Walk a mile in his shoes to understand Kyrie Irving. On second thought, just take a few steps in them to get the picture.
When Nike debuted Irving’s first signature shoe, the Kyrie 1, this month, it revealed small glimpses into his personal world — the acronym for his motto “Just Be You,” a pattern inspired by his native country of Australia and, most telling, his late mother’s name with her dates of birth and death scrolled on the sole.
Irving is known for his job of leading the Cleveland Cavaliers on the court. The point guard has another team he also plays for in those sneakers.
Kyrie’s mother, Elizabeth, passed away from organ failure when he was four years old. His father, Drederick, was suddenly a single parent of two. Kyrie’s sister, Asia, is 14 months his senior.
“It’s something that my dad had to move past quicker than me and my sister because he had to raise [us], which is why I love him so much because of the sacrifices that he made for us,” Irving told Basketball Insiders in a sit-down interview.
Kyrie doesn’t have his own memories of his mother. He was too young to have created a vault of personal experiences. Now, at 22 years old, he knows her through the stories of his father and envisions what she was like through his own words. He has been told that the similarities between he and his mother are uncanny.
“That’s what used to get me in trouble [with my dad] when I was younger,” Kyrie said with a laugh. “Because I just reminded him so much of her.”
Kyrie was a natural in many facets outside of his athletic abilities. Growing up in New Jersey, where his family relocated, he was popular among his classmates. He didn’t have to study to receive good grades. Achievements had a way of falling into his lap.
“My mom was exactly the same way,” he said. “Things came easy for her.”
Drederick recognized the carefree ease that Kyrie had inherited from his mother, but couldn’t relate to it. He was more similar to Asia, both of whom Kyrie described as “really, really hard workers.”
Drederick didn’t want his son to carry a laissez-faire attitude throughout life, expecting accomplishments to find him by happenstance. He had played basketball professionally overseas and knew the level of effort it would take for Kyrie to become a McDonald’s All-American, Duke University standout, first pick in the 2011 NBA Draft and one of the top players in the league.
He delivered a strong message, the kind that doesn’t click at the time yet resonates years later.
“My dad was like, ‘Man, one day you are going to have to realize that you are going to have to work hard for what you want,’” Kyrie recalled. “He would just get mad because I wasn’t giving 110 percent in what I was doing. It used to get me in trouble, but now I truly understand why he was doing it.”
When Kyrie and Drederick weren’t always on the same page, Asia stepped in to be the intermediary. Kyrie compares her to a twin, as the siblings have a steadfast bond and simply understand one another. She helped their father the same way during these battles. Asia could relate to Drederick in a unique way, Kyrie pointed out, because they were Capricorns who were born one day apart in January. He was born in March, an Aries.
“My dad learned from my sister on how to deal with me,” Kyrie said. “She’s just the innocent side. Me, I’m just like the hard-headed kid. Me and my dad, we didn’t necessarily bump heads all the time, but we didn’t see eye-to-eye. They’re both Capricorns, principle people. I don’t believe in horoscopes, but I believe that traits define what month you were born in. I’m just wild, crazy Aries, lead with my head first, think second. My sister definitely calmed my dad down in certain situations and gave him a different outlook.”
Drederick was not only Kyrie’s father, he was his basketball coach at times. Kyrie also credits Asia for maintaining a balance between the two away from the gym. There was more to life, she helped them realize, than a sport.
“She took some of the pressure off, that me and my dad had within basketball,” Kyrie said. “My dad coached me and then coming home, he wanted me to be successful because it was a dream that I had. But also, he wanted me to really get there so he gave me that extra push. My sister deflected all that and really put everything in perspective in what’s really important. She understands me better than anyone I could imagine, ever.”
Knowing one another, and oneself, was an important foundation in the Irving family. One of the values Drederick wanted to instill in his children was a strong sense of identity. Even though Kyrie thrived in a team sport, his father encouraged him be his own person.
‘Stand out from the group, don’t follow it,’ he urged.
“[He taught] me lessons about life that I truly appreciate now because it’s made me who I am as an individual,” Kyrie said. “I’ve always learned from my dad to be a leader, not a follower, and it’s okay to be abnormal. That’s what I learned most — it’s okay to be yourself. I think some people get lost in societal pressures and being accepted by everybody. My dad taught me at a very young age that you have to live your life the way you want to live it. [He] always had that vision and instilled it in me to have my own dreams and whatever I decided to go for, go for it.”
Eighteen years after her passing, Kyrie prays to his mother every day. He has spent time talking to children who have lost parents, sharing his story and how his family coped. He delivers the message to move on as a unit, stick together and appreciate the parent that is still there.
“Family means the world because they put everything into perspective for me, that there’s life outside of these four lines,” Kyrie said, pointing to the parquet in front of him. “I’m truly appreciative of [that] because when I step on the court, it’s living in the moment, being here. But outside I have such a happy life that I thank God for every day because I have the most awesome family and they support me in everything I do. They understand that I have a long way to go in terms of my person because I still have to live life and figure things out. I have this and all this so-called pressure. It’s just a basketball and a hoop. That’s all it is.”
Take away the All-Star selections, the mega contracts and sponsorship deals. See past the stats, the assists, the results by which he is measured. You’ll find a 22-year-old who admits that he is still coming into his own.
The expectations are high this season running the floor for a roster of megastars. It’s his family that keeps him running outside of the game.
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