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Kyrie’s Got the Whole Flat Earth in His Hands

The Cavalier has mainstream success — a ring, a soda endorsement deal, the second-best-selling sneaker — and an enigmatic personality (see his theories on the earth’s flatness). You have to look, and listen, hard to get the full picture.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

It was a lot of things, but subtle wasn’t one of them. Initially, it seemed a bit off-brand, as though the otherwise nondescript Kyrie Irving — at least relative to elite players with outsize personas — was suddenly showing off and it was the rare occasion when we got to witness some personality.

The Cavaliers were up big late against the Celtics in the third quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals when the commotion started. Following a double foul, Isaiah Thomas jawed at Tristan Thompson and everyone who plays for Cleveland. Or maybe Tristan Thompson and everyone who plays for Cleveland jawed at Thomas. Either way, much jawing occurred.

During the chatter, Irving walked right up to Thomas. Then Irving clapped in his face a lot and pointed up at the scoreboard. Perhaps to make sure Thomas didn’t miss it the first time, Irving did the clapping and scoreboard-pointing routine again. He did that to Boston’s best player in Boston. That is not a move for the meek.

Sometimes it feels like basketball fanboys/nerds/media don’t talk about Kyrie as a character very often — which is odd when you consider all the time he’s spent being one. Anyone who likes hoops has heard tell of the child prodigy — born in Australia, raised in Jersey — who went off to Duke only to be more of a whisper than a player in Durham because of a toe injury. That kid became an NBA All-Star and a champion and a trash-talker (and a champion trash-talker, or at least a champion scoreboard pointer). He won a gold medal at the Rio Olympics last year. This year, he has the second-best-selling signature shoe in the NBA, behind only his teammate, LeBron James. He has an ongoing series of commercials for Pepsi — several of which he directed — in which he disguises himself as an old graybeard named Uncle Drew and clowns random dudes on various playgrounds. He might think the earth is flat, among other opinions that some consider strange. He dotes on his daughter. He beefs with LaVar Ball.

OK, that last one probably doesn’t count for much, because who doesn’t get into it with LaVar Ball these days? Even so. The point is that Irving’s brand isn’t boring. It’s not underdeveloped. On the contrary, it’s underrated — which isn’t the same as being universally popular. When I mentioned to a friend and fellow NBA scribbler that I was in Cleveland to work on a Kyrie Irving piece, he gave me heat and texted something about how he’d rather put his head in a blender. It was not an uncommon sentiment in this industry. The media and Irving have an intermittently prickly relationship. Reporters sometimes dismiss him as little more than a bland pack interview, while others have wondered if he purposefully messes with the media — like when he walked back the flat-earth pronouncement, said he was well aware it’s scientifically impossible, then turned the whole thing around on the fourth estate, adding that the fact "that could actually be news" was "hilarious."

But how he interacts with press scrums seems less important when measured against the open — and often oddball — alter ego he adopts in more comfortable and revealing settings. He may not be as mouthy as Draymond or as flashy as Russ, but Kyrie Irving has become one of the best overall entertainment values in the NBA. Even if some of us haven’t always recognized it, Irving has. He said as much on the Road Trippin’ pod, hosted by Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, and Cavs sideline reporter Allie Clifton. Spend two minutes with him, Irving explained, and "all of a sudden you’re like, ‘I didn’t know Kyrie was like that.’"

Mulder and Scully aren’t the only ones convinced the truth is out there. Kyrie Irving said he’s been "searching for [the truth] for a while" — something the 25-year-old is all too happy to deep-dive into on Road Trippin’, where he’s a frequent and favorite guest. And with good reason.

You might remember that, back in February, the internet spent some time on Irving’s flat-earth remarks. That was born from a conversation on the pod, during which Irving said he’d done research on it. Clifton was skeptical. How could he possibly know, she wondered, that his research provided the proper answers?

"Because it’s right in front of our faces," Irving replied. "I’m telling you, it’s right in front of our faces. They lie to us."

Then a conversation ensued about who "they" are. It was grand. Irving’s comments got so much attention that NBA commissioner Adam Silver was asked about it at All-Star Weekend. Neil deGrasse Tyson sort of laughed it off. Bill Nye the Science Guy was less amused.

While that was probably Irving’s most (in)famous disclosure on the pod, it was just one of many fascinating thoughts he’s shared. He’s discussed aliens (this will shock you, but he’s a believer), the moon landing (Neil Armstrong’s boot prints don’t match the side-by-side photos of his feet), his father (whom he lovingly called "a mini Joe Jackson" for being a kind of basketball stage dad), being in the band in high school (he played the baritone sax), and a wild theory that somehow tied together Bob Marley, the international bank cartel, Jamaican assassins, and JFK. That last one was my favorite. The man is creative. The Fast & Furious franchise should hire him to write the next eight movies.

