Shot Fiction: A Night At The Cleveland Opera With Kyrie Irving

Photo by John-Morgan on Flickr

 “…The Cleveland Cavaliers select Kyrie Irving, Point Guard, Duke.”

It hadn’t started out well, but how could it? Not only had he been chosen with the first pick in the NBA draft, he had been chosen by a team that had just endured the roughest offseason-season combo in recent memory. Cleveland had embraced him, but its inhabitants were racked by the trepidations of their own embrace. Expectation was typical for Kyrie Irving. He could handle that. But the resurgence of the hopes and dreams of an entire city? That would be a tougher burden to handle.

Kyrie’s interactions with his teammates were considerably less plagued with struggle and importance. They had embraced him as a sign of hope after the dismal campaign of the previous year. Here was a young, smart kid that just maybe had a chance to get them out of the league’s mockery cellar. Kyrie had been especially surprised by Baron Davis’s constant joviality. He had read the stories about Baron, which painted him as both affable and apathetic. Kyrie only saw the smiling, mentoring side of Baron from the moment he walked into the Cavs’ practice facility.

Baron had been shooting three pointers in the corner, isolated at his own hoop. Kyrie had slowly shifted around, unsure of what do first.

“You gonna pick up a ball, or what?” Baron turned and asked, his beard bristling.

“Yeah.”

“Well, quit waiting. Practice starts in 15 minutes and you need to work on that Duke jumper, Shane Battier.” For whatever reason, Baron took to calling NBA players from Duke “Shane Battier”. Even Grant Hill.

Kyrie strode over past the talking coaches and grabbed a ball. Baron was back to shooting, and Kyrie joined him. A quiet competition began between the two, as neither said anything while each of them swished three pointer after three pointer.  Eventually, Kyrie clanged one off the back of the rim. Baron gave a slight smile.

“You’re gonna need to tighten that form up a little, Shane Battier.”

Kyrie smiled and drained another three.

But Kyrie wasn’t a miracle worker. Cleveland’s season began much in the same vein as before he arrived, with a 6-14 start. The consensus seemed to be he was “doing ok”. “First-year point guards always need to make adjustments. He’s on a bad team, and he’s shown flashes.”, the analysts said. And he wasn’t doing badly. Splitting minutes with Baron and averaging 13 and 6 was no reason for anyone to be upset, at least not yet.

But it wasn’t enough. Kyrie wanted more than individual adequacy.

After a particularly tough loss to the Celtics, 97-73, Kyrie could only feel a sense of numbing fatigue. He sat by his locker with a towel over his head, staring at the carpet. Baron came up to him as Byron Scott finished delivering his message to the team and drifted out of the locker room.

“Get that towel off your head.” Baron stared down at him from a few feet away.

“I’m not bothering anyone,” Kyrie mumbled.

“Get that towel off your head. Come on, kid. You’ve barely played any games and you’re gonna look defeated like this? No, that isn’t you. That can’t be you. This team can’t afford for that to be you.”

Kyrie said nothing for a second and then jumped up. Baron patted him on the back and walked back to his locker.

He had a media interview later that day. He felt a sense of unfocused determination.  At least it was better than drudgery.

“How do you feel about the team so far?” The familiar microphone was pushed into Kyrie’s face.

“We’re not winning games, but this is a group of guys that really care and really try. We’ll figure it out.”

“What about your own play?”

“I can do better, and I will. It’s going to happen, just like it’s going to happen for this team. I’ll let you decide whether or not to write that I’m playing well.”

“How do you feel about the matchup with the Heat coming up?”

“It’s another game, and that means we’re going to do our best to win it. That’s all.”

What else could he say? “The entire city and much of our team will likely view this as some kind of cathartic experience.”? That might be true, but it wasn’t the kind of thing the “face of the franchise” was supposed to say. He knew that, whether or not he agreed with the sentiment. The next game was going to be different, but Kyrie wanted it to be different for the right reasons.

He woke up the morning of the Heat game feeling more invigorated than any other day in his life. At least, that’s what it felt like. His breakfast tasted better, his body felt great, and his mind seemed to vibrate with energy. Everything just felt right. Even Christian Eyenga’s jump shot looked better during practice.

Outside the arena, Clevelanders were already beginning to gather. Even though they had been through this ordeal the year before, the feeling of an important night still permeated in their hearts and minds. Maybe some of the virulence was gone, but the signs and the emotion remained, just as strong as ever.

The team seemed to feel it too, whether or not the casual observer could tell. Kyrie could see it. The intensity and concentration of the team’s eyes as Byron Scott outlined the team’s plan (“Force Wade to shoot, quickly double Bosh, etc.”) translated into Kyrie’s mood as well. This was a big game for him. He was no LeBron, but this was his city now.

From the opening tipoff, it was apparent this game would be different than last year’s. The Heat were confused by the Cavaliers offense. Omri Casspi couldn’t miss a three, Kyrie darted in and out of the lane with the poise of Steve Nash, and Tristan Thompson finally seemed to be coming into his own offensive skillset. “The dunks, they are a clangin”, Bob Dylan would have written. LeBron spent much of the first quarter holding back and distributing the ball. The score went back-and-forth, and the arena grew more and more alive with every basket. There would be no fading in this game. Kyrie wouldn’t allow that. Not tonight.

