The Superstar's Ascent

Kyrie Irving's rise from a high school talent to an NBA rookie sensation

by Russell Steinberg March 28, 2012 10:02am ET
Kyrie Irving 624
Cavs' rookie Kyrie Irving remains the clear favorite for Rookie of the Year.

A version of this article appeared in the 2012 Five-Star Basketball Summer Preview Magazine, which will be available at all of the premier events this summer. 

The BBVA Rising Stars Challenge at the 2012 NBA All-Star Weekend was a game that had no impact on the NBA season. Any points Kyrie Irving scored wouldn’t count toward his season average and the win he brought his team did not push the Cleveland Cavaliers any closer to a playoff appearance. But that didn’t mean Irving could just go through the motions. That’s not who he is.

“This is the game I love and I worked so hard at it,” he said. “No one is going to stop me from doing what I do except for myself.”

Irving put on a show in Orlando, scoring 34 points while shooting eight-for-eight from three-point range, as his Team Chuck squad defeated Team Shaq, 146-133, back in February. His perfection from long distance and his MVP performance were just a few of his latest accomplishments in a life that has been defined by basketball from birth.

Irving was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1992. His father Drederick earned a reputation on the blacktops of the Bronx before becoming a star player for Boston University in the 1980s. It was during his professional career in Australia that Kyrie was borrn, and not surprisingly, it was from Drederick that Kyrie first learned the game of basketball.

“He taught me so much,” Kyrie said. “When I was five, I was the only guy on my team who could lay the ball up with both hands.”

Learning to play with both his hands quickly became a habit for Kyrie and he still prides himself on that ability. But a five-year-old who practices with his off hand doesn’t just become a Duke commit and future No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft overnight.

Along the way, Kyrie made two trips to the Five-Star Basketball Camp. There, he was not only able to hone his skills under elite coaching and play against top competition, but he was able to
shape himself into a more mature person.

“If you can survive in a competitive environment like that without your parents, then you learn how to cope with things on your own,” he said. “If you’re not playing well, your parents aren’t there and you can’t look to them.”

His fellow campers noticed his work ethic.

“He wasn’t really one of the big time players at the time but you could always tell he wanted to be,” current Charlotte Bobcats guard Kemba Walker said, remembering Kyrie’s time at the camp.

Kyrie’s ascent to the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft happened over time and under Drederick’s watchful, patient eye.

Although their family was struck with tragedy — Kyrie’s mother passed away suddenly when he was only four — Drederick, with the help of Kyrie’s uncles, helped fill the void. Kyrie says that even today, Drederick is his father, brother and best friend.

At NBA All-Star Weekend, Drederick alternated seamlessly from father to best friend roles. During his interview with Five-Star, Drederick was serious but proud, intent on telling the world about his relationship with his son.

He would crack a grin occasionally, but mostly spoke about Kyrie while displaying little emotion. But when Kyrie briefly interrupted his dad’s interview with a picture of himself that he found from elementary school, the two were all smiles and laughter. Kyrie playfully bumped his father and Drederick turned to the camera and said, “see what I get now? He was innocent back in those days.”

When Kyrie was younger, Drederick didn’t want to suffocate his son with an overbearing fatherly presence. He helped his son work on his game, but also recognized the importance of letting Kyrie figure things out for himself. Once Kyrie started high school, Drederick took a step back. He stopped attending all
of Kyrie’s games, which forced the rising star to learn from his coaches, rather than his father. Such a hands-off approach, according to Drederick, has worked.

“I don’t have to say much to him anymore,” Drederick said. “He’s figured it out.”

Perhaps just as importantly as figuring out how to succeed in basketball, Kyrie has figured out how to present himself to the world beyond basketball. Sitting down with Five-Star, Kyrie appeared at ease with himself: articulate, reflective and honest. He spoke openly about his path and trajectory from middle school to the NBA.
Kyrie told Five-Star that growing up, he had a clear set of goals: “To become the best player in his town, then the best in New Jersey, then the best in the entire country.”

Transferring schools might give him a greater challenge and in the end make him a better player. He averaged 35 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists per game at Montclair Kimberley Academy in Montclair, N.J., but was still just emerging on the radars of major college recruiting services.

Nearby St. Patrick High School, where former head coach Kevin Boyle had established a national power, presented a chance for him to improve and gain recognition. Irving was able to play with current Kentucky forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and North Carolina guard Dexter Strickland. This meant he was challenged every day in practice by his equally or more talented teammates.

“I got so much better,” Kyrie said of his time at St. Patrick. “Once I started to get noticed then it was about maintaining my level of play and never being content where I was.”

Midway through his junior season, Rivals’ high school rankings listed Irving as the 27th best player in his class. That was good, but not good enough for someone who dreamed of being the top player in the nation.

“Complacency can be your downfall,” he said.

The next year as Rivals’ No. 4 recruit in the country, he finished his high school career and headed to Durham to attend Duke University and learn under Mike Krzyzewski, the most decorated active head coach in the country.

It seemed as if Kyrie was on an easy road to the NBA. Sure, he had faced challenges, but none that he had been unable to overcome. At Duke, he raced out to a fast start, averaging 17.4 points over his first eight games. Then, on Dec. 4 in a non-conference game against 2010 National Runner-up Butler, he suffered a toe injury that kept him out until Duke’s first round NCAA Tournament game against Hampton. But even with the injury, many felt Kyrie was ready to play at the next level. After the season, he declared for the NBA Draft and was the first overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Now, Kyrie has reset his goals. He wants to be the best player in the NBA.

“He’s grown so much mentally and obviously physically,” Drederick said. “He knows what it takes.”

For now, Kyrie is not at that “all-world” level he dreams of reaching. He is still behind several big names on the list of top NBA players. The Kobes, LeBrons, Wades and Durants of the world still fight for that title. But that’s OK. Kyrie’s rise has been a process and his rookie season is just a step along the way.

“My dad always told me that you’re going to get overlooked sometimes," he said. "It's not about how you start. It's how you finish."

A version of this article appeared in the 2012 Five-Star Basketball Summer Preview Magazine.

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