Kyrie Irving is back where his NBA journey began six years ago.
There are familiar faces, and some of them won’t be as friendly as he remembered them.
Traded to Boston this summer after he demanded the Cavaliers deal him so he could escape LeBron James’ shadow, Irving will make his regular-season debut Tuesday night with the Celtics against his former team — and fans who loved him but may no longer be as adoring.
“Little different,” Irving said in assessing the scene following the Celtics’ morning shootaround. “I think it will probably be even more different later on tonight. But I’m excited for the challenge.”
When Irving takes the floor in Quicken Loans Arena, the All-Star point guard will get the kind of reception he was accustomed to when he visited Boston or Golden State or Detroit while playing for Cleveland.
However, following a turbulent summer — and spiced up by his recent slap at Cleveland’s sports appetite — he’ll be greeted with boos, taunts, heckles and other unpleasant vulgarities. There will be some cheers, but they might be hard to hear.
“I know that I’ve seen the end of being down there on that other bench and fans booing the opponents and understanding that Cleveland fans want their home team to win,” Irving said. “So I expect the same thing.”
Cleveland has some sports anger issues these days. After the Indians were knocked out of the playoffs earlier than expected, and with the Browns winless, Cavaliers fans need to blow off some steam.
It will be directed at Irving, who has been vague about what exactly drove him to leave one of the league’s best teams. Given the chance to explain his motives a few hours before the opener, Irving was ambiguous with his answer.
“I kind of want to put that to rest in terms of everyone figuring out or trying to continue to dive into a narrative they have no idea about and probably will never, ever be divulged because it’s not important,” he said. “This was literally just a decision I wanted to make solely based on my happiness and pushing my career forward. I don’t want to pinpoint anything, I will never pinpoint anything because that’s not what real grown-ups do.
“They continue to move on with their life and continue to progress and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.
The Cavs have planned a video “thank you” for Irving, who made the biggest shot in franchise history — a step-back 3-pointer in the waning moments of Game 7 of the NBA Finals that lifted Cleveland to a title, the city’s first in 52 years.
The tribute is undoubtedly deserved, and it may have provided some closure for Irving and fans still smarting from him wanting to abandon a team that has been to three straight Finals and is penciled in for a fourth.
But last week, Irving fanned flames when he said he was excited that his career has taken him to Boston, “a real, live sports city,” implying Cleveland wasn’t one.
Irving’s comeback already was going to be one of the NBA’s top regular-season games, and his comment took it to another level.
“It turned into a comparison of me comparing Boston to Cleveland and it wasn’t anything like that,” he said, trying to explain his words. “But ‘real, live sports city’ is anything you want it to be in terms of your opinion. But for me, it was me driving in and thinking, ‘I’m in a real, live sports city. Something I kind of witnessed from afar that I didn’t really know about until I actually got the chance to be in Boston and see what the fans are like.’”
While Irving’s return could be unruly, it won’t compare to what James experienced in 2010, when he came back to Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat after bolting his home state as a free agent a few months earlier.
Cleveland was seething, and James, who is questionable for the matchup with Irving because of a sprained left ankle, endured a night of hatred he’ll never forget. To this day, James rattles off “December 2, 2010,” like it’s one of his kid’s birthdays.
On the eve of Irving’s return, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said his former guard will get just what Cleveland fans feel he deserves.
“We’ve got the best fans in the world and they’re going to do whatever they see best,” he said. “Whatever decision they make, that’s the right one. Because they’ve been behind us for three straight years, since I’ve been here, they’ve always made the right decisions. So whatever they decide to do, I embrace whatever they do.”