ORLANDO, FLA.: As he stood in front of the slate gray backdrop, flashbulbs popping in front of him, Kyrie Irving lowered his crystal trophy
a few inches Friday night and gave only one instruction to the photographer.
“Make sure you get the Cleveland,” Irving said, referring to the block “CAVALIERS” lettering across his home white jersey.
With one dazzling performance Friday night, in front of the largest television audience ever to watch the Rising Stars game, Irving made Cleveland relevant again in the NBA.
He scored 34 points, made all eight of his 3-point attempts and won the MVP award in the game of rookies and sophomores during the biggest weekend of the NBA’s regular season.
This is no longer just the franchise LeBron James abandoned 19 months ago. As the second half of the NBA season begins this week, the Cavs are a team on the rise again, right in the thick of the playoff race because of another teenage phenom the rest of the league is starting to notice.
“He’s taking Cleveland where they were a few years ago before LeBron left,” Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce said. “It’s a big void to fill, but he’s doing a great job.”
Pierce should know. Irving split two Celtics defenders and darted down the lane last month in Boston, flipping a shot over a late arriving Pierce for the first game-winner of his career.
“I think he’s great,” said Suns point guard and two-time MVP Steve Nash, who watched Irving pour in 26 points and six assists during a Cavs win in Phoenix last month. “He has a great feel for the game, he’s tremendously skilled, a good athlete and really confident. I think he’s on his way.”
Irving quietly slipped into the league last summer without the fanfare typical of No. 1 overall picks. A draft that was considered the worst in years, the NBA lockout last summer and a toe injury that limited him to 11 games in college culminated to make him a relative unknown when the season finally began.
The Cavs have no nationally televised games on TNT or ESPN this season, so All-Star weekend was Irving’s one and only audition for the rest of the nation. He hit every note and remembered every line.
“This is Kyrie Irving’s coming out party,” hall of fame nominee Reggie Miller said.
A television crew from NBA TV followed Irving around for the weekend, documenting his every move. It filmed his practice with the other rookies and sophomores on Thursday, the small celebration with friends and family at the players’ hotel after Irving won the MVP award Friday night and even followed him to Universal Studios on Sunday.
“He’s a good kid,” one of the members of the television crew said Saturday night as Irving’s All-Star weekend obligations were winding down. “He’s 19. You don’t realize he’s only 19.”
Irving is close with James, but has steadfastly dismissed any belief he is supposed to replace Northeast Ohio’s former king. They play different positions, have completely different body types and hold different responsibilities on the floor.
James won scoring titles and MVP awards and carried the Cavs to their one and only NBA Finals appearance in seven thrilling seasons.
Irving has been a member of the Cavs for a little over seven months.
“People are making a mistake if they’re looking at him to be the next LeBron,” said Shaquille O’Neal, the former MVP who played one season with James in Cleveland. “What LeBron did was fabulous and legendary. There will never be another LeBron with how he did it and how he came in and took over. Kyrie is also a leader, I’m not trying to take anything away from his game. But I would urge people not to put too much pressure on him.”
Irving has earned the respect of teammates nearly twice his age. Antawn Jamison, the 35-year-old veteran, leads the Cavs in shot attempts with exactly 100 more than Irving. But late in games when the Cavs need a basket, the ball never leaves the kid’s hands.
“He has an aura about him,” said Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, a former All-Star guard who was Irving’s coach in the Rising Stars game. “Guys are drawn to him and that’s rare. He seems to command the respect of guys a lot older than him, and that isn’t easy to do.”
Before he departed Amway Center on Saturday night, Irving made it clear he wants to be back next season. The All-Star game is in Houston and Irving intends to be there, not just for an encore performance in the Rising Stars game, but to make his first appearance in an NBA All-Star game.
“That’s what I’m working toward. It’s one of the goals on my list,” Irving said. “This All-Star break is a reward for working hard and being one of the best in the league. That’s where I want to be.”
When he gets there, he’ll be wearing a Cavs jersey. The franchise left for dead last season is alive and well again.
Make sure you get the Cleveland, indeed.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://cavs.ohio.com Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.