Irving also addressed LaVar Ball on the pod. That was less fun than the Jamaican JFK convo, but it’s still worth noting. Irving said he had a chat with his father, Drederick, the mini Joe Jackson, when Kyrie was around the same age Lonzo is now. He told his dad he’d have to start making his own decisions. At 18, Irving got his first tattoo and pierced his ear. He thought Lonzo might have to have the same talk with LaVar — not so much about tattoos and earrings as being his own man. Because, as he put it, "It’s not LaVar’s life."

More than once, Irving qualified the remarks by saying he didn’t know the dynamic between the two Balls, and he made sure to credit the father for helping boost his son’s brand. Didn’t matter. LaVar took it the way you might expect — poorly. During an appearance on Fox Sports’ Undisputed, Ball wondered, "How you gonna tell me how my son should be when you don’t have a kid?" (Irving has a daughter.) Then Ball went several steps beyond where you’d expect even him to go. "Your mom wasn’t there," Ball said. "Lonzo can come home and see his mom all the time." (Irving’s mom died when he was 4 years old. It still haunts him.)

That was one of the darker ripple effects from Kyrie’s pod appearances, but Irving has been happy to ride most of the waves he’s made while talking with his teammates. At All-Star Weekend, while most of his peers were getting asked if Russ and KD would hug it out, Irving fielded all sorts of questions about flat earth vs. round earth, aliens, and conspiracy theories. That was fine with him, even though he felt like people were looking at him as though his "parents didn’t raise [him] the right way" or he "didn’t have a brain on" or "there’s something definitely wrong with this kid."

"The fact that this is opening up conversation," Irving said on the show, "I’m happy with that — the fact that it became a conversation starter."

The conversation couldn’t have come at a better time for Irving. The spotlight on LeBron is wide enough to promote everyone in his orbit, but sometimes it shines so bright that it can blind onlookers to everything that isn’t specifically about LeBron. In terms of creating a name for himself, then, Irving has had a hell of a run lately. Last June, he nailed the Game 7–winning shot when he stepped back and drained a 3-pointer in Steph Curry’s face. LeBron’s block might have been the moment that Cleveland finally secured its long-elusive championship, but Irving’s jumper helped plan the parade. The Wall Street Journal called it the biggest shot in NBA history.

This season, while the Cavs were suffering a rash of injuries, Irving played some of his best basketball, posting career highs in points per game and PER. Against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, he shot 62.2 percent from the floor, 50 percent from distance, and 91.7 percent from the line. He also dropped 42 points in Game 4 despite rolling his left ankle. That was a career playoff high for Irving, and it doubled as the bright light Cleveland needed in what could have become a dark hour indeed had the Cavs lost. Brad Stevens called Irving’s effort that evening "incredible," while Ty Lue said his point guard was "very unstoppable." Irving finished off that performance in style with a beautiful fake-behind-the-back pass for a layup. (RIP, Jae Crowder’s pride.)

But let’s rewind a moment to the aforementioned conversation starter. Right around when he was talking about the curvature of the earth (or lack of same), he was also making his fourth All-Star appearance. That was awfully good timing as publicity goes. Not even two months earlier, in late December, Nike released Irving’s latest sneaker, the Kyrie 3.

Before reading it above, did you know Irving has the second-best-selling signature shoe in the NBA at the moment? Probably not. Not even Sonny Vaccaro knew, and he’s known everything there is to know about basketball sneakers since there was anything worth knowing. He watched Jordan make it worth knowing in the first place — helped him do it, too.

That was a long time ago, sure. Vaccaro is older now. Lives in Palm Springs. It was hot there when I called him, he said. But still. He’s Sonny Vaccaro. He knows. Except when I told him Kyrie has the second-hottest shoe outside the ones Sonny wears around the scorched California desert, he couldn’t believe it. He practically did a spit take on the phone, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t drinking anything. Hard to blame him. If Sonny Vaccaro called me and relayed the same information — which he would not do because he’s a legend and I’m a guy with a stock A-Team photo for an avatar — I would also not believe it.

"That astonished me when you said he was number two," Vaccaro said, trying to figure out how Irving was moving all those Kyrie 3s. "You didn’t know he was alive at Duke. He got hurt and then they lost. He was brilliant in high school. But after that? Talkative? Charismatic? No. The funniest thing he said was the earth is flat."

Vaccaro wasn’t quite right about that. Irving has said lots of things funnier and more intriguing than the flat-earth bit. But the more Vaccaro thought about it, the more he changed his mind about what really sells shoes. Charisma helps. Talent and name recognition, too. More than anything, he said, the shoe has to be an object of desire.

"Collectible. Beautiful. And you’re proud to wear it," Vaccaro said. "That’s the biggest thing. A great movie is a great movie forever, where you look at it and go, ‘Goddamn, that’s a great movie forever. That’s a great song.’"

Playing the hits isn’t as easy as it used to be, though. The performance basketball shoe has seen serious decline of late. Overall sales have dipped more than 25 percent from last year, according to Matt Powell, vice president of industry analysis for The NPD Group, a market research firm. (According to The NPD Group’s data, the top-five signature shoe sellers in the NBA this year are, in order, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and James Harden.) "We have a period where basketball shoes have sort of fallen off and lifestyle and fashion shoes have seen increased popularity," Powell said.

