On the night he became a Boston Celtic, Kyrie Irving danced.
He shook and he shimmied and he pulsated with delight, radiating joy with every step.
He didn’t dance because he’d been traded. He was, at that moment, unaware of the deal sending him from Cleveland to Boston. That revelation would come later. No, Kyrie Irving danced—in a bright red tracksuit, wire-rimmed glasses and prosthetic teeth—because it’s what the script demanded.
And if there’s one thing the filmmakers behind Uncle Drew learned on that late-night shoot in August 2017, it’s that Kyrie Irving is always prepared—and just a bit mischievous.
Editor’s note: Opportunity next to LeBron. A crown for the taking. A max contract that needs to be lived up to. Welcome to “Time Is Now”—our look at the three players feeling the urgency in 2018-19.
The film’s other NBA stars—Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller and Nate Robinson, all playing gray-haired septuagenarian ballers—had dutifully rehearsed their moves for the big dance scene in full view of the producers. But Irving had stubbornly refused.
“He’s like: ‘I’m good. I don’t need a choreographer. I can dance. I promise you guys, I can dance,'” executive producer John Fischer recalled.
But Fischer and his co-executive producer, Marty Bowen, were worried. They’d rented a nightclub in downtown Atlanta and filled it with hundreds of extras. Timing was tight.
“If he can’t dance,” Bowen said that night, “we’re screwed.”
They brought in Kyrie’s body double, just in case he flopped. It was well after midnight when cameras finally rolled. Lights flashed, beats pulsed, and one by one the other players hit the dance floor. Irving was last.
“And he just steps up and nails it,” Fischer said. “The man can dance. He’s just a natural performer.”
So make that two things the filmmakers learned that night, the second being: Kyrie Irving is profoundly unconventional. Irving thinks differently, speaks differently, plays differently and takes paths that others don’t even see, both on and off the court. It’s what makes him great. It’s what makes him maddening.
Also, he really, really likes messing with people.
The dance routine? Irving had it down cold, long before he walked on set. He’d studied the choreographer’s video for 50 minutes. He could have rehearsed and calmed everyone’s nerves. He chose suspense for the fun of it.
“I was like, ‘Tssh, man, I got this,'” Irving says, chuckling. “What most people don’t know is that I went back and I practiced. I went back and I practiced the moves. Like, I was prepared. But coming in, it was just, like, ‘Oh, what’s Kyrie doing?’ Like, ‘He’s just so loopy right now.'”
That’s Irving: always ready, always entertaining, rarely predictable. A little…well…off.
If you’re a coach, he might refuse to return your messages for weeks, just to test you. If you’re a teammate, he might bait and debate you, just because. He might publicly question the spherical nature of our planet. And when that triggers a backlash, he might shrug and say, “I’m just asking questions.” He’ll confront, prod, provoke.
“He’s gonna challenge you mentally, psychologically, definitely,” Celtics teammate Marcus Smart says. “It comes off as sarcastic, it comes off as arrogant, but it’s just Kyrie. He’s different.”
It’s that boldness—the defiant, unorthodox thinking—that sent Irving to Boston a year ago, and that now fuels the confidence of this young, uber-talented Celtics team, which is poised to replace Irving’s old team as the new superpower of the Eastern Conference.
Boston is flush with talent, from All-Stars Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford to rising stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to a bench—featuring Smart, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris—that might be the league’s best.
The Celtics are deeper than Philadelphia, more stable than Toronto and built to contend for years to come, with Irving, who clinched the Cavaliers‘ 2016 title with his storybook three-pointer in Game 7, as their driving force.
He’s gonna challenge you mentally, psychologically, definitely. It comes off as sarcastic, it comes off as arrogant, but it’s just Kyrie. He’s different.
—Celtics guard Marcus Smart
On the court, Irving is as much artist as point guard, a sculptor of mind-bending moves, physics-defying direction changes and GIF-worthy finishes. A basketball iconoclast. No one plays quite like him—not in today’s NBA, nor in yesterday’s. Where others see an impenetrable barrier—a double-team, a triple-team—Irving sees an opening, a chance to do something dazzling. And quite often, he does, even if it sometimes makes the basketball purists wince.
“You can see it in the way he plays,” Brown says. “He’s free, he’s untethered. He comes out, I don’t even think he knows what he’s gonna do.”
