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A professional basketball player, Kyrie Irving barely had to leave the 216 area code to grow into one of the league’s best. To grow as a man, the Cavs All-Star guard decided to travel halfway around the globe.
Since his sophomore season ended last April, Irving’s journey has taken him thousands of miles away from home – including separate trips to the West Coast and another two junkets to the planet’s southern hemisphere.
But Irving’s offseason pilgrimage hasn’t been about sight-seeing and sipping frozen drinks on a beach. Part of his trek has been to hone his already-refined hoops skills. But another component – and maybe a more vital one – took place off of the basketball court and in the world community.
In that respect, Kyrie’s inspiration was simple.
“The community work that I’m doing and that I’m a part of is something special, and I’m mainly doing it for my mother,” said Irving, who lost his mother, Elizabeth, when he was just four years old. “Her spirit lives within me and if she were alive, she’d want me to do the community work that I’m doing. And I’m really excited to be a part of it.”
This week, the 2012 Rookie of the Year has been part of the UNICEF Schools for Africa program in Gauteng Province, South Africa. He’s visiting primary and secondary schools in both Soweto and Randfontein, where he worked with students, teachers and administrators.
At the Bafikile Primary School in Soweto, Kyrie led young students through phys-ed activities, including a basketball clinic. He also spoke about the importance of staying in school to an assembly at Soweto’s Senaonae Secondary School, where dropouts are very high.
At the Emaweni Primary School, Irving worked on an art project with a group five- and six year-olds who are in the school's Early Childhood Development program.
“Seeing a child smile anywhere in the world is such a great feeling in your heart,” beamed Irving. “And being a part of UNICEF – they lead with our youth and they believe in our youth. And really, the children are our future. I’m 21 years old, but the generation that’s coming in after me, they’re going to be the ones that are going to make the difference in our future. And that’s what UNICEF is really about – helping every kid.”
Following Kyrie’s work with UNICEF, he’s joining fellow NBA stars like Joakim Noah and Al Horford in the NBA’s annual Basketball Without Borders program, which begins its tenth visit to Johannesburg on August 29.
“I’m pretty sure there will be some ‘interesting’ coaching techniques going on,” quipped Kyrie. “Here at Basketball Without Borders, especially during camp, we’re all going to be competitive and I’m looking forward to it, especially the coaching aspect of it. You get an appreciation of what coaches have to go through during Basketball Without Borders.”
If Kyrie’s mother, Elizabeth, was the inspiration for his decision to engage the impact the community – even on a worldwide basis -- his father, Drederick was the impetus – especially in choosing South Africa as their BWB destination this summer.
“I did (Johannesburg), more or less, because of my dad,” asserted Irving. “I know he definitely wanted to come to South Africa and see it firsthand. So he and I just took advantage of this opportunity to give back to the community, the South African community, and see how they’re living.
“It’s such a humbling experience,” Kyrie continued. “You have to really see it firsthand to understand what’s going on here – the oppression people went through, the government issues, the youth uprising that’s going on here. And you truly appreciate the next generation that’s behind you that’s coming up. The children are our future and it just makes me appreciate what I have and how I can give back to the community that much more.”
Kyrie and his father have always had an unbreakable relationship. After starring at Boston College, Drederick played in Australia for the Bulleen Boomers. Kyrie and his family spent his early years living in the Melbourne suburb of Kew before relocating to the States when he was just two years old.
Earlier this summer – before Kyrie traveled to Las Vegas for the U.S. National Team’s mini-camp in late July – he and Drederick returned to the land down under, where the younger Irving still holds dual citizenship with Australia and the U.S.
“Our connection goes deeper than basketball,” said Kyrie. “The relationship that we have is truly something special and for him to be a part of this, giving me the idea for me to reach out the community and be part of something special. Just having your dad for a great support system has been great, and he’s been there from day one, so it’s been a tremendous summer for us to do it together.”
In his overseas travels, Kyrie has done a little bit of everything – from playing cricket with kids in Soweto (“Yeah, I’m actually a pretty decent cricket player, and that was my first time playing it!”) to sampling some interesting international fare, like pig intestines (“It was pretty disgusting.”)
But Irving’s offseason coming-of-age journey didn’t take place completely on foreign soil. He’s spent time working at Cleveland Clinic Courts, trained with the U.S. National Team in Las Vegas, made a visit to Seattle for the Jamal Crawford Summer Pro-Am tournament, gathered some of his teammates to work out in Santa Monica, California, and has organized several workouts with his teammates over the summer.
Again, all this cross-country travel isn’t without a purpose. And Irving willingly addresses the metamorphosis that he’s undergone this offseason.
“Before (last) season ended, I told the media – all of Cleveland and everybody – that I definitely needed to re-evaluate myself and what I wanted to be known as and what I wanted to be seen as,” offered Irving. “I want to be a great player and a great person. And that had to come first. So I took a step back and re-evaluated myself and (decided) take control of this team. And that’s what I’m doing.”
Kyrie hasn’t even returned to the States – and Camp is still officially a month away – but the All-Star point guard sounds like he’s more than ready to get after it already.
“I definitely have some great goals for our team and personally that I want to accomplish. And I can’t do it without my teammates. So the first step is getting everybody together and getting a great feel for one another.”
Irving has always been looked at as a young man who’s wise beyond his years. But after a summer bounding across the country and around the globe, he’s gained an even greater perspective on the world around him. And an offseason of growth and introspection can only enhance his development – on the court and off – as a young man and a leader.
The Wine and Gold already expected a great ballplayer to return to Cleveland when Training Camp tips off. But this year, they’re going to be welcoming back a wiser, more worldly man as well.