As the rest of the basketball-loving world spent Friday freaking out over Russell “Mr. Averaging a Triple-Double” Westbrook not being a starter in this year’s NBA All-Star Game, Kyrie Irving took center court to use his All-Star status to inspire kids. Perhaps because he’s already been an All-Star starter, or maybe even because he’s already been the All-Star Game MVP, the Eastern Conference’s top point guard turned his own spotlight on the Kids Foot Locker Fitness Challenge, a six-week program that encourages Boys & Girls Club members to lead healthy lifestyles by getting out and participating in physical fitness activities, with the healthiest, most physically fit club winning a cool $10,000.
Irving is an ideal spokesperson for this initiative for at least three reasons: 1) He’s an NBA star, obviously; 2) He grew up watching his dad’s pro-am and adult league basketball games, and he was driven to reach the NBA since he was in the fourth grade, so he knows a thing or two about being an active kid; and 3) He’s still a kid at heart, so he knows what those kids are thinking when they’re staring at an NBA All-Star starting point guard and wondering what it will take to become the next Kyrie Irving.
“I see it from a lot of different perspectives,” Irving says of speaking to a crowd filled with star-struck kids. “Seeing it as one of those kids sitting on the floor, and then being the guy that everyone is looking up to. It’s a fair balance, but it all comes from humility and the ability to resonate with any crowd. I’m able to do that just from my background and the way I was raised.”
Irving was born in Melbourne, Australia, where his father, Drederick, was playing pro basketball at the time, but his family returned to the U.S. when he was two. His mother passed away when he was only four, and so he also knows how to deal and cope with loss. So, even as the kids typically focus on his profession and high celebrity profile, Irving doesn’t shy away from opening up about everything with them.
“They usually ask me when I started playing basketball, or what I did as a kid, and some workouts that I did as a kid. Those are as easy questions as I get, but I personally enjoy just being asked about my life. Asked about my father, where I was raised, where I’m from, how I play basketball, and how much of an opportunity I got to play in different places. Also, just having my family in my life and having different cultures along the way, and different mentors who helped and guided me to who I am today.”
If there is one recurring piece of advice he offers the children, it is a time-honored bit of athlete’s rhetoric: “Just be yourself at all times.” If they’re aspiring to follow in his footsteps, though, it’s a crucial mantra. After all, as Andrew Bogut recently reminded us, the NBA is full of “shallow” and “fake” personalities, and so Irving is certainly someone who knows to keep his head on a swivel.
“Realize what your potential actually is,” he continues. “There are going to be a lot of things thrown at you in life. A lot of experiences that, whether good or bad, are going to shape you, and the way you respond is really going to dictate the direction that you go in. There will be a lot of people who tell you you can’t do something, or a lot of people who are going to support you no matter what. You need to identify the different types of groups and what the truth really is. At the end of the day, all you’re going to have is yourself, your being and persona, and the people who mean the most to you. Everything else in life can be taken away from you, so just try to cherish and live in every moment.”
When the Cavaliers celebrated their NBA Championship at the White House in November, Irving should have taken his physical fitness cause straight to Michelle Obama, since helping America’s kids be healthy is right up her alley. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the chance to meet – perhaps we can blame LeBron James for not connecting two of his best friends – but he’d never be against teaming with the First Lady in the near future. After all, he’ll never stop feeling like a kid at heart, and so he’ll never stop trying to help kids focus on fitness.
“There’s a part of me that tells me to be a kid every single day, and just do what kids do,” Irving says. “The other part of me is really focusing on making sure that they’re striving to be the best they can be, no matter if it’s in school or different activities and sports. It’s a way to connect with people and this generation, and to grow over time. But living a healthy lifestyle is one of the most important things, being fit and taking care of your body. It took me a while to grasp that concept, but now that I’m older, it’s something I want to share with the younger generation.”
He’s also aware that this is a generation unlike any other in terms of access to technology. Now, more than ever, kids prefer playing football and basketball on their Xbox or Playstation, and Irving says we can’t blame them for being hooked on technology. At least to an extent.
“They have to understand the balance and knowing that staying fit is just as important as picking up an Xbox controller,” Irving says.
Ever the man of the people, it’s only fair to wonder what Irving thinks about the new NBA All-Star Game voting process. His answer isn’t surprising at all: “I think it should be fans and players.”
As Ernie Johnson recently explained to Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, Irving is an All-Star starter because of the fan (1.6 million votes) and player (130 votes) aspects of the process. If the media had its way, Isaiah Thomas (61) would be starting over Irving (32), but it’s all pointless debate fodder now. Irving knows the process isn’t perfect, but the writing was on the wall.
“It came down to analytics, which kind of runs our game now,” Irving observes. “I think that’s what the league was reaching toward, but it definitely gives a different experience and perspective with voting and people being a part of the process. I think we tried something different and everyone has a different opinion on if it worked or not, but the starters were picked and I’m just as thankful as anyone else to be a part of All-Star Weekend, whether as a starter or reserve.”
Unrelated to the charitable efforts or his All-Star, we’ve always been kind of curious about a certain tattoo on Irving’s forearm. Specifically, the logo from the inexplicably resurgent and forever-beloved sitcom Friends. It caught the Internet’s eye during the 2015 NBA Finals, and we’ve never stopped thinking about it. Turns out, Irving is just like all the crazy kids who watched the show every day on TBS for the last ten years, wondering if Ross and Rachel would make it.
“Definitely a fan of the show,” he admits, “but one other person in this world has the same tattoo as me. It’s one of my best friends, and we both have it on the same place.”