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Kyrie Irving’s intellectual curiosity makes him the perfect leader for the Boston Celtics

At the end of the first day of Celtics training camp, Kyrie Irving is still clad in practice gear, discussing the latest book he is poring over in his spare time.

“Maya Angelou,” Irving says. “There’s a complete book of all her poems. I read like four of them last night. I read two this afternoon. I’m about to probably go and read about four more before I go to sleep.”

Irving breaks into a smile as he explains what strikes him about the poetry.

“It’s the English language and words in it, and what they mean, and how some poets just put them together,” he says. “There’s just so much knowledge in the world. I just appreciate it so much. I get so happy thinking about it because you can learn so much about the world and people by the way they write, and the way they speak, and how eloquently they write their words.”

Irving shrugs his shoulders, draped in a Gatorade towel to absorb the sweat.

“I just love learning,” he says. “I don’t know, I just love learning.”

The fact he looks so happy while talking about something other than basketball isn’t surprising. Irving dedicated the summer heading into his eighth NBA season to personal and physical growth. He spent time getting closer to family and friends. He starred in the movie “Uncle Drew”, which premiered in late June. He also enrolled in a crossover program for professional athletes at Harvard Business School — a decision he says was “an easy choice.”

Irving is not shy when it comes to his intellectual curiosity, though that hasn’t always been to his benefit. In February 2017, Irving went on Richard Jefferson’s podcast and suggested the Earth is flat. That infamous comment has followed him for more than a year-and-a-half, and may continue to hound him even after Irving apologized for the statement this month at the Forbes 30 Under 30 summit.

“There’s just so much knowledge in the world. I just appreciate it so much … I just love learning.”—Kyrie Irving

It also helped feed into a stigma about Irving: Perhaps he is too focused on figuring out the world to fulfill his incredible basketball potential.

He made a pointed effort to leave LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers after winning an NBA Championship just one season prior, and even admitted at the summit that he wasn’t “as invested as I should have been” in the team to fully enjoy the accomplishment. As he was shipped to Boston, the question loomed whether Irving would actually benefit the Celtics and their team chemistry, or if his brain would get in the way.

Now, the expectations for both Irving and Celtics this season are massive. They are the favorites to make a run to the NBA Finals out of the now LeBron-less Eastern Conference, and whether they do depends greatly on Irving becoming the team leader he said he wanted to be when he left Cleveland.

And yet, before the start of what should be a title-contending season and after an offseason of so much speculation about his life — what his focus is, where he might play next season, and how he quite literally views the world — Irving seems at ease and happy. There is so much for him to think about: those first 82 games fighting for home-court advantage in the East; preparing himself and his teammates for a long playoff run; his own impending free agent situation.

And there’s poetry, too.

So much to think about.

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Life in the NBA is defined by drastic changes. Irving’s trade to the Celtics in the summer of 2017 shook up the Eastern Conference. The breakup with James and the Cavs was loud; they had just lost in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, and the trade began a season of questions directed at Irving about why he wanted to leave.

“I was dealing with a lot the last two years of my life,” Irving says. “Going from Cleveland and losing an NBA championship, to asking for a trade and dealing with that, and coming to Boston expecting to lead another team to the promised land. Dealing with all that, you don’t have a chance to slow down.

”It just sped up a lot of things in my life that I feel like I needed to pay attention to.”

On his own, Irving committed to his daily meditation, which he began in 2016.

“It’s an individual activity that you have to be mindful of what you’re trying to get out of it,” Irving says. “I feel like if you’re able to slow your life down and able to breathe in deep, and really take your time and really realize what’s afforded to you in this life, then I think you can do great things moving forward past that.”

The Celtics constructed their 2017-18 roster around the veteran trio of Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford — an infrastructure that took its first hit on opening night when Hayward suffered a season-ending left ankle injury five minutes into the game. Irving ramped up his production, averaging a team-high 24.4 points, 5.1 assists, and 3.8 rebounds in 32.2 minutes through 60 games in Hayward’s absence. Approaching the playoffs, the Celtics were second in the East with a 46-20 record.

“As long as your mind and body are on the same accord, you’re pretty solid, and last year it wasn’t.”—Kyrie Irving

But in mid-March, Irving was forced to change how he led the Celtics. In a two-point loss to the Pacers, Irving sustained a left knee injury that required surgery in April and sidelined him for the season. The news hit hard.

“I missed it so much,” Irving says of his ability to be an on-court leader. “For it to be taken away the way it did at the timing of everything, it just wasn’t ideal. It was hurtful, honestly, because it was an uncontrollable thing.”

