SAN FRANCISCO — Last June, just days after losing in the NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving was told he might be traded to the Phoenix Suns.
“Because there was some chance I was going to maybe be in Phoenix, or maybe in situations where the environment hadn’t been winning for a while, and Kobe dealt with that in 2005-06, and that was tough. So I had to ask him, and gauge him about that.
“But after the fact, after everything happened, he was just super proud, and super happy.”
Irving has emulated Bryant since he studied Bryant’s game in an endless series of YouTube clips while growing up in New Jersey. Bryant’s game, though, wasn’t the only thing Irving studied.
He watched how Bryant tired of sharing the Los Angeles Lakers with Shaquille O’Neal, flirting with leaving for the Los Angeles Clippers as a free agent before O’Neal was traded. He saw Bryant demand a trade when he was unhappy with the direction of the franchise.
At every turn, he saw Bryant follow the same guiding principle: The one person who was going to control his career was Bryant himself.
“Despite what was going on from the outside influences and what everyone else felt was best for him, [Bryant] always did what was best for his career for himself,” Irving said. “He figured it out. At times throughout a professional career you’re going to be tested, and there are times where you’re going try to appease the media, you try to appease your teammates, you try to appease the coaching staff, whoever, whatever situation you are in, you try to kind of blend in.
“The best thing I learned from him is you don’t necessarily have to blend in. You can stand out.”
Bryant’s impact on Irving is obvious when looking at how the past few months — the most consequential of Irving’s basketball life — have played out.
It began with that phone call to Bryant after hearing rumors of a trade to the Suns as part of a three-team trade with the Indiana Pacers that would’ve brought Eric Bledsoe and Paul George to the Cavaliers, giving LeBron James a new supporting cast to take another run at the Golden State Warriors. And Irving would have left a team with a chance at a fourth straight NBA Finals for one trying to get back to respectability.
So when that trade fell apart, and Cleveland’s top two basketball executives — David Griffin and Trent Redden — were not retained by Cavaliers Owner Dan Gilbert, Irving took his basketball life into his own hands. He met with Gilbert and General Manager Koby Altman, who had been elevated to replace Griffin, and delivered a clear message: Trade me.
Eventually, the Cavaliers did, sending him to the Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and the Brooklyn Nets’ first round pick. So far, it has been everything he hoped it would be. Boston has overcome losing Gordon Hayward in the season opener — in Cleveland, no less — and now has the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Boston’s success is not only because of all-star seasons from Irving and Al Horford, but thanks to significant contributions from second-year forward Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum. Their development, coupled with the high likelihood of landing a top-five pick either this year or next year thanks to them trading down from the No. 1 pick this past offseason, means the future is plenty bright in Boston.
“It takes time,” Irving said. “Just like anything. But being in this environment, I felt like I’ve kind of thrown myself into it, being one of the leaders on the team, trying to help and guide these guys as much as possible while giving them the space to do what they feel is best for their careers.
“I don’t want to get in the way. I just want to aid them. That’s it. I’ve had some unbelievable experiences in my seven years in the league, and I know it’s going to continue, God willing, and I just try to do what’s best for our team and to integrate myself with these guys because they’re awesome. They’ve watched from the outside, and watched me go to the Finals and be in certain things and accolades, and I want the same for them.”
He might be able to lead them there sooner than expected. Between the struggles of his former team — the Cavaliers have lost 12 of their past 19 games — and the way the Celtics are playing, Boston could be the team that ends the stranglehold James has had over the Eastern Conference for the past seven years.
Last week, the Celtics lost a close game here against the Warriors, with Irving (39 points) and Stephen Curry (49) locked in the kind of duel they have been in so many times the past three seasons. And it wasn’t just their one-on-one matchup that made that game feel like it was being played in June, rather than late January.
“It’s always fun going against those guys,” Irving said with a smile. “You demand their respect, and you’ve earned it. And they’ve earned my respect, as well.
“Now being on a different team, I know most of the things they do well, and now I just bring some of those answers being with a different group to here.”
Irving wanted out of Cleveland for a chance to take ownership of his own team, and to lead it to the top of the sport. He has that chance now because, with his career at a crossroads, he followed Bryant’s example.
So far, it’s hard to argue with the results.