Sympathy for the Devil: Why Kyrie Irving’s injury hits home

Prone

The texts and e-mails started rolling in on Wednesday, asking me how I was doing in the wake of Kyrie Irving’s toe injury. They came from people who know how I’ve followed Kyrie’s early career over the last year or so.

I’m obviously concerned, more for him than about anything else. As incredible a player as Kyrie has looked, he’s still a freshman. And I know what it’s like to be a New Jersey kid at Duke, where a 500-mile difference can seem like 500,000 miles when you’re alone.

Despite Mike Krzyzewski saying he could be out for the season, I have to hold on to hope that this year is going to have a happy ending for Kyrie. He’s got a tremendous medical staff on his side, and the healing powers of youth.

But a part of me misses a simpler time, watching Kyrie do his thing at high school games at Kean University. And there’s a part of him that deep down probably agrees with me.

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Nine years after my graduation from Duke, I felt somewhat out of place sitting in the Izod Center on Saturday watching them play Butler.

As time goes on, I feel more and more disconnected from Duke basketball, which I lived and died with as an undergrad. Part of that is that they stick out like a sore thumb in my resume as a sports fan.

My other three teams are the Mets, Knicks and Dolphins, all of them passed down to me at a young age from long-suffering sports fans in my family, who presumably wanted to make sure their misery was carried on by future generations. When the Mets won in 1986, I was seven and not yet a fan, so I’ve never actually witnessed any of those teams win a championship.

Singler I never liked Duke growing up. To me, they were like the Yankees and Jordan Bulls, teams that were eminently unlikeable because they won all the time, and also for their fans’ arrogance and sense of entitlement. Not to mention, some of the absolute worst guys I went to high school with had been bandwagon Duke fans during the Laettner years.

Admittedly, I went to Duke in part because I liked having the opportunity to be associated with a program like that. I hosted a sports radio show, got to know the guys, and Duke’s championship during my senior year in 2001 was an incredible time in my life as a sports fan.

But though I’ll always have inextricable ties to Duke basketball, the farther removed I am from actually being there, I feel more distant from it in a way that could never happen with the three teams that have been a part of my identity since I was a kid.

For one, Duke’s just too perfect, and I realize I sound like a lottery winner complaining about having too much money. But I’ve always subscribed to the Vanilla Sky theory: “The sweet is never as sweet without the sour.” Looking around at the Northeasterners sitting in the swamp with me, heckling Butler fans for no good reason, I just didn’t see how they’d experienced very much in the way of sour.

Last year’s Duke championship was indeed pretty great, as they were coming off a couple of down years – for them – and people had begun to write off Mike Krzyzewski, thinking the game had passed him by. Yet as much as I’d wanted it, I felt a palpable letdown afterward.

For me, the best part of a good meal is that moment right before you start to dig in, that feeling of anticipation.

Watching your team win isn’t nearly as fun as watching your team attempt to win.

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In addition, I’m simply getting farther away from college.

Two guys from my eraAs long as Krzyzewski and Steve Wojciechowski are on the bench, I do still feel something of a connection to Duke. I love watching games and talking about them with my dad. And I do like the type of players they’ve been recruiting – particularly lately, with guys like Kyle Singler having a certain edge to them.

But as the pages on the calendar start to fall off faster and I venture deeper into my thirties, I have to look harder to make that connection. Duke was a big part of my life, but though I have incredible memories, that’s just not me anymore. I have other stuff going on.

I’ve moved on.

That’s part of the reason I love investing in a guy like Kyrie Irving.

When Duke signed a point guard from my home state last year, I couldn’t wait to get there in person to see what he was all about. I went to a half-dozen games and grew friendly with the St. Pat’s alumni and boosters, who apologetically assured me after the first game I went to, when Kyrie was simply damn good – and not off the charts – that I hadn’t seen anything yet.

As I went to a few more games, I was blown away by his superb creativity, his steely but warm demeanor, his quiet but forceful leadership. I talked to Kyrie and his father a couple of times, and they were respectful, congenial and focused on his dream.

Three great Dukies It always becomes quite a special thing when you follow someone all the way from high school and they thrive on the next levels. I also watched Nolan Smith play for Oak Hill – and before that, Luol Deng for Blair Academy – and there’s a certain feeling of pride that goes with making that connection early and seeing the player blossom later.

If there was one thing I was worried about with Kyrie, it was that his teenage body didn’t seem to be commensurate to his adult talent level, strength-wise. Honestly, and I promise it’s not hindsight, the only thing I feared could stop him was some sort of injury.

Irving’s potentially season-ending severe turf toe is as disappointing to me as any injury since Carlos Boozer broke his foot in my final game at Cameron Indoor. I spent most of the summer telling people, “Yes, Kyrie’s really that good.” I was so proud as he darted through the lane en route to 31 points against Michigan State.

More so even than Duke, Kyrie was doing his thing. As I knew he would.

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It is of course ironic that the final game of Kyrie’s mercurial Duke career may have come back in New Jersey, where it all started for him.

That possibility aside, I do think that he’ll probably play again this season.

For one, Duke will pull out all the stops. From what I’ve been told, they’re flying in a battalion of experts in the field of foot injuries from all over the country to examine him, and I saw them work miracles when Elton Brand and Boozer broke their respective feet. I’ll never forget going into Brand’s room and seeing him with some device hooked up to his foot, providing constant electric stimulation directly to the bone.

But I’m no doctor, so who knows? Maybe he’ll eventually need to have surgery.

One thing’s for certain: I’m definitely very disappointed today. Watching and talking to Kyrie last year, I saw a good kid who happened to be a remarkable basketball player, and someone who deserved to enjoy his freshman year at Duke.

I say this as a Duke graduate. But I say it more as someone who wanted everyone to see what I saw at a Kean University gym last winter.

Let’s hope that sometime in February, Kyrie gets another chance to make that happen.

 

Esoteric

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