LAS VEGAS — Kyrie Irving has gone all the way to Rio this summer seeking the culmination of a conversation that started in Irving’s parent’s New Jersey home back in 2009.
That’s when he and Mike Krzyzewski first talked of winning a title together.
“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 Las 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.
“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. I myself played when I was 17 years old going into Duke. I end up going (to college) for one year, then I end up playing on the select team that I’m playing against today (the NBA rookies and young stars that the USA scrimmages against). I get a chance to, every summer, get better with USA basketball.
“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 emotional, although 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. And 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 has since Irving came to 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 on this team. Great players have to accept smaller roles.
That is where Irving feels he can lead — especially after learning the sacrifices needed to win an NBA title.
“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.
“I understand that. It took me a little bit to understand that coming up as a kid. That was kinda Day One when my dad was coaching me as a kid is that team is the only thing that matters. You don’t want to outshine anybody or feel you have to step on anybody’s toes, you want to establish yourself as an individual, show people how talented you are, but integrate yourself into the team.”
Being on a great team also means the pressure of winning gets spread out and carried by more people as well.
Sure, it Coach K’s last run and they feel the pressure to win for him. However, just putting that USA on your chest brings pressure, Irving said — adding that he welcomes it.
“There’s pressure every single year,” Irving said. “I mean American basketball is at the top of everything, we’ve proven that through the World Championships as well as the Olympics, and as well as the NBA — everyone wants to be part of this. So for us it’s not any added pressure — because I don’t know what pressure is — all I know is going out there, going all out, leaving it all on the floor and living with the results after that.”
Irving didn’t have to take on the pressure.
Coming off an NBA title season, Irving could have spent the summer partying on boats and soaking in the good life — he earned the right with a vintage pull-up 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 on that level nothing has changed — he still wants to test himself. For example, he loves 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, with your 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 is the company’s main spokesman and 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, you can see it above) and there will be a Christmas ad (which will drop right about when the Kyrie 3s do).
“Partnering with Kids Foot Locker was just a great thing to do…. This is our next generation, so for me I’m just trying to impact our next generation any way I can,” Irving said.
In the short term, he’s focused on winning gold — of fulfilling the dream he and Coach K first talked about. The challenge he sees for 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 asked about the biggest obstacle 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.