“Just be you,” Irving often says, a credo that adorns his signature shoes and guides his actions, in and out of basketball.
It takes a certain creativity and confidence to dissect the NBA’s best defenses, or design your own shoe, or make a feature film out of a character you created or sing on the soundtrack of that film.
Brian Babineau/Getty Images
Or, say, to break up with the greatest player in the game. That’s the audacious maneuver Irving executed last year in forcing his way out of Cleveland, willingly leaving LeBron James after three straight runs to the Finals.
It might be the most unconventional of all the unconventional things he’s done.
No, Irving counters, “I think it was the best thing I’ve done, honestly.”
Where was Kyrie? Phil Handy was befuddled.
It was the summer of 2013, and Handy had just joined Mike Brown’s coaching staff in Cleveland. His first assignment—his most important assignment—was to work with Irving, the 2011 No. 1 overall pick, who was heading into his third NBA season.
Handy tried calling the number Irving had given him. He tried texting. He tried again. Nothing. For two weeks. Frustrated, he finally took a flight to Miami, where Irving was working out, to see him in person. Which, as it happens, was what Irving wanted.
“He was challenging me in a sense, to see how I was gonna handle it,” says Handy, who grew close to Irving in their four years together. “It wasn’t just a smooth start. This kid, he was very evasive, and he was doing it on purpose. We laugh and joke about it now, because we’re well beyond it.”
Irving’s explanation was simple, Handy recalls: “I didn’t know you. I had to give you another number just to keep you at bay, just to see what you were gonna do.”
The same themes run through every story from former coaches and teammates. That Irving doesn’t trust easily. That he’s guarded, wary of others’ motives. He needs to get a sense of a person before he extends a bridge.
Irving can come across as distant, aloof. The word “moody” is mentioned often among those who worked with him in Cleveland. There were reports of him disengaging with teammates for days at a time, feeding perceptions of Irving as self-centered, difficult or perhaps just uncomfortable in LeBron’s orbit.
Those feelings are not universal, however.
Tony Dejak/Associated Press
“I don’t believe it was moodiness,” says former Cavalier Mike Miller, who became one of Irving’s trusted mentors. “I just think it was trying to find himself in the midst of going from a team that won 18 games and him being The Man to a team that’s expected to win a championship. People don’t understand what expectations do.”
Miller also disputed any notion of Irving as disengaged, saying: “He just was focused on how could he get better. Is he a little bit to himself? Yeah, he does stuff different than a lot of NBA basketball players. But that’s a lot of great players in this league.”
Irving was just 22 years old when James returned to Cleveland in 2014. He was already a two-time All-Star, but he had yet to lead a team to a winning record, and he’d clashed with some teammates and coaches, stirring early doubts about his character.
Few stars arrive in this league fully formed, as people or as players, but those early impressions often stick and create a lasting haze, obscuring their steady growth. The Irving who strolled into the Celtics locker room last fall was not the same Irving who once scuffled with Dion Waiters and butted heads with Mike Brown.
This edition of Irving, still young at 26, with seven years of NBA service, three Finals appearances, one ring and one career-defining shot, arrived in Boston as a champion, a veteran, a leader, even.
“The Kyrie I thought he was is not him,” Smart says. “The tension, selfishness and things like that, about having his own team … that’s not him.”
None of the old descriptions feel valid anymore. Whereas young Kyrie was branded moody and disengaged, Boston Kyrie is called upbeat and generous, an indefatigable cheerleader for his teammates.
Jaylen Brown calls Irving “a great teacher.” Tatum admires him as “an intellectual individual.” Horford lauds him as “down-to-earth.” Rozier calls him “very genuine” and “a funny guy.”
And not a day goes by that Irving doesn’t do something that makes everyone stop and say, “Wow.”
Brian Babineau/Getty Images
“In open gym, it was literally him against three people,” Horford says, describing one mind-blowing sequence. “There was a defender that was coming. [Irving] was running full speed, stopped, put the ball [behind] his back. There was a guy right here, so I don’t know how he got the ball across it, but the ball split the two guys, he took a step, the other defender—the third defender—came up, he took another step, he grabbed it, whipped it behind his back and laid it up. But it was like a fading floater with the left hand. It’s stuff that you can’t make up.”
“And it went in,” Horford adds, in case there was any doubt. “That’s one of those plays that I’ll never forget.”
