“I’m locked and loaded,” Kyrie Irving said as he hit his twelfth straight three-point jumper at an Elmora Youth League basketball tryout in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
“I’m locked and loaded baby,” he said again, draining his 13th straight. Then his 14th. Then his 15th.
This was in November of 2009. At the time, Irving was a 17-year-old high school phenom coming off of his junior season when he led his St. Patrick’s high school basketball team to a New Jersey State Championship.
Irving was widely recognized as a top-five college-recruit in the nation, and was committed to play at Duke University. At this youth basketball league tryout, he was attending in support of his godbrother Josh Green, a seventh grader at the time who ended up becoming a basketball teammate of mine that season. “[Being Irving’s godbrother] was cool,” Green recounted to me June 20. “He taught me a lot, like the importance of having a good work ethic and taking the game seriously enough to the point that if I wanted to play on a bigger stage I would be ready for it.”
While almost every other kid at the tryout had no idea who Kyrie Irving was, I was in sheer awe of his presence. I had the great fortune to watch Kyrie develop his skills earlier that year on Sunday afternoons at the Youth Men’s Youth Women’s Hebrew Association gym in Union, New Jersey, where my uncle, Larry Markowitz, happened to work.
The first time I saw Irving play in a game was during his junior year of high school, and I became mesmerized by how incredible of a talent he was. My father took my brothers and I to see Irving and his Saint Patrick’s High School teammates play in the 2009 Union County Championship Game against my hometown Elizabeth High School Minutemen. Irving dropped 27 points en route to being named the game’s MVP.
“He’s going to be a pro one day dad! He’s going to be an all-star,” I said. At that moment, my father felt the need to remind me that, while Kyrie was talented, there are no guarantees in the sports world, and that injuries and misfortune often prevent great prospects from reaching their potential. Nonetheless, I had faith in what I had seen.
Convinced that Irving would one day be a top player in the NBA, I worked up the courage to go to the YM-YWHA on the Sunday after the County Finals to ask him for his autograph. I brought a copy of the Star Ledger’s sports page, which happened to have a picture of Irving on the cover.
“Mr. Irving,” I said as I approached him in the Gym’s hallway during a break in his workout. Keep in mind, I was 12 years old at the time, and Kyrie was 16. “Can I please have your autograph?” He smiled.
“Sure thing kid, but please. Call me Kyrie,” 16-year-old Irving said as he took the newspaper and pen from my hand and scribbled his John Hancock onto the photograph of himself. When he finished signing the autograph, he dashed back into the gym to continue his workout.
It was in that gym, with the assistance of AAU basketball coach Sandy Pyonin, that the young point guard honed his talents.
A seasoned veteran in the coaching world, Pyonin has seen 35 of his players reach the NBA, a list that includes the likes of Al Harrington, Randy Foye and Anthony Avent.
Pyonin first saw Irving play in 2005 when Irving and his Roosevelt Middle School teammates took on Pyonin’s Solomon Schechter team. It was Irving’s father who asked Pyonin to help train Kyrie, Pyonin recounted.
“Usually kids and fathers after eighth grade, in a basketball setting, they don’t mesh and they can’t get along. So he turned him over to me. So I trained him everyday since eighth grade,” Pyonin said.
Drederick Irving, Irving’s father, was also a talented basketball player. Drederick played basketball at Boston University for coach Rick Pitino, and he went on to have a professional career in Australia.
Not only did Irving’s father have his son train with Pyonin, but he also let Kyrie become a member of Pyonin’s AAU basketball team, the New Jersey Roadrunners. While he was always a talented player, Irving didn’t start to show signs of how great he could be until his sophomore year of high school, Pyonin said.
Pyonin remembers the first time he saw Irving’s full potential was at a tournament in Las Vegas. He recalls Irving approaching him after the tournament to ask him why he played so many minutes, and Pyonin told him it was because he saw something special in him.
Not only was Irving a special talent, but he was also a hard worker.
“He would play until no one wanted to play anymore. He would be the last man standing, and then go off to play more somewhere else. He was a very special student of the game,” Pyonin recounted.
Irving’s hard work allowed him to go on to have a stellar high school career, which culminated in a scholarship to play basketball at Duke University. As a starting freshman for the Blue Devils, Irving averaged 17.5 points and 4.3 assists per game. However, he was only able to play in 11 games due to a toe injury on his right foot.
Following his freshman year, Irving decided to enter the 2011 NBA Draft. Despite the injury and the lack of games played in college, the Cleveland Cavaliers had enough faith in what they saw from Irving to select him with the first pick in the draft. The pick came as a pleasant surprise to those who had been following his career up until that point.
“I was really surprised, just excited as can be for him,” his godbrother Josh Green said.
Irving was quick to impress in the NBA. In his first season in the league, Irving averaged 18.5 points and 5.4 assist per game, and his performance was enough to earn him the 2012 Rookie of the Year Award.
