Gitlin, Martin. Kyrie Irving: Uncle Drew, Little Mountain and Enigmatic NBA Superstar. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. Pp. 224. 16 illustrations. $26.95 hardcover and ebook.
Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski
During a fall 2018 fan event at the TD Garden, the home of the Boston Celtics, former Celtics player Brian Scalabrine asked the best player on the team, point guard Kyrie Irving, how important it was for him to one day see his number 11 jersey hanging from the rafters. Irving, who had been sitting, stood up, expressed appreciation for the question and directly addressed the fans in the arena, saying: “If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here next year.” Fans rose from their seats and began to applaud the player who was the number one offensive option for the Celtics. Instead of harkening back to the historical significance of the Celtics or honoring basketball legends such as Bill Russell, Larry Bird or Kevin McHale, Irving focused on that particular moment and said what he felt. One might say that he even got lost in the moment, considering that he changed his mind during the season and left for Brooklyn in free agency in the summer of 2019.
At the time, Irving had been on the Celtics for one season, having been traded to Boston from the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that drafted him with the first pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. The 19-year-old Irving was selected by a franchise recovering from the loss of one of the best players in league history, as LeBron James took his talents to the Miami Heat a year earlier. Born in Australia and raised by his father, as his mother died when he was just four years old, Irving was a promising prospect, although he did not play much basketball in college. His lone year at Duke was limited by injuries, but he was still a rather unquestionable first pick in the 2011 draft. The 6-foot-2 point guard was a representative of a new generation of playmakers, one who would look for a chance to score rather than scan the floor for an open teammate.
For the first three years of Irving’s tenure in Cleveland, the team was among the worst in the league, and once again earned the first overall draft pick in 2013. One year later, the Cavs – for the third time in four years – again won the draft lottery, this time thanks to a pick acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers. With the young core of Irving, shooting guard Dion Waiters (selected fourth overall in the 2012 draft), small forward Andrew Wiggins (first overall in 2014) and power forward Anthony Bennett (first overall in 2013), it seemed that the Cavaliers had time to steadily evolve into a playoff-caliber team.
This all changed in the summer of 2014 when Rich Paul, LeBron James’s agent and close friend, contacted the Cavaliers. Paul indicated that his client’s future in Miami was uncertain and he was strongly considering returning to his home state. Not long after Irving signed a contract extension with the Cavs, James returned to Cleveland as a free agent. While he left Cleveland ringless four years earlier, he now was rejoining his original NBA team as a two-time champion, hoping to bring a long-sought title to northeast Ohio. Much had been made about the championship drought, or, more so, the curse, that seemed to plague the city’s sports teams, as none of its professional franchises had won a title since 1964. If James could change the city’s forlorn fate, he would become the Prodigal Son, fully exonerating himself from his perceived faults and failures, first of which was leaving Cleveland in a nationally-broadcast television special in July 2010.
James’s return closely resembled the parable of the Prodigal Son for another reason, as Irving, the young star and future of the franchise, suddenly became the second most-important player on a team that was supposed to be his. With James back, the Cavs were in a win-now mode, which required roster moves in order to make the team instantly competitive. This meant bringing in power forward Kevin Love and getting rid of the promising, but unproven, players. Wiggins did not even get a chance to prove himself in Cleveland, as he was traded to Minnesota before his NBA debut. Bennett was shipped out as well, while Waiters was traded midseason to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
To Irving’s frustration, James took ownership of the team and presented himself as the older brother, immediately trying to teach the point guard what needed to be done in order for the Cavs to win a title. Irving, however, was not student material, at least not at that moment. James’s arrival also meant that a spotlight was cast on the team; Irving no longer was the up-and-coming leader of a small-market team, but the running mate of the best basketball player in the world. With that came a spike in popularity and interest, the indirect result of which is the book Kyrie Irving: Uncle Drew, Little Mountain and Enigmatic NBA Superstar by Martin Gitlin, published in 2019 by the University of Nebraska Press.
While Gitlin recounts Irving’s career until the beginning of the 2018-19 NBA season, the author’s primary interest is Irving the person. Gitlin is genuinely trying to understand Irving, but he is somewhat hesitant to dig too deep, as if he would be afraid what he might find (or what legal consequences might follow). Referring to what he calls “the paradox of Kyrie Irving,” he tries to show how this highly intelligent, well-spoken, honest and simply interesting player is able to make controversial and outrageous claims, while still remaining one of the most marketable players in the NBA. Gitlin even devotes a whole chapter of his book to Irving’s conviction that the Earth is flat. Irving himself was highly critical of the discussion surrounding his claim and, a few years later, even referred to journalists as “pawns,” an expression of his irritation with the media attention he was receiving.
Irving’s rise in popularity, and, in turn, the increased attention to his opinions and ideas, would not have occurred had he been just a “regular” NBA player. While entertaining and highlight-worthy in his own right, it was after winning the 2016 NBA championship with the Cavaliers – thanks to the point guard draining the game-winning three-point shot in Game 7 – that Irving got the world’s attention, whether he liked it or not. Irving is still trying to figure out to what extent he is willing to let sports media, as well as basketball fans, into his world, which makes him such a promising and simultaneously frustrating biographical subject. He keeps giving the general public glimpses into who he really is, but stops before providing a clearer understanding himself and his motivations.
When Irving demanded to be traded from the Cavs in the summer of 2017, he stressed that he wanted to be the focal point of a franchise. Yet, when he left the Celtics in 2019 to join the Nets, he made the move alongside Kevin Durant, who himself chose to depart the dynastic Golden State Warriors. In his second season on the Celtics, before which Gitlin’s book ends, Irving burned every bridge with the organization and earned the ire of their devoted fanbase. In January of 2019, after criticizing his team for lacking experience, Irving reportedly called James to apologize for acting immaturely and not listening to his advice. While the gesture signified growth, Irving soon backtracked on his statement about re-signing with the Celtics, leaving the team following a disappointing loss in the second round of the NBA playoffs.
His unwillingness to embrace a leadership role in Boston appeared to contradict everything Irving had been striving to achieve earlier in his career. The move to the Nets is one of many which make Irving a compelling subject, especially when the majority of today’s athletes carefully control their image and script their statements out of concern for their reputation and legacy. Gitlin opens his book with a call that he got from Irving’s agent, Jeff Wechsler, in which the latter states: “We control the narrative on Kyrie Irving.” Gitlin responds, albeit indirectly in his book, that it is the media who are in control. The fact of the matter is that both, Wechsler and Gitlin, are wrong––Irving is the one who shapes his own path, showing little regard for the opinions of others. He did just that when stomping on his former team’s logo after his Nets eliminated the Celtics in the 2021 playoffs, just two years after asking the home crowd if they would have him back in Boston.
Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).