If you love Irving’s game, plays like this are proof of his genius, not just the athleticism such moves require, but also the vision and audacity to try them at all. To the Kyrie skeptic, it’s just proof of his tunnel vision—an inability to see beyond himself.
And maybe it’s both, which would make Irving no different than his mentor Kobe Bryant, or Bryant’s idol Michael Jordan or any number of other dazzling talents in basketball history. The greats always believe they can do it all. As Bryant said: “I trust the team. I just trust myself more.” Selfishness, in other words, is in the eye of the beholder.
Irving is evolving here, too, in subtle ways. Though the statistics last season suggest Irving was broadly the same player he’s always been, you can see a greater willingness to move the ball, to dominate less, to blend his talents with this promising young crew.
If it seems as if the pressure and scrutiny that dogged Irving through his Cleveland years changed him, it did. There’s a self-awareness about him now, a realization that he might have mishandled certain situations. He seems more at ease, more comfortable expressing himself, less concerned with perceptions.
“Everybody can’t expect you to lead a championship team and then come back to the media and care about what everybody else says,” Irving says. “Like, it’s just impossible. You’re gonna drive yourself nuts. And I did that.
“So I try to tell these young guys in here that you’re looking at a guy that has been through the wringer of being one of the top-tier guys in this league. I’ve been underranked, I’ve been overranked, I’ve been overrated, I’ve been underrated, I’ve been everything that you can think of, every word of comparison. So at the end of the day, man, just find a balance in it. Find what makes you happy, and then honestly, just live your life doing that.”
For Irving, that moment did not come after he made an All-Star team, or the Finals or even after helping deliver Cleveland its first championship in a half-century. It came after leaving all that behind.
Winslow Townson/Associated Press
“Honestly, it’s come in the last year,” Irving says, meaning in Boston.
In a press conference a day earlier, Irving acknowledged he’d felt anxiety around his Celtics debut last fall—about the questions that kept coming about the trade and his motives and his character. All that has since fallen away.
I’ve been underranked, I’ve been overranked, I’ve been overrated, I’ve been underrated, I’ve been everything that you can think of, every word of comparison. So at the end of the day, man, just find a balance in it.
Joining a younger, less decorated roster has given Irving the latitude to lead and express himself in a way he never could in a locker room dominated by LeBron and a crowd of veterans in Cleveland.
“Just be you,” he says, smiling and chuckling slightly at invoking his own commercial mantra. “It finally hit me. It finally hit me at 26 years old, eight years in.”
On the eve of the 2018 playoffs, Kyrie Irving invited Terry Rozier to raid his shoe closet.
Sidelined by knee surgery, Irving was channeling all his energy into preparing Rozier, his understudy, for the postseason. As it happens, their feet are the same size. So part of that preparation began in the closet, which was filled with every version of Irving’s signature shoe, from the Kyrie 1 through the Kyrie 4, dozens of them, in every colorway.
“That was special,” Rozier says. “He didn’t even go in there with me. He was like, ‘Yo, take as many pairs of shoes as you need.'”
Rozier grabbed 10 pairs, enough to carry him through three playoff rounds, all the way through Game 7 of the conference finals, in which the Celtics—sans Irving and Hayward—fell to LeBron’s Cavaliers.
With Irving providing both moral support and arch support, Rozier went on the greatest tear of his young career, averaging 16.5 points, 5.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds over 19 games.
“It’s all genuine at the end,” Rozier says. “I know he cares for me, and I care for him.”
The 6’7″ Brown wears a slightly larger shoe but says Irving has been just as generous with his basketball insights, sharing tips on footwork, ball-handling, shooting and how to operate in the screen-and-roll.
“A lot of times, people that have acquired so much status or so much respect or experience throughout the game, or throughout any walk of life, they don’t want to share it,” Brown says. “Kyrie’s the complete opposite. He’s completely willing and open to sharing any information that he’s learned along his way.”
For Smart, the clearest vision of Irving came in September, after Smart’s mother, Camellia, died of cancer. Irving, whose mother, Elizabeth, died when he was a child, sent Smart a paragraph-long text message offering his sympathy and open-ended support.
“He actually cares for people,” Smart says. “He sits, he talks, he cares about you, wants to know how you’re doing, what’s going on in your life. … It shows a lot about his character.”
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
And if anyone doubted Irving’s basketball values, his alter ego spelled them out on the big screen this summer.
