The Boomer and NBA Australian that never was: Can Australia still claim Kyrie Irving?
We all know someone who wants to.
Whenever the topic of Australia's greatest NBA exports comes up, there's always someone who just can't resist the urge to mention Kyrie Irving.
It's true, the six-time NBA All-Star was born in Melbourne. Irving is often the subject of basketball trivia, as one of three #1 NBA draft picks born in the Victorian capital city - Ben Simmons and Andrew Bogut are the other two. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 1981 --when Chicago native Mark Aguirre was drafted first overall-- to find another city that produced three #1 draft picks.
This is fascinating trivia, but Irving only became an Australian by happenstance. His father, Drederick Irving, played college basketball at Boston University (BU) under Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino. A 6'4 guard, the senior Irving finished his NCAA career as the Boston Terriers' all-time leading scorer, with 1,931 points at 15.8 ppg. He has since been eclipsed in the record books, but nevertheless finds his retired #11 jersey hanging from the BU rafters.
So, what does this all have to do with Kyrie? His father was lured to play professionally down under in 1992, by another BU alum. His name? Brett Brown, who currently coaches the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA. Brown was an assistant coach for the NBL's Melbourne Tigers at the time, working under Lindsay Gaze. He also coached the Bulleen Boomers, and recruited Drederick Irving as one of his two American imports. The senior Irving was a dominant force in the SEABL, averaging 30 points per game that season.
“I was allowed to have two American imports, and so I came back to my Boston University roots and went after Drederick (Irving),” Brown said in a 2017 interview with the Boston Herald. “We recruited him to come down. He was married to a BU girl and they came there as a young couple.” The "BU girl" mentioned by Brown is Kyrie's mother, Elizabeth Irving. She was a star athlete in her own right, playing both volleyball and basketball at BU. Elizabeth Irving unfortunately passed away when Kyrie was just four years old, after contracting sepsis while in hospital.
Kyrie was born in Melbourne in 1992, shortly after his father's arrival, and grew up in Kew. “In the middle of the season, Kyrie was born while I was coaching his dad, and I remember Kyrie being brought into practices as an infant,” Brown added. The Irvings wouldn't stay for long however, as they returned to the States just two years later. Kyrie grew up in New Jersey, where he went on to become a star high school basketball player. ESPN rated him the third best player in his class, and Duke University came calling.
The greatest Boomer that never was?
Kyrie Irving was recruited by legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, commonly known as "Coach K", to play at Duke. The 6'2 point guard would only go on to play eleven games of college basketball, in an injury-shortened season, but that was enough. He entered the NBA draft as a "one and done" prospect, and Cleveland selected him with the first overall pick.
Brett Brown caught wind of Irving's talent long before he was a #1 NBA draft pick. The current Boomers head coach was also in charge of the team from 2009-2012, and followed Irving's high school career closely. He confirmed with the Boston Herald in 2017 that he led the early charge to make Kyrie a Boomer.
“Kyrie had an Australian passport for a while, and while I was coaching the Olympic team, I dug in deep on trying to get him to play for us,” Brown said. “He was still at Saint Patrick’s High in (New) Jersey at the time. I was like, he can come in here and be the starting point guard for four Olympic games (London 2012)”.
This wasn't just a case of due diligence. There was genuine belief that Irving could wind up wearing the green and gold some day. The possibility of playing in four Olympics, and becoming a starter as soon as the 2012 London games, was thought to be Australia's trump card. Brown wasn't wooing Kyrie alone either; Wayne Carroll, the then-GM of high performance at Basketball Australia, was also invested in the process.
“Brett thought we were a legitimate chance to secure him,” Carroll told Fox Sports Australia in 2016. “I was there to support Brett. I remember contacting Kyrie’s family to say that if he chose to play for Australia, he could be playing in four - and maybe more - Olympics.”
Irving's junior career threw a spanner in the works, as he represented the USA Under-18 team in 2010. However, this wasn't the reason he never represented Australia. The former #1 draft pick was ultimately swayed towards team USA by the influence of his college coach at Duke, Coach K, as well as his family.
