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A Farewell to the Impossible Kyrie Irving

Let it first be said that The Shot was always going to go in. The shot that unfurled from Kyrie Irving’s fingertips through the air inside Oracle Arena at the tail end of the 2016 NBA Finals was destined to find a home at the bottom of the net. The Cleveland Cavaliers had come back from a 3-1 deficit to force Game Seven against the Golden State Warriors, on the Warriors’ home court. And now Game Seven had come down to the final minute, tied. In the still photo of The Shot—the one showing Cleveland’s Irving airborn behind the three-point line, just in front of the Golden State bench—you can see both Stephen Curry’s outstretched arm and Irving’s cocked elbow. Behind Irving, Golden State fans watch. Few of them look anxious or worried. One man stands casually with his hands in his jean pockets. Without any context, one might suspect that the photo was taken midway through the first quarter and not with just under a minute to go with everything on the line, everything depending on the ball’s fate once it left Irving’s hand.

Let it also be mentioned that in the three minutes and twenty-six seconds before The Shot, neither team could buy a bucket. It was art—sports drama in its highest form—a tied game collapsing into a stalemate that was punctuated by a spectacular LeBron James chasedown block on an Andre Iguodala layup attempt, and then broken for good by The Shot.

Okay, I will admit here that when I say that “The Shot was always going to go in,” I mean that those of us in Ohio, who had watched Kyrie Irving play for enough years knew that the shot was going to go in. It was the kind of shot that Irving makes. There is a difference between a good shot taker and a good shot maker, and those traits rarely overlap. Kyrie Irving—especially in clutch moments—takes bad shots and makes them. The kind of shots that send a fan or coach cursing into the sky until the ball slides calmly through the net and Irving strolls away as if it was always meant to be.

Kyrie Irving takes bad shots and makes them—the kind of shots that send a fan or coach cursing into the sky until the ball slides calmly through the net and Irving strolls away as if it was always meant to be.

I will say one last thing about The Shot: it was the kind of shot that someone decides to take moments before it is taken. And what I love most about Kyrie Irving is that so many of his shots seemed to be the product of this: dribbling only as means of time-wasting before an inevitable drive and/or heave toward the rim. In this particular finals game, The Shot was a series-sealing event, but it almost seemed like Kyrie shot it just because he had been fed up with a scoreless drought that was threatening four minutes. The Shot was always going to go in because it was a moment that was perfectly Kyrie Irving. An idea that only seems tricky until the very end, when it becomes briefly magic and then forever legendary.

There is a kid on every playground in every corner of America who dribbles a basketball that appears to be a part of them—as if the ball itself was spun out of their own skin. Sometimes they can’t shoot consistently, or they don’t pass the ball because of their confidence they can get past anyone. In the NBA, that is often drilled out of players, particularly ones operating in complex offensive systems. But then there is Kyrie Irving, point guard in name only, king with the ball in his palms. Irving can get past anyone, at will. He is the player built for the all-star game who could, at his best, run a team well enough to make it to the NBA finals and win one. But the Kyrie I remember most fondly is the one who could make the game feel like it was just him on an island. Consider Kyrie in the 2013 Rising Stars Challenge, hanging thirty-two points and pulling off a singular crossover which sent Brandon Knight spinning into a perfect fall. Or Kyrie in the Rising Stars Challenge the year before, going a perfect eight for eight from three-point range after we were told—repeatedly—that he isn’t a shooter (to be fair, he is a streaky but excitingly solid shooter).

I loved Irving most when he was struggling to keep a floundering Cavs team afloat in the days before the return of LeBron James. A teenager entering his first season, leading a team destined for the basement in both scoring and assists. And then doing it again a year later. I don’t want to romanticize watching a player struggle—especially not for those Cavs fans who had to endure the LeBron-in-Miami years—but there was something delightfully reckless about Irving then. He’s never been afraid to miss a shot, but in the early days, he was so invested in feeling his way around, for better or for worse. Highlight plays one minute and then a mind-boggling turnover the next. The moment where, after one said turnover during a practice, he broke his hand while slapping a padded wall in frustration. I found Irving worth rooting for, largely because his game appeared to arrive in such an easy manner that, I suppose, he had no choice but to find new ways to make it look as difficult as possible.