“You play the game the right way, it fixes everything,” Uncle Drew says in one scene. “Gladys Knight ain’t nothing without the Pips,” he says in a speech about teamwork. The script came from Jay Longino, a lifelong basketball addict who played some low-level pro ball before becoming a screenwriter. But the sentiments came straight from Irving.
“It’s all him,” Longino says. “I don’t think he would have put anything in Uncle Drew’s mouth, even if I had written it, that wasn’t something that he believes, or that Uncle Drew believes. In my opinion, they’re connected.”
Critics would point out, rightly, that those virtues haven’t always been evident. In Cleveland, coaches and teammates were constantly pleading with Irving to be a more willing passer and playmaker—in essence, to be a better teammate. James himself called out Irving publicly, more than once, for his paltry assist numbers.
Irving rebuffed those pleas. He viewed himself as a scorer first and foremost. And that led to some furious arguments with the coaching staff. Witnesses recall one particularly profane exchange at a shootaround Feb. 1, 2017. That night, as if to prove a point, Irving went out and dropped 10 assists in the first half against Minnesota. He had just four in the second half.
“Just to stick it up everyone’s ass,” says one Cleveland source who considers Irving a friend. “He can do it any time he wants to.”
Irving sat out the next game with a sore quad, and then averaged 5.3 assists in the next four. A passive-aggressive mind game? That’s certainly how some Cavs officials viewed it.
In December of that same season, Irving had double-digit assists in four of five games and five out of seven. It left team officials wondering, as they often did, Why can’t he do this all the time?
“He can be as big an asshole as you deal with,” the same Cleveland source says, “and then he can be as genuine and real and engaging. And you’ll walk away going, ‘Man, I love that M-Fer.'”
Tony Dejak/Associated Press/Associated Press
Kyrie the provocateur has not disappeared. He still prods and pokes and challenges on a daily basis, forever testing each teammate’s will and intellect. The debates can be intense, teammates say, though they decline to offer any details.
“I’m the same way, so I love it,” Jaylen Brown says. “Once you become aware of yourself and everything around you, you can do stuff like that. You can test people’s acuity. And Ky is one of those people that has that.”
So, after a year of intellectual warfare, who’s winning?
“You can say the game is still going,” Brown says, smiling slightly. “But I’m a hell of a chess player. I tell him that.”
For the best view into Kyrie Irving’s soul, start with his soles. There you will see a snapshot of his values and his creative spirit.
The Kyrie shoe line is infused with life lessons and tributes, all authored by Irving himself. Look closely, and you’ll find the names of his daughter (Azurie) and his late mother (Elizabeth) and the initials N.J. (for New Jersey, his home state).
A more subtle touch: parallel lines symbolizing the “two fingers of death”—a disciplinary measure that Irving’s father Drederick invoked during Kyrie’s childhood. When Kyrie got out of line, his father would order him to lean against a wall, balancing only on two fingers.
Other inscriptions include “Fear is not real,” “H+H” (“Hungry and Humble,” another Drederick lesson) and, of course, “JBY” (“Just Be You”).
“I always try to pay homage to those who have taught me about what I’m learning,” Irving says.
The Kyrie franchise is among Nike’s best sellers. The fourth edition is the most personal, and it seems to strike a chord with younger fans, including the children of Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who peppered Irving with questions about the shoes around the dinner table one night.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
“You hear him talk, and you realize this is a special guy from a creativity standpoint,” Stevens says. “Just how much time and thought he puts into those things.”
Query Irving about his creative process, and his thoughts will quickly hopscotch—to art and fashion and YouTube videos and a documentary he just watched the other day.
“Have you ever seen the autobiography or the movie of Jean-Michel Basquiat?” he asks. “It’s like, I just randomly turned to it. I was already on that line of figuring out who that man was for our culture. When I saw that movie, I just came across it, and then from that point, I was like, ‘Oh, I want to learn more about art!'”
Irving says he had been studying Basquiat, the 1980s-era artist known for his social commentary, before happening upon the film while aimlessly flipping through channels. He seemed quite pleased by the serendipity.
“I had taken a book from someone of Jean-Michel, of his sketches,” Irving says. “And then the next day, I turned to a movie and it was a full-on movie of his. That’s what inspires me.”
“He does have a creative mind, for sure,” Celtics president Danny Ainge says. “And he wants to be great. I think there’s also part of him that likes to be mysterious. I listen to the things he says sometimes, and it just makes me laugh. … He’s a deep guy. There’s a lot to Kyrie. And I like that about him.”
