RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — When he wakes up in the morning, Kyrie Irving first looks at the scar stretching across his left knee, an enduring symbol of his journey over the past year.
It’s been quite a climb.
“It’s crazy to see how it’s worked out,” he said.
At this time last summer, Irving, the U.S. Olympic team’s ankle-breaking point guard – and kid brother to his doting teammates – was at a personal low point.
Playing in his first NBA Finals in 2015, Irving shattered his kneecap while banging into Golden State’s Klay Thompson in Game 1. The freakish injury not only cost the Cleveland Cavaliers a possible championship, but brought more criticism to Irving, who played in just 11 games in college because of a foot injury and has battled assorted maladies during his career.
He had been knocked down before, never like this. Bedridden at first, he graduated to crutches and endured grueling hours of rehab.
Once he started running again, he never stopped.
Irving returned from the injury and, along with LeBron James, led the Cavs to a historic comeback championship – Cleveland’s first since 1964 – this season. And as if lifted from a Hollywood screen play, Irving’s game-winning 3-pointer in Game 7 came from just a few feet from where his knee buckled the previous June.
Just 24 and maybe only beginning to tap into his potential as a player, Irving is now on the verge of pulling off a rare doubleheader – an NBA and Olympic title in the same year.
“It would be great,” he said Tuesday following practice. “I just want to get it done.”
It won’t be easy. Nothing has been in the Rio Games for the U.S. team, which escaped three close calls while going 5-0 during pool play. The Americans, seeking their third straight gold medal, will face another tough test in Wednesday’s quarterfinals against Argentina, the last team to beat them in Olympic competition and an experienced group featuring future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili and a handful of current and former NBA players.
In his first Olympics, Irving knows the stars and stripes on their jerseys are also bullseyes.
“All the pressure is on us every single time we take the floor, which I happily accept,” said Irving, who tied a U.S. record with 12 assists in a win over France. “You gotta respect those guys. They make great offensive plays as well as defensively. You gotta be well prepared.”
Irving has learned there are no shortcuts to greatness.
Following his injury, Irving received support from family and friends. However, he realized that if he was going to make it back and be better than ever, there was only one person who could lift him.
“I just had to figure it out on my own,” he said. “I was going to be the only one who was going to get myself out of that funk. I just had to climb out of it. It really took a lot of pride, a lot of anger, built-up rage that I just had to let go. I just had to attack my rehab and attack the little things that were going to make the biggest difference when I came back.”
Irving has been re-united on Team USA with coach Mike Krzyzewski, who recruited him to Duke but only had him on the floor for a fraction of his freshman season. When Irving considered going pro, it was Coach K who encouraged him to take the leap.
They’ve remained close and Irving has had to accept his coach’s praise and wrath.
“I don’t think we would be able to speak genuinely about each other if we didn’t have a genuine relationship,” Irving said. “I’m very fortunate to have a mentor like that and have a guy like that in my corner.”
His teammates have Irving’s back as well.
Stars in their own right, they’ve watched him mature during his short stint on the national team. They also appreciate the work and sacrifice that went into his recovery.
“That just shows how relentless he is,” U.S. center DeAndre Jordan said. “He’s a warrior. I have so much respect for Kyrie. A lot of guys could feel sorry for themselves, but that wasn’t him. He came back with a vengeance, had a hell of a season, led his team to an NBA Finals and ultimately to a championship.
“I have a lot of respect for that guy as a leader.”
While the past year has been richly rewarding and satisfying for Irving, there’s unfinished business.
“I’m glad, but it’s not over yet,” he said. “I still have one more thing to do and that’s get a gold medal with this great team.”