Last night was the first night that I rooted for Kyrie Irving the player. Last season was Irving’s first year in Boston, but admittedly then, I was cheering for laundry. There wasn’t a connection there yet and he had been traded for Isaiah Thomas, one of the few players that had reached Larry Bird/Paul Pierce levels with me as a fan. Thomas had become a legend in his three-year stint with the Celtics and his run in 2017 is folk lore for a franchise rich with heroes, my heroes. But in that overtime win in DC, it wasn’t so much that I wanted that win for the team that I’ve been rooting for all my life; I wanted that win for Kyrie.
There’s a funny thing that happens when you’re a sports fan. I’ve loved basketball my whole life. I’ve played it for almost forty years now and written about it for nearly a decade. I marvel at the technical aspects of it, the X’s and O’s that have grown so much more complicated than the simple arrows and dashed lines my coach used to draw up on my junior high team. Players’ skills these days are off the charts. They do things that I wouldn’t have even imagined growing up. Players are faster and stronger, shooting windows are smaller, and everybody has the handle of a Globetrotter.
But the longer you watch, the more sports become a religion. You find what you believe in in the team that you follow. Maybe it starts out as a metaphor, but the more and more you invest yourself in it, it becomes a living breathing thing. They win, you win. They lose, you feel like the world is caving in.
I appreciate the art of it, too. When I first started writing for CelticsBlog, I wrote a piece about Rajon Rondo and how he played ball like he was playing jazz. It’s the part of the game that it’s sometimes hard to talk about, those incoherent passionate rants that you go off on after a big game with only your kid or your wife just half listening. Try explaining what makes your favorite player special. There’s that extra 10% that’s inexplicable. It’s finesse. It’s pizzazz. It’s art. Unless you’re on NBA Twitter like the rest of us basketball nerds, you might as well be explaining advanced calculus to a dog.
And every so often, the left side of your basketball brain melds in to the right. You start to appreciate the whole thing like a song or a dance; it has its very technical aspects to it that few can master, but there’s also the artistry in it that pushes it to a higher plane. Only a handful of players get there. Rondo did briefly, but his genius never seemed to last long enough to truly appreciate. Pierce always struck me as a great tactician. His heroics lacked the flair of an out-of-the-box thinker. For the Celtics in my lifetime, Bird was the closest. He was the perfect combination of undercard underdog boxer and master conductor of an 80-piece orchestra. It’s early, but for one night, I saw that brilliance in Kyrie Irving.
Irving is this new age superstar that’s taken a lot of time for me to get used to. I’ve always gravitated towards hard hat, blue collar types like Marcus Smart. Kyrie is not that guy. He doesn’t give pat answers to cliched sports questions. He’s a cerebral, self-aware star who seemingly understands his place in history and also just really loves to play ball. He’s a statesman among his millennial peers and has the reverence of a die hard fan from the old school. He’s the 26-year-old millionaire playing Uncle Drew in real life as a 26-year-old millionaire.
Consider what Kyrie has done over the last two months. After verbally committing to re-sign in Boston next summer, he struggled early in the season and held himself accountable for the team’s slow start. He took it upon himself to be a leader in the locker room and simultaneously preached patience with the process and motivated Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown to keep pushing. And on a special night in the nation’s capital with fans showering him with MVP chants, he made me a fan.
Kyrie was special in the 4th quarter and in overtime against the Wizards, the kind of “special” where as a fan, it’s not that you can rely on him per se; you have faith. When he hit those back-to-back threes in OT, you just knew that they were going in because of that inexplicable feeling you get when you know you’re in a moment. In his most recent Nike commercial, Irving yet again telegraphs his intentions of staying in Boston and more importantly, being great in green. Entering The Garden, he mutters the words, “...what better place” and hints at retiring his number #11 to the rafters. After last night, I believe him.