Four years ago a 20-year-old Kyrie Irving stood toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant and challenged the game’s most feared player. Irving, then a member of the USA select team practicing against the 12-man squad headed to the London Olympics, wanted a 1-on-1 game against Bryant, the face of USA Basketball and a 33-year-old two years removed from winning his fifth NBA title.
Irving had reason to boast, even if his guarantee of beating Bryant was overzealous at best. He had just been named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year and appeared to be the face of a Cavaliers franchise still reeling from LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat two summers earlier.
Bryant sent back the playful trash talk, telling the rookie he’d have no chance of hanging with him. The two then shook on a $50,000 bet that Bryant said would go to his charity when, not if, he won. Bryant, the fiercest of competitors, then gave the closest thing to a compliment in Irving’s direction.
“Kyrie’s actually got some talent, so I entertain that conversation,” Bryant boasted. “He can play a little bit. A little bit, for a high school kid.”
That summer Bryant, along with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, ran through the field in London, earning the United States’ second straight gold medal in basketball. It would be both Bryant’s and James' final go-around at the Olympics that signified the ushering in of a new era for USA Basketball.
And as fate would have it, as Team USA prepares to defend its gold medal later this month in Rio, the fearless “high school kid” who just wanted to be taken seriously four years ago is showing that he may in fact be the next face of the world’s best basketball team.
Venezuela guard John Cox, ironically enough Bryant’s cousin, spoke with the media following their 80-45 loss to the United States last Friday in Chicago. Cox, who scored a team-high 13 points, was asked about what makes Irving such a tough cover.
“Kyrie’s just extremely skilled. He’s a skilled point guard. Not just using his speed. He can shoot it, he can drive, he can dribble, he’s got a mid-range game,” Cox said. “He’s really confident, especially after this year.”
Specifically, after this summer. Irving missed the Cavaliers’ first 24 games while recovering from a broken kneecap suffered in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals, and struggled with consistency when he returned. But the 24-year-old showed no ill effects when the postseason rolled around. Irving looked like his old self as the Cavaliers cruised through the Eastern Conference, averaging 24 points and 5 assists.
His defining moment, however, didn't come until the Finals. With the Cavs trailing 3-1, on the brink of a second consecutive Finals loss, Irving put on an historic performance. In Cleveland’s Game 5 win over the Warriors, Irving became the second player in Finals history to score 40 or more points on 70 percent shooting or better. The other? Wilt Chamberlain in 1970.
Six days later he capped off a 26-point effort in Game 7 by connecting on a go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute to propel the Cavs to the unlikeliest of championships.
Irving said Friday his peers haven’t looked him at differently this summer now that he’s an NBA champion, the same way he didn't look at Draymond Green, Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes (now with the Mavericks) in a different light following Golden State’s 2015 title.
But where his confidence is at an all-time high because of his historic performances, the lessons he learned during that improbable Finals run have also helped him play on a team full of superstars.
“We understand what the process takes in order to win something bigger than yourself,” Irving said of himself and the champion Warriors. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, so I just try to share the knowledge with (my USA teammates) as much as possible.”
Even with Hall of Fame head coach Mike Krzyzewski leading the way, even with Carmelo Anthony, now competing in his fourth Olympic Games, the unquestioned veteran leader, Irving considers himself a leader. It’s an odd dynamic, given that Irving is the second youngest player on the team – Harrison Barnes is two months younger – but it's a role he's embracing, and one that's expected of him.
“It’s what we expect him to do,” Paul George said. “He’s our point guard.”
Irving will start at point guard on Aug. 6 when USA begins its pool play against China. And in doing so, he’ll be the youngest point guard to start for Team USA since NBA players began competing in 1992, when a 31-year-old Magic Johnson started for the Dream Team.
Since then, Gary Payton started consecutive Olympics at 27 and 31 years old, followed by Stephon Marbury (26 in 2004), Jason Kidd (34 in 2008) and Chris Paul (26 in 2012).
Irving is young, but don’t confuse youth with inexperience.
Irving starred two years ago in the FIBA Basketball World Cup. He averaged 12.1 points and a team-best 3.5 assists while playing a team-high 24.4 minutes, starting ahead of Stephen Curry and James Harden. He cemented his status with Team USA in the gold medal game against host Spain, scoring 26 points and being named MVP of the tournament.
Irving started all nine games, leading the charge for the Krzyzewski-led group. Irving played his lone collegiate season at Duke under Krzyzewski in 2010, and the two still hold a special relationship six years later. Irving said Krzyzewski has been a mentor to him, regularly texting him and giving words of encouragement when Irving went down in last year's Finals. The point guard said he has a different, "genuine relationship" with Coach K that most one-and-done players do not. That relationship was a major reason why choosing to play in the Olympics, despite his already strenuous summer, was an "easy decision."
Playing late into June for the first time in his career, Irving had just three weeks off in between the end of the Finals and the start of USA training camp. He averaged just 8 points on 40 percent shooting in Team USA’s first three games, games he referred to as “kind of some bulls---.” He looked more like himself in Chicago, scoring a team-high 13 points in 21 minutes, with a leg bruise suffered in that game keeping him out of Monday’s game against Nigeria.
As was the case in Spain two years ago, Krzyzewski will lean on Irving in Rio. The Americans are deep at most positions, but point guard isn’t one of them. The likes of Curry, Paul, Russell Westbrook, John Wall and Damian Lillard all opted against playing for Team USA, leaving Irving and Kyle Lowry as the team’s only true point guards.
But as Irving continues to acclimate with his team and prepares for Rio, he’s confident in his ability to lead a group destined for greatness.
“This is what I’ve been preparing for my whole entire life,” he said. “I’ve put myself in this position, working extremely hard. And having the confidence in my teammates as well as the coaching staff makes that job a lot easier.”
Irving always believed in his game. He’s battled through two major injuries – and another in college – and become one of the premier point guards in the world.
After earning individual accolades in his first four seasons – Rookie of the Year, three All-Star berths, 2014 All-Star Game MVP, 2013 Three-Point Contest champ – he capped off his fifth by winning an NBA title.
Now he has a chance to become the fourth player ever to win an NBA title and an Olympic gold medal in the same summer. The other three? LeBron James (2012), Scottie Pippen (1992, 1996) and Michael Jordan (1992). All before he’s old enough to rent a car.
“I didn’t know it was going to happen this soon, but honestly I’m glad it’s now,” Irving said. “I’m ready to live in the moment, ready to be in Rio with these great guys in the locker room. I’m just ready to go for gold.”
Irving never got that 1-on-1 game with Bryant. And he doesn’t think he’ll get it now that Bryant has since retired.
“Kobe’s making movies now and writing books,” Irving said with a laugh. “He’s doing whatever he wants to.”
The same could be said for Irving, who four years later is anything but a high school kid.