All For One
Tristan Thompson is enjoying this professional basketball thing immensely.
No matter that the NBA lockout delayed this moment by 56 days, that the fourth overall pick is less than an hour from his first game as a Cleveland Cavalier or that fellow rookie and No. 1 overall selection Kyrie Irving hasn't found his way into the locker room yet.
A small horde of reporters surrounds the 6-foot, 9-inch power forward like defenders in the paint. His big smile produces deep dimples that overwhelm his youthful stubble. His wine-colored No. 13 jersey hangs in the locker behind him.
"How much pressure do you feel," asks a TV reporter from the Toronto Sports Network. Thompson grew up in Brampton, Ont., a suburb of Toronto, and the Cavs are opening the season against his hometown Raptors.
"Oh, none at all," says Thompson, the highest-drafted Canadian-born player in league history. "I'm just coming in and working hard. That is what the city of Cleveland wants."
True, but the city wants more than "working hard" these days. No one's predicting six or seven championships like in South Beach, but the arrival of Irving and Thompson has rebooted the franchise after a 19-win season that included a league-record 26 straight losses.
Together, the duo represent the anti-LeBron James experience. They entered the league through a notoriously weak draft without huge endorsement deals. Rather than global icon, they have the makings of a Brad Daugherty and Mark Price for a new era.
As Thompson answers a few more questions — and he clearly loves answering questions — Irving slips into the locker room from the training area wearing shorts and a tank top. At 6 feet 3 inches, he looks small in the locker room, but he's not an overwhelmed rookie. With soft eyelids that make him look like he could drift off to sleep at any moment, he slips on his wine-colored Cavs uniform.
"Wish we were wearing white tonight," he almost half-whispers to Anthony Parker, whose locker is next to his.
There's not a note of first-pick entitlement in the request. Instead, Irving, who played just 11 games as a freshman at Duke because of a toe injury, is quiet, a thinker, an observer — just a few of the traits the Cavs love in him.
The 19-year-old slips on his warm-ups and places white Bose headphones over his ears, plugs them into his iPhone and sits silently watching a huge television that's replaying a Celtics-Raptors preseason game, a little last-minute preparation for the night's opponent and their tendencies.
The Q is 20,562 people full. Ahmaad Crump, the in-game arena host, starts a low growl that culminates in, "Are ... You ... Ready? Cavalier fans, ... are you ready?" Out comes Parker. Omri Casspi. Jamison. Then, "Kyyyyyyyyyrie Irrrrrrrrrrrrving."
The arena shakes. Those who clapped for the first three starters are stomping now, and they continue to rattle the rafters as Anderson Varejao is introduced. It may be a touch surprising that a player touted as the front-runner to be rookie of the year doesn't warrant the final spot in pregame announcements. But nothing is being handed to Irving, who played behind Ramon Sessions in the first two preseason games and wasn't officially named the starting point guard until the shoot-around earlier in the day.
In fact, not much ever has been handed to him.
Irving was born in Australia and lived there for two years while his father, Drederick Irving, played professional basketball for the Bulleen Boomers. The Boston University star averaged 32.5 points per game. After basketball, the family moved to West Orange, N.J., where Dred worked as a Wall Street investment banker.
When Kyrie was 4, though, his mother and Dred's college sweetheart, Elizabeth, died unexpectedly from blood poisoning. Kyrie inherited his mother's love of music, even performing in a school production of High School Musical, and keeps her memory close with a tattoo of her name framed by angel wings over his left pectoral.
Dred raised Kyrie and his older sister, Asia, as a single father. "My father, he is my hero," Kyrie says. "He is my role model. No matter how old I get, I'll always look up to him."
To this day, Dred plays a huge role in his son's life. He's spending the season here helping his son adjust to the NBA, even picking out furniture for Kyrie's new home. And shades of his father's game can be seen in Kyrie's explosiveness and fearlessness around the rim.
Irving played high school basketball at two prep schools in New Jersey. During his junior year at St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, N.J., he began showing the potential to be a special player. In his senior season, Irving averaged 24.5 points, 5 rebounds, 6.5 assists per game for a team ranked No. 7 nationally in USA Today. In early February that season, Irving scored 21 points to help St. Patrick defeat Tristan Thompson's St. Benedict's Preparatory School, one of three times the duo has met previously on the court.
His one season (11 games, actually) at Duke was disappointing. The highlight was a 31-point, six-rebound performance against Michigan State in December. But just as he was being recognized as the nation's best player, Irving suffered a toe injury, one that he was still answering questions about after his Cavs first practice.
"There were a lot of peaks and valleys," he says of his short college career. "It was a learning experience."
Tonight's another one. He has an early assist to Varejao for a layup, but misses a short jumper, has a layup blocked and commits a foul before he gets an assist. With 3:57 remaining in the quarter, he takes a seat on the bench without scoring. His face, though, gives nothing away. If he's disappointed in his performance, it doesn't show.
As coach Byron Scott subs in his second unit a few moments later, Tristan Thompson peels off his warm-ups and sits near the scorer's table, his long, lanky legs pulled up to his chest.
