CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – Kyrie Irving is just days away from making his Boston Celtics debut in his old stomping grounds of Cleveland. It will be the first in a much-anticipated edition of Irving versus LeBron James after Irving broke up the NBA All-Star duo with an off-season trade request. And the energy in Quicken Loans Arena could very well end up being anti-Irving despite the fact he played a big role in winning the Cavaliers’ lone title and filled up the stat sheet for years.
While Irving is expecting a wild return to Cleveland during the first NBA regular-season game of the season Tuesday, he doesn’t appear to be anxious.
“No. Why would it be? It’s just hoops,” Irving said before Wednesday’s shootaround in preparation for a preseason game against the Charlotte Hornets. “It’s just hooping. I understand the magnitude … But I know what it is going to entail in terms of marketing, whatever the case may be, to garner up this energy to make people feel a certain type of way. I get all that. It’s part of the game. It’s been a part of the game for a while. But, it’s just two hoops and a basketball.
“It’s all love no matter what. I have heard boos at times to hearing cheers in the parade. I’ve been in the championship parade as well as being down 30 in ‘Q Arena.’ So, I’ve heard it all. It’s just good to be there and hoop against a great team like the Cavs.”
James and Irving were the Cavaliers’ stars as they played in the last three NBA Finals together. But with James casting the NBA’s biggest shadow, Irving reportedly yearned for a place where he could be the star of the team. Irving landed that in the Celtics on Aug. 22 as he was traded in exchange for injured All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and the rights to the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round draft pick. The Celtics also agreed to send the Cavaliers a 2020 second-round draft pick via the Miami Heat eight days later to complete the deal as compensation for Thomas’ failed physical.
There will be a lot of other storylines that season-opening night with All-Star forward Gordon Hayward making his Boston debut, Thomas’ injury, the debut of Cavaliers newcomer guards Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose and the debut of Celtics rookie sensation Jayson Tatum. But no story will be more read than the first battle of James versus Irving.
Irving definitely understands why.
“The only reason it kind of has garnered that much energy and attention is because of how special we were,” Irving said.
The Cavaliers selected Irving with the first overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft. The four-time NBA All-Star lived up to his billing, finishing his Cleveland career eighth on their all-time scoring list (8,232 points), sixth in assists (2,114), ninth in steals (504) and third in 3-point field goals made. Irving’s claim to fame was nailing a game-winning jumper late in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals that ultimately clinched the Cavaliers’ lone title.
Irving said he respects the body of work he left in Cleveland.
“You can always look back, and it’s a standstill in time where you look back at what happened. The amount of emotion and sacrifice it took to get something that special in Cleveland, and the only [NBA] championship, at that … The way we did it was 1-of-1. We are 1-of-1 in NBA history, so that is pretty awesome,” Irving said.
The Cavaliers have seven retired jerseys hanging in the rafters of Quicken Loans Area: Austin Carr, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Nate Thurmond, Bobby “Bingo” Smith, Larry Nance, Brad Daugherty and Mark Price. James’ No. 23 figures to be retired soon after he retires. With Irving’s body of work, should the Cavaliers retire his No. 2 jersey in time?
“I don’t know. I don’t know if it will ever happen,” Irving said. “I’m appreciative of [my career in Cleveland]. The multiple legacies I want to live in my life, Cleveland is definitely part of one. Whether it’s appreciated or not, it doesn’t matter to me. I think the effect, the actual time I spent there, is what matters most and actually trying to be remembered for what happened.”
Irving said he is still trying to adapt to living in Boston, but he has already fallen in love with Beantown. The Orange, New Jersey, native said he has truly enjoyed being back in the “exciting East Coast” city in a “real, live sports city.”
“It’s exciting to be on the East Coast, I will tell you that,” Irving said. “It’s fast-paced. There are a lot of different cultures. You get it all. I was talking to my best friend the other day. It is really a major city coming from Cleveland where it is the Midwest. The culture is different. Then you move to East Coast to Boston, it’s a real, live ongoing, thriving city, consistently ongoing, it doesn’t matter what hour throughout the night.
“You go in Cleveland and it would be at night and there were things going on. You could see it was a vast difference of what Cleveland is and what Boston is. People are still reach in terms of being in both places. But Boston is one of those cities … I’m driving in and I’m like, ‘OK, I’m really in a real, live sports city and a great city.’ ”
The Celtics have won an NBA-best 17 championships and this upcoming season marks the 10-year anniversary of the last title in 2008. Irving acknowledged that he definitely noticed all the old championship banners hanging inside the Celtics’ practice facility gym. He also noticed an 18th banner with no words on it and a spotlight shining on it.
With a talented roster on his new team, Irving said, the “ultimate mission” is to be playing in June in the 2018 NBA Finals. Irving and the Celtics would likely have to eliminate the Cavaliers in the playoffs to do that.
“The most important one is the empty one that is up there,” Irving said. “There is a light shining on it. I asked Brad [Stevens] one day if he put it up there purposely for a reason. And he said it had been there for a while since the 2008 [NBA championship] banner. I know where the goal is. I know where the goal lies and the importance it. And now we have to just finish the steps on how to accomplish that.”
Irving is now the face of the Celtics with the most respected voice after being traded away from the mammoth star James and Cleveland. While Irving didn’t have a reputation as much of a talker previously, the expectation is he will be from a leadership or media standpoint in Boston. The way Irving sees it, the voice has always been there.
“For me, the necessity of validation doesn’t ever have to come from anyone telling me that I was ‘The face’ or I was on this platform or anyone telling me my voice now matters,” Irving said. “I kind of knew that regardless. That was no tarnish on anyone else. That’s just who I am. The understanding of what’s important and the message I am trying to get across to my teammates and to those that are around me, that’s the important thing. I’m going to continue to stay that way.
“There is a misunderstanding because the amount that I speak is not as often as other individuals. And I’m fine with that. But when I do speak up, I have a lot to say and it does mean something.”
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