No longer able to be influence his team on the floor, Irving was forced to adapt to a role on the sidelines. The injury was perhaps the first real test of Irving’s investment in Boston. If he’d felt he needed to disengage from the team — to slow things down — perhaps no one would have blamed him.

And yet, during Irving’s injury, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge describes him as “the biggest cheerleader” for his teammates, who received feedback from the point guard frequently. Even while hurt, Irving never relinquished his game mentality.

“He was always around in the facility and texting, calling me after the game, telling me what he saw,” says Jayson Tatum, last season’s star rookie. “That means a lot, especially to a young guy.”

In the first round of the playoffs, Irving outlined to Horford what the Celtics would have to anticipate from the Bucks when the series shifted to Milwaukee.

“We were up 2-0, feeling pretty good about ourselves,” Horford recalls. “He pretty much laid out how it was going to be Game 3: ‘It’s going to be rowdy in that building. They’re going to bring the intensity. It’s going to be different than home. We’ve got to come out prepared because they’re going to come out swinging and we don’t want to get down big. This is what you guys need to do to counter that.’

“Sure enough, we were feeling good when we came out, and Milwaukee blew us out Game 3. So it’s just one of those things that his experience, he kind of saw it coming a little bit.”

While Irving was helping the Celtics through his injury, he was learning about himself, too. The time away taught Irving about patience and introspection. It also gave him a new outlook for 2018 and beyond.

“As long as your mind and body are on the same accord, you’re pretty solid, and last year it wasn’t,” Irving says. “I had one of the best statistical seasons of my career and it was crazy how I did it because of the amount of distractions that were going on outside of it. You realize, ‘Ok, what if I add a little happiness to playing basketball instead of worrying about what’s going on outside of this?’”

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This past summer, Irving invited Tatum to join him on a vacation to the Bahamas with several other NBA players, including Kevin Durant, for the second year in a row. The trip was a way to unwind before the start of the season, but of course there were workouts mixed in, too. Getting away for a week was another chance for Irving to bond with the young, rising player ahead of Tatum’s second year.

“He really leads by example, just how he approaches his craft each and every day,” Tatum says. “Obviously he’s the best player so it speaks volumes when he’s doing all the workouts and all the drills. There’s no excuse for nobody else not to do it.”

Irving becoming an NBA-caliber leader wasn’t always a sure thing, however — he had never been forced to lead a major team before. Irving played only his freshman year for a Duke team that had four upperclassmen, including Kyle Singler and Miles Plumlee, before becoming the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. He was the best player on the Cavaliers during his first three seasons, but he was only 21 by the time James returned to Cleveland — the same age he would have been if he had entered the league after staying four years in college.

“Put the basketball stuff aside. [Kyrie Irving] as a person, he’s genuine, he’s caring.”—Terry Rozier

When Irving requested a trade from the Cavaliers in 2017, it didn’t make much sense why he would want to leave a championship contender. He revealed later that he felt stung when he found out the Cavaliers had initiated trade talks for him without his knowledge, reportedly at James’ encouragement. Irving wanted to be someplace where he felt valued, and, yes, where he could finally have the chance to lead a team that felt like his own.

Irving’s mentorship of the Celtics’ younger teammates offers a glimpse into his development as a leader. He has taken an active role in nurturing an emerging core that could one day take over the team.

As Irving sat out of the playoffs, hurt, Terry Rozier stepped up in his place and thrived as a starter. Instead of distancing himself from the teammate who took his role, Irving threw his full support behind Rozier. He invited him to his home, and when Rozier arrived, Irving pointed him upstairs to his closet and told him, “Grab whatever you want.”

The gesture resonated with Rozier, and inspired him to want to do the same for younger players in the future.

“I think Kyrie can really care less about the credit he gets, or him actually being a leader,” Rozier says. “He’s just good at what he does and he doesn’t do it for people to see it. He does it because he actually cares.”

The Celtics already revered Irving for his accomplishments prior to the trade. Many of his younger teammates had even watched him in the NBA as they made their way into the league.

“We knew from Kyrie before he came to the Celtics, before I actually got to meet him as a person, as the big shots, the crazy stuff that he had achieved,” Rozier says. “You try to take the back road and see how this guy is. He doesn’t come off as a guy that thinks he’s the man. He’s comfortable. He has fun. He’s a big kid.

”Put the basketball stuff aside. Him as a person, he’s genuine, he’s caring.”

For as easy as Irving’s leadership may seem to his teammates, Irving’s commitment to his teammates is a concerted effort — a process of self-education not unlike learning about poetry, or business, or acting, or how to break down a defense.