Shoes like the Adidas NMD (beloved by known shoe hoarder Nick Young) and the always-classic Adidas Superstar (popularized by everyone from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Run-D.M.C.) have risen to the top of the sales charts. Low-cut and clean have replaced high tops and flash, Powell said. Which might help explain why Irving’s shoe has done so well. Unlike the latest LeBrons, there’s a certain simplicity to Irving’s shoe. But in contrast to the much-maligned Currys, the Kyrie 3 doesn’t sacrifice style for functionality. According to Powell, the current trend started around "back-to-school 2015." By the start of the 2016 school year, even one of LeBron’s kids was wearing Kyries on his first day.

At least five of Irving’s teammates wore his shoes at shoot-around on the morning before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. Channing Frye was one of them. He said they’re "a shooter’s shoe," and he likes the tread so much he’d put it on the tires of his truck. Richard Jefferson also wears the Kyrie 3, but maybe for a different reason than Frye. He called them "fire."

"It’s the least basketball-y shoe of the basketball shoes," Charlotte Harris said about the Kyrie 3. She’s a stylist in Los Angeles who’s worked with Katy Perry, the Pussycat Dolls, and NFL Network talent, among others. "You see with the LeBrons, in the front and the back, it comes up real high, and then in the middle it comes down real low? I hate that. It looks so tacky. I don’t even know what you’d wear that with without looking like an idiot. You can’t wear it with shorts and you can’t wear it with a slim-cut jeans. The Kyries are closer to Yeezys. You could wear them with anything."

Even heavy makeup and an old-man mask, as it turns out. When he’s not selling sneakers or talking about the Illuminati, Irving is busy dressing up as Uncle Drew and dragging friends in front of the camera with him. Bill Russell and Kevin Love. Nate Robinson and Maya Moore. J.B. Smoove and Baron Davis. They’ve all appeared on various installments of Uncle Drew episodes. As Pepsi commercials go, Kyrie’s are as good as Kendall Jenner’s was bad.

Irving is unquestionably the star of the series. He’s good in the commercials and plays the bit to the bone. But it’s still a bit. Uncle Drew is a good character, but the best character Kyrie plays is still Kyrie.

If the end goal is for Kyrie Irving to be the headliner in a blockbuster of his making, he’ll have to wait a while. Before he can create a separate marquee, LeBron will have to retire — or at least slow to the point where he transitions from being the NBA’s leading man to something resembling a supporting role. Irving knows as much. He’s considered it. He’s even openly addressed it.

After Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston, Irving was asked whether he’d thought much about being the leader of the Cavs in his prime as LeBron "passes the torch" to him.

"It’s hard not to think about," Irving said. "As I continue to get older, I’m playing with an unbelievable player in LeBron. From an outsider’s perspective, it could be seen a few ways. For me, it hasn’t been anything short of difficult trying to figure out when will it be my time. When will it … the honest answer for me is I cannot give any energy to anything that people say would be best for the team or even sometimes what I think would be best. My job is to be in the moment, especially with an unbelievable player like him."

It was the rare moment when Irving really opened up in a press conference. He usually reserves that sort of candor for the podcast. That’s where Irving is at his most Kyrie. Richard Jefferson said he considers Irving more of another cohost than a guest. More times than not, Jefferson, Channing Frye, and Allie Clifton toss Irving a topic and then clear out, letting Irving’s brain run as much ISO as it wants. One minute he’s openly pondering whether he’ll become the NBA’s Lauryn Hill and retire at the peak of his power, the next he’s revealing how he bought former teammate and close friend Jordan McRae his first Rolex. When McRae got waived to make room for Andrew Bogut, Irving had a vivid dream about missing his buddy — which he then broke down in detail. It involved watching himself sleep, the inability to snap out of his slumber, and McRae trying to say goodbye through the whole thing. It ended with Irving waking up and saying aloud to McRae, one more time, "I love you, bro."

It seems like Irving is always processing something in public. Clifton noted as much on an early episode and asked Irving, "Many years and moons down the road, when you are no longer on this earth, what do you want people to remember you for or know you as?"

What followed was an uninterrupted stream of Kyrie consciousness. In an answer that lasted almost three full minutes without anyone else talking, Irving touched on topics that included police brutality, the job landscape, fundamentally loving one another, the beauty in the journey, his love of basketball and dedication to it, total freedom of thought and emotion and, best of all, taking a second to "enjoy the shower that you’re in."

The whole thing was weird and winding and wonderful. The ultimate upshot, Irving explained, is that he wants people to know "there was a far bigger purpose and calling for me bigger than basketball."

When he finally paused for a breath, Channing Frye filled the space.

"Boy," Frye told him while they laughed, "you deeper than the other end of the pool."