On opening night a 39-year-old Cavaliers season-ticket holder named Jason Herron walked into the team shop at Quicken Loans Arena, fished out his debit card and paid $25 for the last available Kyrie Irving jersey T-shirt. This one, he figured, he'll never have to burn.
Herron holds an incendiary place in Cleveland history. Nearly seven months earlier, on July 8, 2010, he drove to Harry Buffalo bar and restaurant in Lakewood, Ohio, to celebrate the re-signing of LeBron James. But like any longtime Cleveland sports fan, he allowed for the possibility that something might go wrong. So he pulled over at a gas station and bought a bottle of lighter fluid, just in case. When James announced he was heading to Miami, Herron marched into the parking lot, where he convinced another customer to peel off his wine-red number 23 jersey. "Are you really going to wear that again?" Herron asked. A cameraman from Channel 5, the ABC affiliate in Cleveland, scrambled into position. The jersey went up in flames, followed by Herron's PLEASE STAY LBJ T-shirt, and dozens like it. One patron tossed his LeBron sneakers into the bonfire. Judging from news reports that night, you'd have thought souvenir stores were ablaze across the city, but most of those reports were based on one jersey in one clip at one suburban bar. "It was just us," Herron says. "I saw on YouTube that someone else burned a jersey, but that was later."
Herron was back at Harry Buffalo on Jan. 29 of this year, sipping a Bud Light alongside a few of his partners in pyrotechnics. The television at the bar was again tuned to Channel 5. The Cavaliers were in Boston, the city where James played his last game in wine red, and Irving was running figure eights around the Celtics. With 22.2 seconds left and the Cavs down a point, coach Byron Scott called a play for Irving. He instructed the rookie point guard, picked first in the 2011 draft, to hold the ball for exactly 15 seconds and then attack. Scott's assistants thought Irving should initiate sooner, given that he had played only 18 NBA games and might not be ready for a last-second shot against Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. "Let the young man have it," Scott said.
Irving glanced at his father, Drederick, in a courtside seat. Herron rose from his barstool. The Boston crowd chanted for defense. Irving dribbled down the clock, rushed around a screen at the three-point line and found himself isolated against Celtics forward Brandon Bass. Irving froze him with a slithery crossover between the legs before splitting Bass and point guard Avery Bradley with a cyclone of a spin move at the right elbow. The Celtics crashed the paint, but Irving was too fast, and with a flick of his left wrist he laid in the game-winner.
Irving pointed at his dad, who was sprinting down the sideline. Herron was twirling a brunette through the air. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert tweeted gleefully, "I think I am pretty pleased with the 1st pick, how about you?!" Anger and disgust over James's departure had been smoldering in Cleveland for a year and half. Fans couldn't let go. Now the Age of LeBron was over. The Irving Era was underway. "This is a new beginning," Herron says. "A lot of the hate here has subsided. There is hope now. And it's because of Kyrie."
Cleveland is falling in love with another basketball player.
Irving is as close as you'll find nowadays to a high schooler in the NBA, a 19-year-old from New Jersey who played just 11 college games at Duke and three months ago was on campus taking classes in psychology, theater and African-American history. The lockout robbed him of summer league and a full training camp, and on opening night he felt comfortable calling only one play, which is why he kept jutting his right thumb in the air. "His breath smells like Similac," said Scott, familiar with brands of baby formula, having weaned Chris Paul in New Orleans. In his second game Irving forced himself to call different plays and found that he could run them just fine. In his next he took a last-second shot and accepted responsibility for the loss when it missed.
Today's NBA is full of enthralling point guards, but none more precocious than Irving. At 6' 3", 191 pounds, he is not as strong as Derrick Rose, as explosive as Russell Westbrook or as flashy as Ricky Rubio. Irving is defined by the sum of his skills, a driver who can shoot, a scorer who can pass. Like a young Steve Nash, he constantly changes speeds and directions, finishes with either hand and spins layups high off the backboard as if he's hitting feathery flop wedges. "He comes to compete," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "He doesn't come to put on a show." No one in Cleveland will replace James, and no one is asking Irving to try, but his 21.1 points per 36 minutes are more than James scored as a rookie, with a higher field goal percentage. His efficiency rating of 20.7 is better than Magic Johnson's when he was a rookie. Last Friday night at All-Star weekend in Orlando, Irving won MVP of the Rising Stars exhibition, with 34 points on 12 of 13 shooting.
The Cavaliers will take the garish numbers, but they also appreciate Irving's modest gestures. He showed up to his introductory press conference with an entourage of one, his dad. He moved into a downtown apartment instead of a suburban mansion. The first thing he bought with his new contract was a pair of dress socks. "They were kind of expensive," Irving says. "Big-boy purchase." He goes out for dinner with rookie forward Tristan Thompson, drafted three spots after him, but they avoid VIP rooms. "We don't feel entitled," Thompson says. The day after the Cavs beat Boston, the fourth-grade class at Center Elementary School in Mayfield Heights stopped by the team's practice facility for a fitness program, and Irving joined in with a pink jump rope. When the event was over, he stuck around and played one-on-eight with the kids, exchanging G-rated trash talk. A club official finally had to remind him the Celtics were back in town the next day. "You wouldn't know he's the Number 1 pick," says guard Anthony Parker. "I think that's what this organization likes most."
At 13--18, Cleveland is in ninth place in the East, but it's far removed from the 26-game losing streak that stained nearly two months of last season. Needing to build, the Cavaliers traded point guard Mo Williams to the Clippers for Baron Davis, his burdensome contract and a first-round pick. The Clippers ended up in the lottery, but just barely. The Cavs had a 19.9% chance of winning the lucky Ping-Pong ball with their own pick, a 2.8% chance of winning it with the Clippers'. Gilbert treated the lottery like a road game in the playoffs, taking a private plane to New Jersey with his family, staff, and good-luck charms Joe Haden and Josh Cribbs, who play for the Browns but were outfitted in Cavs jerseys. Gilbert's 14-year-old son, Nick, who suffers from a neurological disorder, represented the team on the stage, sporting a bow tie. When Wizards point guard John Wall, the No. 1 pick in 2010, saw the Cavs' colorful contingent, he approached Irving in the audience and whispered, "Cleveland."