Like the Nets, Kyrie Irving’s basketball story begins in New Jersey.
The two-time All-NBA guard recalls the days of putting up shots on “two rusty old courts” outside a Newark high school as he first took to the game that his father, Drederick, had embraced on the way to a standout career at Boston University and a pro paycheck playing in Australia.
After the family returned to the United States, young Kyrie dabbled in baseball and even karate before zeroing in on the same path his father took. He and Drederick spent hours before and after travel team practices putting up shots in the gym at West Orange’s Roosevelt Middle School, and that’s where Irving sat down last week to talk about those formative hoops years.
“As a kid, I knew that there was a certain amount of time I had to put into playing basketball in order to be great at it,” said Irving. “Why I gravitated toward it was the energy of it. I knew that it would bring a lot of people together. I knew that I could be taught by my dad at the same time. I knew that I could discipline and push myself to certain extremes and see results.”
While Irving was building his game in the gyms and playgrounds of New Jersey, he also became a Nets fan, soaking up the atmosphere of a game night and marveling at the details that stick with him 20 years later. Then, suddenly, his favorite team was one of the best in the NBA. Sparked by the trade for Jason Kidd in the summer of 2001, the Nets went to back-to-back NBA Finals and won four division titles in five seasons.
Irving reveled in the success of the team and the thrill of watching a point guard like Kidd master the game. The only disappointment was not going the distance, as Irving watched from Continental Airlines Arena’s nosebleed seats as the Nets were swept by the Lakers in the 2002 NBA Finals.
“The motivation for me was, I’m going to make sure that when the Nets get back to the Finals, I’m going to be part of this team, and we’re going to be winning this,” said Irving. “That’s really where the story stems from, was from that point, when I saw us lose in that arena, at that point, being able to go to those games, I knew like, OK, one day I think I’ve got to play for the Nets, man. We’ve got to do something here.”
A lot has changed since those days. The Nets moved on from New Jersey after 35 seasons, jumping rivers to Brooklyn and opening up Barclays Center in 2012.
While the Nets were playing their final seasons at the Meadowlands, the kid from the upper deck developed into one of New Jersey’s top prep players while starring in the brutally competitive North Jersey high school scene. After two seasons at Montclair Kimberley Academy, Irving transferred to powerhouse St. Patrick — now known as The Patrick School — where he became one of the top-rated high school players in the country before going on to college at Duke.
A year later, Irving was the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.
“Growing up a New Jersey Nets fan, especially in the tri-state area, it was a different pride you had to have,” said Irving. “And I had that chip on my shoulder everywhere I went, because I was that New Jersey kid, sometimes in New York City, or in Philly, or in D.C, or in North Carolina, and up the whole entire East Coast, where it was big to rep where you were from, and that was the attitude, that was the mentality that I embodied. And that went right along with the Nets as well. Like, I wanted to be like JKidd growing up. I wanted to be like some of these great stars that I got a chance to see play in the 90s and 2000s.”
And when the time came for Irving to choose a team as a free agent in the summer of 2019, the lure of playing for his favorite childhood team, the chance to chase the dream of that 10-year-old who watched the NBA Finals from the upper deck, brought him back together with the Nets.
Now the kid from New Jersey will sport one of the franchise’s classic uniforms from that era, as the Nets have unveiled their first Classic Edition jersey, a throwback of the iconic “tie-dye” jersey from the 1990-91 season.
“You’ve got the classic jersey that we’re paying homage to just that brief snapshot in Nets history, I’m grateful to be able to do it, and I’m honored to be able to do it, because I know putting that on is just paying homage to the legends that came before me.”