The Student Is Still The Student

The Kyrie Irving apology is an example of humility, self-promotion, and you do better when you know better.

The moment Kyrie Irving was drafted number one, he was filled with his own superstar dreams. Then he and LeBron James collided in a student-teacher way. The relationship had highs and lows, a championship, Kyrie biting his tongue every time LeBron was praised and Kyrie, in his mind, was ignored. Irving had been plotting, or at least thinking about, an exit for a very long time. And when it happened it was met with scorn and confusion. Why would you leave a winner?

Irving’s extraordinary moment of hitting a game winner to cement a NBA title further attached Irving to this idea he was great and he alone could be the centerpiece of a team. In Irving’s mind he didn’t need LeBron. He was good enough. But as someone pointed out last night, Irving, as great as he is, has never been in the MVP conversation. Never. It is the MVP’s who are the true leaders.

Irving is a great scorer, has incredible handles, rises up to meet the moment. But his defense is sub-par and his leadership is a work in progress.

Because maturity means look at yourself, Irving did, and in a humble moment reached out to the person he was running away from. It’s similar to calling your ex after the divorce and apologizing for all those arguments you started.

Ironically, when the call came in LeBron was at dinner with Kevin Love. The Cavs had just played the Lakers and Love and LeBron and friends were sitting around the table. LeBron couldn’t fathom what in hell Kyrie wanted. They were divorced.

Later, LeBron called him back and that is when Irving had a mea culpa. He understands now how frustrated LeBron was with him.

It’s an overused cliché how young players don’t win in the NBA. But. They don’t. They can’t. Their immaturity gets in the way.

Kyrie couldn’t see himself until he escaped LeBron and then was matched up with players who were exactly like he was once upon a time, believing talent was the end all and be all.  But talent is what gets you in the door. Singular focus, competitive drive, thinking the game, studying players and their tendencies, actions and their possibilities, how to maximize energy when you don’t feel like playing, all of it takes time to absorb.

Young players are focused on that second contract. It’s rare the young player who is mature enough to fulfill all the obligations on a championship contender.

Magic Johnson was 20 years old when he won a title. Kobe Bryant was 21 years old when he won a title. They are the exception. Usually age, talent, and basketball habits meet in a positive arc between the ages of 25-33.

What Irving is expecting from his young teammates- 22 year old Jaylen Brown, 24 year old Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, 20 year old Jayson Tatum- is maturity that takes time to develop but Irving doesn’t have the time they do. He is a free agent and wants to make sure whoever he signs with can compete year in and year out for titles. He sees his young teammates stubbornness as a crime against his leadership. It is more subtle: they don’t know what they don’t know. It takes time. Everyone wants to fast track The Process. You can’t.

Irving’s maturity has grown since the draft and frankly, since he hit that game winner in Steph Curry’s face. But he has to meet people where they are. He can’t force nature. That he realizes he is arguing with his past self  and is willing to ask for advice from LeBron James, the person responsible for his headache, and vice-versa, says something about Kyrie’s willingness to evolve. And atone.

However, not everyone considers the apology a happy moment. Stan Van Gundy was more cynical. He saw it as one more Kyrie jab at his teammates, as if he was predicting the future. When his teammates grow up, they will apologize to Kyrie.

Clearly, Irving- who loves self-promotion- wanted to play it in the media as a character moment. He asked LeBron for advice and he wanted everyone to know he asked LeBron for advice. Kyrie wanted it out there.

But regardless of his intentions, Kyrie Irving is still a student. He still is trying to figure out how to get the most out of his young teammates. Similarly to Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving wants to win a title (divorced from a superstar) to validate his decision and career.

Kyrie Irving wants to win. But winning is a team thing. You don’t win on your own. He still has to learn how to be a leader which doesn’t mean being a boss. You hold others accountable. They respect you. You trust them. It is give and give and take and take. It is The Process.