One of the hardest things about growing up, I think, is figuring out that you don’t know what you don’t know.
That’s not the same as learning that you don’t know everything. That realization, with a little luck and grace, can come early in life, and with minimal fallout; getting a couple of questions wrong on a math test probably won’t shake your world to its core. But finding out that even the things you thought you had pegged are so much more complicated than you’d ever had cause to consider—that something you thought you had your arms around is really an iceberg, that you’ve only ever glimpsed the tip of it through a telescope, and that you have no earthly idea what the rest of it actually looks like, or how much “rest” there really is … well, that’s different. It’s a lot.
And so, with his Boston Celtics mired in a skid marked by uninspired play and public sniping, Kyrie Irving picked up the phone. After a demoralizing loss in Orlando that saw him very publicly fume about Brad Stevens’s play-calling, Gordon Hayward’s decision-making, and his young teammates’ “inexperience,” Irving called LeBron James.
Sixteen months after forcing his way out of Northeast Ohio to escape James’s shadow and strike out on his own, Irving was feeling the burden of command. So he called the only guy that he was positive knew all about just how goddamn big the rest of that iceberg is, and said something that might have seemed unthinkable two years ago. He said he was sorry.
“Obviously, this is something that — it was a big deal for me, because I had to call Bron,” Irving told reporters on Wednesday, after scoring 27 points and delivering a career-high 18 assists in a brilliant performance that lifted the Celtics past the Raptors, 117-108, at TD Garden. “And tell him, like, I apologize for being that young player that wanted everything at his fingertips, and I wanted everything to be at my threshold. I wanted to be the guy that led us to a championship. I wanted to be the leader. I wanted to be all that, and you know, the responsibility of being the best in the world and leading your team is something that is not meant for many people.
“Bron was one of those guys that came to Cleveland and tried to really show us how to win a championship. And it was hard for him. And sometimes getting the most out of the group is not the easiest thing in the world. Like I said, only a few are meant for it or chosen for it, and I feel like the best person to call was him, because he’s been in this situation.”
More to the point, James had been there specifically with Irving, who reportedly had misgivings about his return from the jump when LeBron came back to Cleveland in 2014.
“I’ve been the young guy, being a 22-year-old kid, and wanting everything,” Irving said Wednesday. “Wanting everything right now. Coming off an All-Star year, starting, and this heck of a presence coming back, and now I gotta adjust my game to this guy. You take it personal. But at the end of the day, he just wants what’s best, and he has a legacy he wants to leave, and he has a window he wants to capture. So I think what that brought me back to was, like, ‘All right, how do I get the best out of this group, of the success they had last year, and then helping them realize what it takes to win a championship?’”
What, exactly, James had to say about all this remains unclear. (Joe Vardon of The Athletic reported that James returned the call “in private,” and “was very appreciative that Irving called him.”) What does seem clear, though, is that Irving—having traveled the distance from being the bright young thing to being the (comparative) old head—now views his past actions through a different prism.
”Now I’m in this position. I asked for this, and I want this. I want the responsibility, and I take it on full force,” he told reporters. “But it’s also good to reach out for help and really take responsibility for what you’ve done in your career. It takes a real man to go back, call somebody and be like, ‘Hey, man, I was young. I made some mistakes. I wasn’t seeing the big picture like you were. I didn’t have the end of the season in mind.’ I just wanted to get my stats and make All-Star Games, which, in [LeBron’s] career, means [not very much] at that point.”
What matters most, though, is how all this newfound self-awareness will inform how Irving will steer the Celtics from here on out. Getting square with LeBron is great, but it won’t keep Boston unstuck. So what comes next?
Step one: playing his ass off against Toronto, putting on a shot- and playmaking clinic in the fourth quarter that elevated his teammates and overwhelmed the Raptors.
Step two: acknowledging that talking spicy about how Boston’s young guys don’t understand what it really takes to be great might not be the right way to go about things. And that’s where Kyrie still has some work to do.
“I did a poor job of setting an example for these guys of what it’s like to get something out of your teammates,” Irving said after the game, acknowledging that Jaylen Brown was right to call for unity rather than finger-pointing during the Celtics’ recent rough patch. And saying that he gets where young players like Brown are coming from seems great. But if those players take a second to tease out the analogy—we’re now where Kyrie was then, and Kyrie now is where LeBron was then, and Kyrie is basically saying that he was dumb and didn’t See The Big Picture then, and that he should’ve listened better to The True And Wise Great Veteran, and heeeeeeeey, wait a second!—they might not love the implications. This is still the “these young guys don’t know” thing; it’s just done after a win, with an apologetic tone.
As Irving shoulders the responsibility he asked for, he might do well to think about how LeBron’s brand of leadership, with all that “the kid”/”little brother” stuff, wore on him until he wanted out, and whether that’s a cycle he wants to risk repeating. There’s more than one way to win. Maybe it’s time for Kyrie to find his own.