Thompson's locker room assertion about feeling no pressure appears to be true. Athletically gifted with freakishly long arms, he's in the action early. Toronto's Ed Davis tests him, scoring on a little hook shot from 10 feet away. But Thompson attacks Davis on the other end of the floor and draws a foul. A 49 percent shooter from the line during his only year at the University of Texas, Thompson misses the first but makes the second.
Thompson knows he must work on his game, especially after Scott called his shot "awful" following a pre-draft workout for the Cavs. So he is regularly one of the first players in the gym in the morning and one of the last to leave.
The oldest of four children born to Jamaican parents, Thompson's initial love was soccer. It was all he played until he was 10, and it became obvious his size might not fit the sport.
When Thompson was in the fifth grade, his basketball coach told his mother, Andrea, that her son was going to be great. "You could see that he had it in him," she says. "And he was hungry for it."
Andrea worked and couldn't always take her son to basketball practice, so he boarded a bus on his own to get there. He even started scrawling goals in black marker on the bathroom mirror to remind himself when he combed his hair or brushed his teeth. Was he working to get better? How bad did he want that college scholarship?
At 15, the Thompsons sent their son to New Jersey's St. Benedict's Preparatory School, a basketball powerhouse then coached by Dan Hurley, the brother of Duke standout Bobby Hurley.
However, during a junior season in which he was averaging more than 19 points per game and almost 10 rebounds, Thompson was kicked off St. Benedict's team for insubordination. At that point, Thompson was already committed to the Texas Longhorns, so he transferred to Findlay Prep in Nevada for his senior year.
It might sound like Thompson was a bad kid who cared about nothing except basketball, but he was an honors student at St. Benedict's and continued to excel academically in Nevada.
At Texas, Thompson continued to push himself, arriving at the gym 20 minutes early every day to fine-tune his game: rebounding, footwork, his left hand. He averaged 13.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks, and his improvement propelled the Longhorns into the Top 10 and earned him honors on the freshman All-American team.
"My love and passion is basketball," he says. "Now I get to do that every day."
Like Irving, who has a pact with his father to get his bachelor's degree within five years, Thompson spent the NBA lockout completing his third semester and taking classes such as Minority and Student Leadership.
He doesn't appear to have hard feelings toward Hurley, who is now the head coach at Wagner College. On Twitter, where Thompson looks more like a self-help guru with tweets like, "I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is to try to please everyone," he asked his more than 27,000 followers to follow Hurley, too.
"Follow @dhurley15 one of the only coaches who believed in me from day one," he wrote. "He is one person I can say really wants what's best for me."
He used the hashtag "love."
"He is a good person," Andrea Thompson says of her son. "He has an open heart."
By the time the quarter ends, Thompson has thrown the hammer down on a dunk off a sweet pass from Ramon Sessions and grabbed a defensive rebound: three points and a rebound in just over three minutes.
A 12-0 run in the second quarter has propelled the Raptors to a lead that the Cavs can never quite make up. With about a minute left in the fourth quarter, the Cavs trail 99-91, and it doesn't look like Irving and Thompson will appear on the floor at the same time tonight.
It's not like draft night back in June when Irving found Thompson's familiar face on the bus taking the top prospects from the Times Square Westin to the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Little did they know, they'd be selected just 17 minutes apart by the Cavaliers. Not since 1983, when the Houston Rockets selected Ralph Sampson and Rodney McCray first and third, has a team drafted two players so high.
Closer to home, the Cavs would certainly be happy if Irving and Thompson turned into this generation's Brad Daugherty, the first overall pick in the 1986 draft, and Mark Price, who was picked first in the second round that year by the Dallas Mavericks and then traded to the Cavs.
Thompson says that on draft night, after the Cavs called his name, he and Irving found each other backstage. "We gave each other big hugs," Thompson says. "It's actually heaven for us to both be drafted by the same team."
As a part of rookie initiation, the duo rides together to pick up Krispy Kreme doughnuts for the veterans before morning game day shoot-arounds.
"We're never going to leave each other out there to dry," Irving says. "We're going to continue to grow together."
With 27 seconds left, Irving is left open for a 3-pointer, which he nails, only his second basket of the night. The No. 1 pick has had a tough game, going 2 for 12 from the field and repeatedly getting beaten defensively by Toronto's Jose Calderon. Thompson, on the other hand, continued his hot start, scoring 14 points on 4 of 6 shooting and a surprising 6 for 8 from the free-throw line in just 17 minutes on the floor.
In the locker room afterward, Irving is wearing a blue button-down, and his voice barely carries to the reporters at the back of the pack that surrounds him asking questions.
In that short time, Irving mentioned the phrase "learning process" twice and "getting better" three times. Just about every time Irving and Thompson are interviewed, they mention the fact that they just want to learn and get better.
"[Kyrie] gets the big picture, and he knows there are different phases before you get to that picture," says Drederick Irving.
That's something Cavs fans are adjusting to as well.
12:00 AM EST
January 20, 2012