“It was also going to be a complicated process after he represented the USA at junior level. But it was a discussion we thought was worth having and we did our best to bring him to Australia,” Carroll added. “The discussions with Kyrie and his family were legit. He considered playing for Australia and thought it was a genuine option.”
Irving also said in 2012 that he was “still an Australian at heart”, before adding “it was just a family decision for me, and about my longevity in the game.”
Coach K's influence
Coach K took the reins of the US national team in 2005, and oversaw three Olympic gold medals. He developed a rapport with Irving throughout their one year together at Duke, which ultimately secured his international allegiance. The New Jersey native didn't appear to have any doubts about his decision, which he announced a few months prior to the 2012 London Olympics.
“It was the right decision,” Irving told ESPN in 2012, shortly after deciding to represent the United States. “I found out Coach K would be coaching in 2016. It made my decision so much easier to play for my coach again. That was the deciding factor.”
It's fair to assume that Irving doesn't have any regrets about his choice. Irving won a World Cup title in 2014, and was even named MVP, where the ruthless American side won nine games by an average margin of 33 points. Irving saved his best game for last, scoring 26 points in the gold medal match - a 129-92 demolition of Serbia.
During the 2016 Rio Olympics, Irving scored 19 points (7/15 FG) in Team USA's 98-88 win against Australia in Group A. USA claimed the gold medal that year, and the Boomers eventually finished fourth in that tournament, in what was a golden heartbreak once more.
Reflecting on his international basketball journey in a 2016 interview, Irving conceded that it all began with a commitment towards Coach K's program. The Hall of Fame coach rewarded Irving's faith by giving him a starring role at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
“[Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski] was a huge part of the decision. I mean, he’s Coach K. As a young fella, he definitely did tell me I had a chance to be a part of something bigger than myself and ultimately being the starting point guard on the US Olympic team. I never thought it would happen as soon as it has,” Irving told FOX Sports Australia in 2016.
Australia ultimately missed out on Kyrie Irving, although that won't stop many fans from claiming him as one of their own. But how Aussie is he really?
Can Australia claim Kyrie Irving?
Prior to the 2019/20 season, the NBA said that Irving "requested" to be classified as an Australia. In a 2016 article from FOX Sports Australia, he was quoted as saying, "I’m Aussie born and I consider myself an Aussie." Although he left Australia as a baby, Irving has shown an affinity for the country of his birth. Nevertheless, it's a stretch to say that Australia can claim the guard. He has spent almost his entire life in the United States, and became a decorated member of their national basketball team.
Boomers legend Patty Mills summed up the situation perfectly when he appeared on The Full 48 in April 2020, a podcast hosted by Howard Beck from Bleacher Report. When asked by Beck on whether Irving could still be claimed by Australia, the three-time Olympian spoke about the feelings shared by those that put on the Boomers green and gold.
"Look mate, there's a lot of passion that comes into wearing the green and gold and if you're not at a certain level of passion representing your country then we don't wanna have you around," Mills laughed. "I think Kyrie doesn't come close to that passion for playing for Australia and [wearing] the green and gold, which is totally fine." To be clear, there is no malice from Mills in the comment - the Boomers are well-known for their pride and passion in suiting up and playing for their country, and this is just the reality of the situation.
However, Irving should still be recognised for his contributions to Australian basketball. The former NBA champion only ever has positive things to say about the Boomers, and even made a visit down under in 2013. That was the first time he returned to Melbourne, running a series of basketball camps for junior players. The camps were organised by current SEM Phoenix coach Simon Mitchell, who played alongside Kyrie's father Drederick for Bulleen in the early 90s.
Irving has also indicated that he could potentially finish his career in the NBL. "I feel that when I’m done playing in the NBA the first place to come would be Australia," Irving told the Sydney Morning Herald during his 2013 return to Melbourne. "I would probably just play a few games if anything but the end of my career is a while away, but Australia would be the first place I would play if I played overseas." It remains to be seen whether Irving will actually follow through with this plan, but it could be a major treat for Australian fans. If he can forge another legacy down under, Australia will have no choice but to claim him.