As he sat at the bench following a 27-27 first quarter, Kyrie made eye contact with a young fan holding a big sign, reading “Cavs, Reborn!” He smiled at Kyrie when he caught his glance and gave him the thumbs up. Kyrie smiled back and knew this game was no longer about beating LeBron for him. This was about the Cavs.

The second quarter followed the path of the first, and the Cavaliers went into the locker down 51-50. The fans cheered them as they exited towards the locker room.

Byron Scott repeated his mantra of consistent play to the team, pleading with them to keep doing what they were doing. Everyone nodded. Kyrie stood up when he finished.

“Listen up for a second. You know how I’ve been saying this is just another game? I was lying. You know that, I know that.

A series of small nods went out around the room.

“We all know this game is important. Our fans have their reasons, and we have our reasons. But this game, this game tonight? It isn’t about LeBron. It shouldn’t be. He’s gone. This is the 2011 Cleveland Cavaliers, not the 2009 Cleveland Cavaliers. This team isn’t a museum. We’re more than that. This game is about us. That’s all it’s about. Yes, we need to win the game, but not to show LeBron. Not to vindicate anyone’s opinion. No, we need to win this game to show us, to show our fans, that the past is over. The future is in this arena tonight. It’s me, it’s you, and it’s them. It’s not for anything. It is something. We’ll make it ours.”

Teeth clenched involuntarily around the room. They agreed.

“Let’s go out there.”

The team clapped, rose up, and broke out of the locker room.

To say the team came out in the third quarter energized would be a gross understatement. “Deranged” or “insane” would be more fitting. At one point, Kyrie could have sworn he watched Anderson Varejao try to claw Mario Chalmers in an attempt to grab a loose ball.

And for a moment, the Cavs pulled ahead by 7. Of course, the Heat soon went on a predictable run and tied the game on a Joel Anthony semi-dunk, just before the end of the third quarter.  78-78. Kyrie had so far performed well, with 15 points and 8 assists. But not well enough. The fourth quarter would be his, and he knew it.

What happened next would become part of Cleveland sports’ lore. Just as Bird and Magic once had gone basket for basket, LeBron and Kyrie now squared off on a much seemingly smaller scale. Never had Kyrie seemed faster and more dynamic than in that 4th quarter. The question was not whether he would finish at the basket, it was how. But LeBron was not so easily outplayed. And so he returned Kyrie’s offensive explosion, layup against layup, fadeaway against fadeaway. The crowd roared and cried with every Kyrie make and every LeBron return. Many would claim, months and years later, that the building shook that night. The Q had taken on a life of its own, on the shoulders of Irving. And he loved every second of it.

All of this pageantry left the ball in LeBron’s hands at the top of the key with 30 seconds remaining, the Heat down by 1. He resolutely stared down the defender before him, dribbling up and down, up and down. Suddenly, he darted past a straining Cassipi. Kyrie watched helplessly as LeBron flew into the lane, jumped, and dunked over a desperate Anderson Varejoa. The Q’s groan was palpable, as the ball dropped from the net onto the hardwood beneath. Irving turned to the ref, collected his bearings, and called the Cavs’ last 30-second timeout. 8 seconds left. More than enough time, he thought. Or just enough.

Kyrie bent over ever so slightly in the huddle. Coach Scott was drawing up a play hurriedly. Kyrie would feign left, drive right, and hit a hopefully open Casspi off of an elbow screen. Kyrie nodded. He was in control.

This was always his favorite moment. The grip of the ball as he moved down the court, the control that permeated through his being as his feet followed. It always just felt right. But tonight, the surroundings weren’t his. The ball didn’t belong him; it belonged to every screaming fan in the rejuvenated arena. This was their night. For him, it felt like the first night in a series of nights that would end with him exhausted and inexorably satisfied on a team plane, whether or not the play ultimately worked.

Kyrie had been in moments like this before, but he knew this would be different. As he moved onto the court, he once again made eye contact with the young fan. This time, Kyrie gave the thumbs up, and the young fan let out a nervous smile.

Kyrie caught the inbounds pass and glanced up at the clock one last time. 7.8 seconds left. His mind flashed. Kyrie quickly mapped out his path as he dribbled. He waited for a moment, and drove. The feign worked perfectly, as he evaded the double team momentarily and bolted into the lane, a defender close behind. Where was Casspi? He noticed him caught behind the screen as he glanced. But there was no time to wait. He skirted past Chalmers towards the open basket, nothing between him and a final lay-in.

That’s when he noticed a hard charging LeBron moving into his vision, just as Irving jumped towards the basket. Together they rose into the air, a portrait of basketball, past, present, and future. Cameras flashed as they rose together for the final time that night. LeBron’s hand rose into the air as he released that final floater. Kyrie watched as LeBron swatted. It appeared for a fragment of a second that LeBron would deflect the ball just enough to ensure another Heat victory. But he missed, by such a small margin it seemed impossible that he had missed at all. Kyrie only heard the bounce of the ball off the backboard as LeBron fell onto him, 260 pounds of muscle crushing his small frame.

But the crowd could see. And they cheered.

Kyrie knew he was home.

 

Seth Carstens