Kyrie Irving is gone from Cleveland now, and I’m going to miss having him in Ohio. There is something captivating about the particular type of passive-aggressive drama that happens during an NBA offseason. The players retreat to their own corners of the world, no longer forced to make nice with teammates, and everyone gets a little more honest. Particularly if you are the Cavs, a team that this year lost the NBA Finals to the newly super-charged Warriors (now with Kevin Durant power) in a manner that was at times close, but mostly felt like an inevitability. This NBA offseason has been particularly delightful for those of us (read: me and maybe only me) who are obsessed with the soap opera of trade speculations, thinly veiled Instagram posts and tweets that permeate the summer months. The Cavs grabbed the most headlines—first with concern over whether LeBron would finish his career in Cleveland, and then, rising up out of seemingly nowhere, Kyrie Irving’s statement: he wanted out, no longer willing to play in the shadow of LeBron James.

I am perhaps in the minority when I say I understand this. Playing with James—almost undoubtedly, when looking at statistics—made Irving a better player. His turnovers were down and last season he shot a career-best 47 percent from the field while averaging a career high in points. Playing with LeBron James tends to make everyone better. That is the skill that James continues to bring to the table, no matter how his game changes in other ways. But Irving—still only twenty-five years old—wanted to build his own legacy as a star elsewhere, and as foolish as it may seem to give up an opportunity to play alongside a singular, once-in-a-generation player for a few more years before he (likely) retires and leaves the franchise legacy at your feet, I get what it is to imagine yourself limitless and want to shake free from a large and looming shadow.

At times Irving strikes you as the kind of person who might believe anything he reads on the internet, staying up late in bed with the glow of a cell phone light, gasping at Infowars headlines.

The trade sent Irving to Boston and sent the Cavs Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Žižić, a 2018 first-round pick, and a 2020 second-round pick. Initially, it seemed like the trade evened out, not making either team significantly better but certainly adding to the rich drama and narrative of the otherwise maligned Eastern Conference. But with new reports emerging about the severity of Thomas’s hip injury—which might keep him out for several months into the season—it seems like the Celtics won the trade and the Cavs might ultimately be worse off than they were. Hip injuries can linger and have lasting impacts on a player’s game, especially for a player like Thomas, who at five feet eight relies so much on quickness, stopping and starting, or slashing, jerky movements to create space.

I like Thomas. And as someone who is well below average height myself, I have always found him easy to root for. But I’m going to miss Kyrie Irving, who had a game as delightfully puzzling as things that surrounded him away from it. There was his Uncle Drew character—a character that he helped develop and write—creating one of the most enjoyable NBA player ad campaigns in recent memory. There is his infatuation with conspiracy theories: Irving maybe believes the earth is flat or maybe just thinks people shouldn’t so easily accept the fact that it’s round. He thinks JFK was maybe killed by the Federal Reserve and that the CIA maybe tried to kill Bob Marley. At times he strikes you as the kind of person who might believe anything he reads on the internet, staying up late in bed with the glow of a cell phone light, gasping at Infowars headlines. I’ll miss the whole Kyrie, because it never seemed like he belonged here, and yet here he was. Enigmatic in a city that loves when its stars love it back. Cleveland will love no basketball player like they love LeBron (well, unless he leaves again). It’s an impossible task to try to live up to.

Kyrie was raised in New Jersey by his father Drederick, who played basketball at Boston University but failed to make it to the NBA after an unsuccessful tryout with the Boston Celtics. The Celtics are steeped in a tradition that Kyrie may not have much of an interest in, but I also imagine he can pretend well enough to satisfy the Boston masses. He is always at his best when he is first one thing, and then quickly not. Dribbling a basketball in front of a defender is an act of intimacy, and then escape. I marvel at nothing in basketball more than the player who can find a way through the tightest of spaces with the ball still attached to their palms. In Ohio, you can watch every Cavs game if you want to, and I often want to. But I’ll be sure to stream a few extra Celtics games this season. I will miss watching Kyrie Irving get free, one move at a time.