Full Circle

Kyrie Irving has a chance to deliver on his promise to Mike Krzyzewski from years ago.

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran on ProBasketballTalk.

LAS VEGAS — Kyrie Irving heads to Rio Olympics this week hoping it is the culmination of a conversation that started in Irving’s parents New Jersey home back in 2009.

That’s when he and Mike Krzyzewski first talked of winning a title together during the player’s recruitment for Duke.

“I did win a World Championship with him (in 2014) and this will cement our relationship of finally getting to play for a championship that we envisioned when I was 17 years old and he was recruiting me,” Kyrie Irving said. “I’m glad I have this opportunity with him.”

Seven years ago when that conversation began, Krzyzewski and Irving pictured that title as one in Durham — but the basketball gods were not going to let that happen. Irving played just 11 games at Duke due to a toe injury his freshman year. Rather than return to the Blue Devils, he went on to the NBA where he was the No. 1 pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011 (the season after LeBron James left them to take his talents to South Beach).

Now, the culmination of that title conversation could come with a gold medal at the Rio Olympics — in Coach K’s final run as the coach of USA Basketball.
“It’s definitely emotional — and I don’t shy away from that at all,” Irving told NBC Sports during a break in the shooting of a Kids Foot Locker commercial in Vegas, after a Team USA practice. “The 2014 World Championships was great, but being this is his last hurrah, thinking about the storyline of him and Jerry Colangelo taking over USA Basketball and what they did just to shape American basketball in general, and the honor of playing for USA Basketball.

He added, “We were all reminded when they took over. It was a prestige honor before, but once they came in and built up a culture, it totally changed into a different dynamic.

“Every generation that is coming up has to come through USA Basketball if you’re, quote/unquote, a top player in the country. I enjoy that it’s now a generational shift. Constantly, constantly, we’re getting kids coming in and playing a part of USA Basketball.”

Irving revealed that he’s been a part of the national team since he was 17 years old, participating in the U.S. select team that usually has young, upcoming NBA players and incoming top rookies. He credits his development to being a part of the program for the past seven years. Considering all of those factors along with Krzyzewski’s final international competition, Irving’s motivations are clear.

“That it’s being his last year is definitely an emotional one, but I’m glad I could be part of it.”

* * *

Krzyzewski also is emotionally tied to Irving, despite the point guard’s short time at Duke, but the West Point graduate and veteran coach tends to play the personal side down.

“I know he wants to play for the U.S., wants to win a gold medal. I think down the list, he wants to play for me,” Coach K said after a USA practice. “I’m not saying way down the list. But the primary thing, Kyrie wants to be a great player, and this gives him an opportunity to play with different people. It brings out different qualities of him… like leadership.

“Our guys usually become better in this. They usually have really good years [coming off USA Basketball], and then he can rest after. He’ll still have about six weeks before the season. I’m proud of him.”

As he did when he was at Duke, Coach K trusts the high IQ game of Irving to execute his vision on the court. With Team USA that vision is to overwhelm opponents with athleticism and pressure — defend aggressively, force turnovers and misses, then just get out and run.

Irving loves it.

“Basketball is fun when you’re getting stops,” Irving said of the defensive focus. “The other team’s not scoring. You’re getting out, just playing a free motion basketball. For me, I’m looking forward to it, because I know I’m out pressuring the ball and I know I’ve got Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and Jimmy Butler — I have all these guys behind me on defense. That’s just an exciting game to watch and play.”

He’s also got other ball handlers he can trust to share the load in transition and the half court — Butler, George, Thompson, Durant, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and on down the line Everybody can pitch in — and everybody needs to sacrifice. Great players have to accept smaller roles. That is where Irving feels he can lead.

“Being part of a great team is even bigger than personal accomplishment,” Irving said. “I stand true that I’ll always want to be part of a great team because the atmosphere and culture that’s built around it you guys are bonded forever if you do something that’s bigger than all ya guys. And that right there is winning a gold medal.”

* * *

Irving didn’t have to take on the pressure.

Coming off a title year, Irving could have spent the summer partying on boats and soaking in the good life — he earned the right with a vintage step-back three over Stephen Curry that won the Cavaliers an NBA title (Cleveland’s first in 52 years). Irving could have taken a summer off and basked in the championship glow.

But that’s not how he’s wired.

“I think a player has a dog’s life in their career, 13, 15 (years]),” Krzyzewski said. “Hopefully that long. So when you feel that momentum going where you’re getting better, I’m not sure you want to stop.”

Irving said he likes to test himself. He goes out of his way to prove that in the post-practice one-on-one and knockout battles where the team USA players face-off. Those moments drip with intensity.

“It’s definitely a personal challenge, because in a team environment, when you’re respective team, I can’t necessarily go one-on-one with a Paul George. I can’t go one-on-one with Kevin Durant. And I can’t go one-on-one with Jimmy Butler,” Irving said. “We all have positions that we have to fill, and when you bring all those onto one team, and we’re a very significant contributor on our respective teams and you bring everyone here, then it’s like, okay, this is the time when we test our skills against one another — and it’s all in good fun and great competition.”

While the title didn’t change his summer plans for Rio, Irving admitted this summer has been different — being a champion raised his profile.

“Not any other summer in my life have I won an NBA championship, which has been great,” Irving said. “It’s just been awesome because of partnerships I’ve had throughout the years in my career, and now we get to put a lot of great ideas out there, and I get to be part of a lot of great things. I’m just thankful and I’m just trying to take advantage of it, but also do it in a creative space I’m comfortable with.”

That includes being front and center for Kids Foot Locker, where he will star in three ads between now and the end of the year. The first is a back-to-school spot that will dropped today (just in time for the Olympics) and there will be a Christmas ad (which will drop right about when the Kyrie 3s do).

Yet more importantly, he’s focused on winning. Like always. The challenge he sees for this Team USA is not talent — no matter how many big names stayed home — but rather developing chemistry.

“Us just coming together as a team,” Irving said when I asked about the biggest challenge Team USA faces. “A lot of other teams, other countries, have been playing together since however long. For us, we all have our seasons of 82 games, then of course the playoffs, and after that we go straight into (Team USA camp). So we have to come together a lot quicker than other teams…

“We’re representing something that’s bigger than all of us, and that’s our country. For me, I just relish the opportunity to have a guy like a Klay Thompson, a KD, and Draymond Green all on one team, and I know those guys are going to compete as hard as ever.”

And win a gold medal.

A title for Irving and Coach K. Just like they always talked about.