Despite the great numbers he put up his rookie year, Irving struggled again with injuries. In a strike shortened 66 game seasons, Irving missed 15 games.
In the seasons that followed, Irving’s game continued to progress, but he also continued to get injured. It became clear to fans during the 2012-2013 the Irving had arguably the best ball handling skills in the NBA since Allen Iverson.
However, what fans were never sure of was whether or not Irving could stay healthy. In a span of just under five years, Irving had been victim of ligament tears in one of his toes, a concussion, a shoulder injury, a broken hand, a broken finger, a broken nose, and most notably a broken kneecap in overtime of Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals. The broken kneecap was such a big setback for Irving that it caused him to miss nearly half of the 2015-2016 NBA regular season.
Having followed Irving since he was just a high school player, I felt awful for him as he was forced to sit out at the start of the season. It seemed as if the injury gods had doomed his career to be a tale of what could have been, or at least that’s what people saw from the outside looking in.
Time and time again, Irving had dealt with injuries that had impeded his path to success, but he did not allow them to keep him from returning to full strength.
“He was really patient with the process, but knew he would be back to his normal self,” Green said.
Irving worked his way back and made his season debut in a home game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 20, 2015. At first, Irving did not look like the explosive scorer that he had been in the first few years of his NBA career. His field percentage and scoring average was down. However, as time passed, it seemed like Irving’s confidence began to grow.
Along with the rest of his Cavalier teammates, Irving had a spectacular first three rounds of play in the 2016 NBA playoffs. The Cavalier’s went 12-2 in the Eastern conference playoffs and reached the finals for the second straight year. Their opponent would be the Golden State Warriors, the team that they had lost to in the previous year’s finals.
Finally at full health, Irving had a chance to validate the belief held by many fans that the Cavaliers would have beaten the Warriors in the 2015 finals had Irving been healthy for the entire series.
“You can quote me: He’s definitely better than Steph Curry. If he didn’t get hurt last year, they’d be talking about Kyrie like they’ve been talking about Steph Curry all year,” Pyonin said.
Perhaps he’s right because, with Cleveland trailing Golden State 2-0 in the series, Irving went on an absolute scoring tear.
In Game 3 June 8, Irving dropped 30 to help the Cavaliers get their first win of the series. In Game 4 June 10, Irving scored 34 points in Cleveland’s losing effort to the Warriors. However, those two games were nothing in comparison to the show Irving put on in game 5 June 13.
Playing both on the road and on the brink of elimination, with his team trailing 3-1 in the NBA Finals, Irving had the performance of a lifetime. The six-foot-three point guard scored 41 points on 71 percent shooting from the floor.
“He expects to make the shot, and he doesn’t hesitate. He doesn’t care what the papers say,” Pyonin said.
It didn’t hurt the Cavaliers that LeBron James, Irving’s super-star teammate, also scored 41 points in game 5. The performance of Cleveland’s two stars saved the series for the Cavaliers.
Irving followed up his historic game 5 performances with a 23-point outing in a 115-101 Game 6 victory June 16. The win set up a Game 7 and gave Cleveland a chance to become the first team to ever come back from a 3-1 series deficit to win the NBA Finals.
Game 7 did not disappoint, as it was the only game in the finals that came down to the last possession. With the game tied 89-89 at the 54 second mark, Irving, guarded by Stephen Curry, stepped-back with his dribble beyond the three-point line, pulled up for a jumper, and nailed a three-pointer that ended up being the determining basket of the NBA Finals.
Seeing Kyrie hit a game-winning jumper in the finals came as no surprise to those who had seen him play since his youth.
“It was a special shot, but knowing Kyrie, he’s not afraid of anyone or any moment. If you remember back, I think he challenged Kobe Bryant to a one-on-one game,” Pyonin said.
“I knew he was going to hit the shot. Kyrie lives for those moments. He’s hit big shots like that before, and for him to hit a shot like that in the NBA Finals, he just has proven to the doubters again that he is a force to be reckoned with in this league,” Green said.
Twenty years from now, when the next generation of basketball fans is learning about the 2016 NBA Finals, they’ll probably hear about how great LeBron James was.
They’ll see images of his confrontation with Draymond Green in Game 4, his back to back 41 point outings in elimination games; his blocks of Stephen Curry; his triple double and chase down block in Game 7, and his fulfillment of his promise to finally bring a championship back home to Cleveland. They’ll read that he led all players in the finals in point score, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. They’ll know he was, deservedly so, the unanimous the MVP.
Yet, what they might not realize is Kyrie Irving, to the surprise of no followers of his career, had a lights-out performance. Just like he was when he played in high school, or at my youth basketball tryout, or at the YM-YWHA, or at Duke University, or in the NBA, Kyrie Irving was “locked and loaded” on basketball’s biggest stage.