“Evolving,” Irving says, describing himself. “I mean, it’s just scary how much I have to learn about leadership.”

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The Celtics want Banner 18. They reached the Conference Finals without Irving and Hayward last season, when they lost to the Cavaliers in a Game 7. And though Joel Embiid’s 76ers and Kawhi Leonard’s Raptors are going to be difficult to beat, there’s no question Boston’s expectations soared when LeBron James left the conference. The extent that Irving’s education in leadership has paid off will determine so much of what becomes of the Celtics’ season.

The pressure could not be much higher on Irving’s shoulders, and even though Irving is the third-most veteran player on the Celtics, he’s still young. Irving does not turn 27 until next March.

“For him to be able to figure out all these interests off the court, it’s pretty impressive,” says Horford, six years Irving’s senior. “He has his life pretty put together. When you’re at that age, you’re still trying to figure out things. But he has a pretty clear vision and mindset of what he wants to do.”

Irving understands what’s expected of him, and, in some ways, he is the right person to lead the Celtics. Irving’s commitment to chemistry and learning has been part of the Celtics’ championship DNA for years, a point that was hammered home by a chance meeting with a legend when Irving went to Seattle this season to play in pickup games organized by NBA veteran Jamal Crawford.

“I came in the gym, I was warming up, and Bill Russell walked through the door for a regular pickup game. It’s just like whoa, wow,” Irving says. “He’s as cultured as they come, as great of a personality, is knowledgeable, and still he’s still doing it, showing up and supporting the Boston Celtics.

”I wouldn’t be able to talk about the Celtic tradition without Bill Russell doing what he did and laying down a great foundation.”

Irving proved he doesn’t take that tradition for granted when, in early October, he stood up at a season-ticket holder event and declared he plans to re-sign with the Celtics after the season.

“I get the game. I appreciate it. I’d do everything — I would die for this game. But it’s like, there’s so much more to life than just focusing on basketball.”—Kyrie Irving

Irving, right now, is slated to be one of the biggest names of a loaded free agent class. His statement doesn’t quite end any rumors — a lot can happen between now and July 2019 — but it does suggest Irving is feeling more comfortable in Boston than he has perhaps anywhere in his career. Just as importantly, it helps quiet at least one line of speculation that could have dogged Irving this season.

Meanwhile, Irving’s outward love for the Celtics is being reciprocated. Head coach Brad Stevens credits him as being “one of the smartest players I’ve been around.” Ainge refers to him as “a very special player.” Tatum says he “loves being out there” with him.

Yet, even if Irving finally feels home, he isn’t satisfied. He wants to lead consistently. His outlook is that it can be easy to be the best player talent-wise, but great leaders are able to get the most out of the entire team.

It should be noted that the Celtics aren’t tasking him with taking them to a championship all on his own, either. Irving will have the on-the-court help of Hayward and Horford as well as returning veterans like Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes, and a core of young players coming back with playoff experience. The Celtics’ roster has the depth and support to help Irving if ever life feels “sped up” again like it did the last two years.

“I think anybody’s going to grow and get better as time goes on as you get older,” Stevens says. “The way that we do it here is we want everybody to lead to who they are, number one. Be you, empower those around you, soar with your strengths and do your job as well as you can.

”Obviously being a guy that is going to garner a lot of attention, he gets watched a little closer. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that and I think he handles it really well.”

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When Stevens says “be you,” it calls back to mind Irving’s off-court pursuits. The Celtics seem to appreciate how Irving mixes countless hours in the gym with his array of non-basketball passions that shape him as a teammate. More than that, they believe Irving’s commitment to his personal development — not just his limitless talent and physical ability — can help the Celtics win.

“As a person, you try to have that balance in life of being a well-rounded individual,” says third-year forward Jaylen Brown. “Kyrie definitely is somebody who seeks that, who seeks further understanding. It translates on the basketball floor in terms of handling and managing guys, and seeing things before they happen. Kyrie’s really good at talking, communicating, and also just establishing a relationship with people to make them feel comfortable.”

Irving understands the road the Celtics need to take to reach a championship. He’s proved it with long days at the training complex and game film study sessions — and, now, with the way in which he has forged himself as a leader.

”Basketball has taken me so far,” Irving says. “Basketball has taken me all across the world, met so many different people, cultivated so many different relationships. But at the same time, there are so many hours throughout the day.

“I get the game. I appreciate it. I’d do everything — I would die for this game. But it’s like, there’s so much more to life than just focusing on basketball. You can make other people, you can make yourself happy doing it. You can learn a lot more. You can do a lot more. It’s just figuring out how it fits for you. Finding out that balance.”

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