HOUSTON: Kyrie Irving was walking between events Friday carrying a bag stuffed with his own All-Star jerseys when he stopped, pulled one out and stared at it.
“I just have to let this sink in,” said Irving, still a bit awestruck by the moment.
Maybe his mind wandered back to childhood and the NBA promise he made his father. Perhaps he thought of his mother, Elizabeth, who died when he was 4.
At just 20 years old, another of Irving’s lifelong dreams has been fulfilled.
His ability to stay cool and collected at all times was challenged a bit by his All-Star weekend experience. For as hard as he tried, there were moments when he looked the part of a 20-year-old kid genuinely enjoying the moment.
He heaved half-court shots with fellow All-Stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh near the end of Saturday’s All-Star practice. He was showered with praise for his incredible crossover dribbles during Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge that left Detroit Pistons guard Brandon Knight grasping at air and tumbling to the ground.
And between sponsor appearances, league appearances and just walking the halls of the Hilton and the streets of Houston, Irving signed roughly 1,000 autographs from Thursday afternoon through Saturday night.
“It’s truly an honor to be part of this,” he said. “Especially in my second year in the NBA.”
Before he walked out of Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., for the final time last year following his All-Star obligations, Irving declared he’d be back. The Rising Stars game and Skills Challenge just weren’t enough anymore. He was determined to return to this year’s game as a certified All-Star.
He is sixth in scoring at 23.5 points and his ability to finish around the basket drew heavy praise from James, who called Irving “one of the best finishers we have in our game.”
Irving made it despite the Cavs’ woeful record, which is no easy feat in a league that traditionally rewards the league’s best teams with All-Star selections. Yet Irving has managed to already enter into the discussion of the league’s best point guards.
Cavs coach Byron Scott recently called him one of the three best, placing the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul and the Boston Celtics’ Rajon Rondo ahead of him. That’s it.
“We were just having a conversation about him the other day,” Golden State Warriors forward David Lee said. “He needs to get better defensively … but I think [soon] he could be the best guard in the game.”
Irving said before arriving in Houston he wanted to pound as many events into the weekend as he could, and that’s precisely what he did. Amid concerns he ended the first half of the season exhausted and in need of a break, Irving instead stayed busy on his tired legs throughout the weekend.
He practiced with his Rising Stars teammates Friday morning, then fulfilled media obligations in the afternoon before participating in the NBA Cares program at a local Houston playground.
When he was done, Irving asked to walk into the elementary school to visit with some of the students when an administrator told him there was a teacher on staff who went to Duke and asked permission for her to come down and meet him.
The teacher, Miss Washington, appeared wearing a Duke T-shirt. Irving turned around and was stunned, not at the T-shirt, but because he knew her. Turns out, Miss Washington attended Duke at the same time as Irving, and the two had mutual friends.
His Saturday was jammed with an autograph appearance at the NBA Jam Session, then more media interviews and an All-Star practice, where Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra threw his arm around Irving and said, “This dude hurt some people last night.”
It was in reference to his 32-point performance in the Rising Stars Challenge and his crossover, step-back jump shot that left the crowd wowed and Knight flat on his back. Following All-Star practice, Irving had events with two sponsors, Skullcandy and Nike, before he finally had a couple of hours to return to his hotel room and relax before participating in the 3-point shootout as part of All-Star Saturday Night.
Today’s schedule is much lighter, and he should have most of the day to himself prior to tonight’s All-Star Game.
Irving can be moody with reporters in Cleveland, but he seemed to enjoy the attention this weekend — even the strange questions from the international press.
He was asked what would be the most difficult thing to give up for Lent (Sour Patch Kids), what he could beat Michael Jordan at (Uno) and he admitted to liking Adele. And when a small boy appeared with a microphone for Sports Illustrated for Kids asking him which superhero he’d want on a basketball team (Spider-Man, Batman or Iron Man), Irving briefly looked bewildered before choosing Spider-Man.
Most players vividly remember their first All-Star experience, and Irving will likely be no different. As the years pass, he could elect to not participate in as many events, but this year he jumped right in and searched for more.
It has been quite a journey for a kid with the self-proclaimed “toughness from New York” coupled with a “smooth Jersey game.”
His father, Dred, tried out for the Celtics, but didn’t make the team and was forced to go overseas to play professionally. When Dred told his son the story about the Celtics, a young Kyrie promised his dad he would go further.
“That’s what he pushed me to do and more or less what I pushed myself to do,” Irving said. “My dad was there guiding me, but I had to take the steps for myself.”
Today Irving will take his biggest step yet, that of an NBA All-Star.
Quite a story. Quite a ride.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.