific quotes. Has LeBron done that one? (oh wait… turns to 2010 pages)

  • humboldt

    Not sure I’d say he has cultivated any particular antagonism towards Cleveland. He has handled the separation a bit gracelessly, and certainly said some vaguely petty things, but hardly exhibited behavior consistent with being a “heel”. The fan reaction will certainly be telling of the larger perception though

  • mgbode

    Love that analogy.

  • mgbode

    Indians > Browns … Rock has affirmed.

  • MartyDaVille

    The other thing is, How will the Cavs react to seeing him again?

    When LeBron came back the first time with Miami, several (most?) of the Cavs gave him a pregame hug, which didn’t sit well with the fans. I wonder if LeBron has put out the word that there will be no friendly fraternization beforehand. And maybe afterhand.

  • RGB

    You would ask that…

  • Corey Barnes

    I’m in camp “Cheer pregame; boo during game.” I’m enjoying the last few hours before seeing him in Celtic green. Irving hit the most important and significant shot in franchise history. I hope that when his career is over that’s still how I remember him.

  • mgbode

    “Real live sports city” the most telling but he’s had several statements. Not a big deal. I think he’s doing it to validate his own desire to leave. If he’s boo’d, then he can tell himself he was never really loved.

  • mgbode

    Mo Williams did not hug him.

    Yeah, I’d be surprised if any crossed the line on Kyrie on this visit. Subsequent games, I’d suspect it’ll be blown over.

  • mgbode

    Reference to Rose and how decidedly non-loved he should be noted.

  • Steve

    “It got to the point where otherwise serious basketball fans actually began to question if the team wasn’t better off with Matthew Dellavedova than Kyrie Irving.

    It certainly wasn’t one of Cavs fans’ brightest moments”

    In their three years together, the Cavs were about +5 per 100 possessions with Delly on the court, and about +1.5 with Irving on the court.

    The facts are always the facts. It’s only the made-up narrative that can be not bright.

  • Steve

    I can’t get worked up about it at all. Cavs fans would be Browns-fans-in-April ecstatic if Thomas or Crowder said that.

  • BenRM

    I didn’t like that Kyrie forced the trade, and I think he’s a weird guy who probably isn’t capable of being the leader the Celtics will need, but I didn’t begrudge his leaving.

    After he said the “real sports city” thing, he’s dead to me.

  • Steve

    As far as the max deal, he wasn’t a true free agent. The team could have matched any deal offered to him and kept him, so once he was offered the max, he wasn’t able to go anywhere else anyway.

  • The comments about Cleveland just strike me as Kyrie being who he’s always seemed to be: the kid who’s trying too hard. He REALLY wants you to like him, Boston. He really wants to be liked, period. So he heaps praise on his new home as part of that effort. I just have a hard time taking it personally in this case.

  • JM85

    If he wants to lose to the Cavs in the playoffs then good for him. I’ll agree with those saying cheer before the game, then boo.

  • humboldt

    Yeah, he’s not mean-spirited, just a little self-absorbed and out-of-touch