The thirst for inspiration and mental stimulus can lead to some unfortunate places. In February 2017, on a podcast with Cavs teammates Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye, Irving posited that Earth was flat, a stance he’s variously defended and veered from, depending on his mood, over the past year-and-a-half. He said he’d been doing research on the internet.
At times, Irving seemed absolutely serious. Other times, it appeared he was just doing what he’s always done with friends and teammates: prodding and testing and forcing people to challenge their own beliefs. Trolling, even. Whatever his intent then, Irving now says the whole flat-Earth flirtation was a mistake, a musing that morphed into something worse.
Steven Senne/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
“Being a kid,” he says, as if chastising the Kyrie of 2017. “Being a kid, just coming out saying things, questioning everything. … Just being a conspiracy theorist. It was, like, Man, you know how many people you’re affecting right now? Like, Saying stuff like this? Like, Even if you do believe it, you understand this is a big thing on Earth, saying stuff like that? Like, You gotta learn from this. And you gotta be more choosy with your words.“
The backlash, he says, was “all warranted,” adding, “My intellect gets me in trouble sometimes, which I’m aware of.”
(A week later, speaking at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Boston, Irving formally apologized for the whole flat-Earth episode.)
Wasn’t he mostly messing around, though? Just playing the provocateur?
“Yeah,” he says, “I don’t want to do that anymore, though.”
Some intellectual curiosities, he’s learned, are best reserved for private conversations. So when Irving is asked about the “all-seeing eye”—a symbol used in his Instagram avatar, tattooed on the back of his right hand and imprinted on the pull tab of his signature shoes—he demurs.
“It’s there,” he says playfully, “for a reason.”
If you happened to be strolling through downtown Atlanta in the early hours of Aug. 22, 2017, you might have come upon an odd sight: an elderly man, tall and athletic, dressed in a red tracksuit, wandering the streets, possibly crying, possibly whooping with glee. Uncle Drew had just gotten his wish.
The trade sending Irving to Boston had just been consummated in principle. Irving got the news in a phone call from his agent, just after stepping off the nightclub dance floor. He broke down right there. He hugged a member of the film crew, a grip who had worn a Celtics jersey to the set every day.
Then he took a walk.
“Went outside and cried, let it all out, let go of all the emotions and just really, finally, it just hit me,” Irving says a year after the trade. “And when I found out I was going to Boston, I was like … I couldn’t believe it. Out of all places.”
Irving’s parents met here, at Boston University. One of his closest friends attended Boston College. Another is at Harvard. “So I was already really connected here,” he says. “I got a family here, people to take care of me, and then obviously the people in the organization do a great job, too.”
Brian Babineau/Getty Images
Without prompting, Irving goes into a reverential soliloquy about Stevens and Ainge. A day earlier, in an on-camera interview, he’d openly mused about one day having his jersey hanging in the TD Garden rafters. His happiness is palpable. The potential here is limitless.
So much has broken perfectly since the trade. LeBron took his talents to Hollywood, leaving a power vacuum in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics’ young prospects—Tatum, Brown and Rozier—made major leaps in their development. The injuries last season to Irving and Hayward now look like a short-term setback.
The Celtics are the new favorites in the East, and they have the talent and versatility to threaten the Warriors in a potential meeting in June. Irving’s seemingly confounding decision doesn’t look confounding anymore.
“Like, keep it real,” Irving says. “If I was still in Cleveland, I would be … like everything that was foreseen to happen, happened.”
Loose translation: If I’d stayed, I’d be stranded on a non-contender, with a lineup built to support a different superstar.
“Change is hard sometimes, man,” Irving says, chuckling at the apoplectic reactions to his trade demand. “And deciding to do what’s best for you is not gonna look the same for everyone else. So you have to willfully accept that.”
Like, keep it real. If I was still in Cleveland, I would be … like everything that was foreseen to happen, happened.
He adds: “I think it was the best move for my career, honestly, because it wasn’t about any particular person or anything like that. It was just time. It was just time. It may not have looked ‘time’ for everyone else, but for me, it was time.”
It wasn’t the conventional decision, nor seemingly the most rational, at least to everyone else. As usual, Kyrie Irving saw what the rest of us couldn’t.
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Lakers beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His work has been honored by the APSE each of the last two years.