Joyful Noise

May 14th, 2012 by Colin McGowan

Kyrie Irving is officially the NBA’s top rookie, KIA seal of approval and all. This is barely news, much like the Cavaliers drafting Irving with the first overall pick nearly a year ago wasn’t a surprise so much as a pre-ordained event that had not quite yet happened until, mercifully, he shook David Stern’s hand while wearing a Cavs cap, and we could finally excise the word “presumptive” from our discussions about him. The Rookie of the Year race circa February was closer than one might recall. If Ricky Rubio had a slightly better jump shot and healthy knees, the days leading up to this announcement might have held a few droplets of suspense. But it’s been over for some time. One pictures Irving fishing a champagne (or, sorry: sparkling grape juice) bottle out of a tub of lukewarm water this afternoon.

Of course, the Rookie of the Year award is sort of useless anyway. Irving joins an impressive fraternity of All-Stars, of past and future Hall of Famers, but in and of itself, the award doesn’t tell us anything other than that Irving was the best first-year player in the league. Which: duh. Perhaps I’m drugged by disillusionment as I saw LeBron lift his third MVP trophy with an expression that said, “Thanks for the award and all, but I know this doesn’t matter.” Most everyone in the building agreed.

In this way, awards are dually unimportant. They are not descriptive nor are they ultimately much more than living room cabinet decorations. They’re cool, sort of. If I were invited to Kyrie Irving’s home, I would probably ask to see his Rookie of the Year trophy. I would hold it for about two minutes, make an awkward joke about how he should paint his fresh-as-hell goatee onto the Jerry West logo, then we would resume talking about more interesting stuff. Because awards are really just the result of “Who’s the Best?” debates among writers and journalists, and “Who’s the Best?” debates are often an exercise in polemics. It’s entirely possible—and common, just read the various list- and debate-happy NBA sites and blogs out there—to have an extended argument about Tyson Chandler vs. Dwight Howard for Defensive Player of the Year without doing much besides listing resumés and tagging every other sentence with “in my opinion.”

Kyrie Irving is a special type of player—talented enough, young enough—who intermittently illuminates how inconsequential opinions about the NBA are in relation to the fluorescent streaks of skill that happen on the court. We can talk somewhat usefully about a lot of stuff, but talking about the moment when Irving dives into the lane off a pick, shows the ball to the best player in the league, then switches hands, double-clutches, and lays it in is futile. Seriously: try to be articulate about that thing. What’s great is that we get to talk about his highlights in incomprehensible shrieks and about Kyrie Irving as an electrifying talent like we did with Blake Griffin last year. He has only, as of yet, exceeded expectations. There’s no need to figure out his place in the natural order of point guards because we’re just so damned happy he’s here.

Which is why I can say Kyrie Irving reminds me of Derrick Rose without bothering to project if he’s going to be a better player in four or five years. Rose and Irving’s games don’t heavily overlap, but they are both characterized by their surface calm. Neither one of them are particularly demonstrative on the court; their visages crack only when something momentous has happened, and even then, we glimpse into them through hair-sized fractures. If you watch more than a couple quarters of a nationally-televised Bulls game, you will hear Mike Tirico praise Rose’s “professionalism” and how “he just loves to work hard.” These are, sure, admirable traits, but while I blandly admire Rose’s commitment to never saying anything interesting in interviews, I like him because of the instances in which his competitiveness boils him into human steam—the gentle nudge of an opponent or the sharp, short fist pump after an and-one. Rose is the laconic protagonist in a revenge thriller. He relishes these moments of invincibility, even if he uses the word “team” eight times in three minutes while talking to Doris Burke after the buzzer.

Irving is similarly calm, though his stoicism occasionally splinters to reveal a not-quite-boisterous joy. I get a sense that he loves nothing more than making an obnoxiously impossible lay-in or throwing a behind-the-head assist, even if he only does it once or twice per game. He doesn’t go out of his way to paint a Kandinsky with his body, but when he does, a grin leaks out as if to remind the world that, yes, through his veins run ice but also sugar and confetti. He’s like if a glacier could dance.

LeBron James, while dutifully lifting the MVP trophy over his head, appeared uncomfortably appreciative because, while his award doesn’t mean much, it feels like it should. That slight puzzlement on ‘Bron’s face is because we apparently took a wrong turn somewhere along the astral plane. Shouldn’t Sunday have been another legacy-cementing moment for one of the greatest players ever? Instead, it felt like a guy postponing his birthday party. But we find it difficult to celebrate breathtaking talent when it has not yet realized greatness. We will celebrate LeBron once he wins a title, but commemorating the remarkable season he just had feels, in the eyes of many… myopic? (I’m trying to crawl inside the mind of the Other here.)

But then myopia is what happens when one is truly engaged with a game. The thrill you experience when a man jumps clear over another man and throws down an alley-oop. LBJ is consistently amazing. It’s a shame we have trouble talking about how spectacular he is without appending elipses and caveats. We should remind ourselves to occasionally shut up and enjoy watching this freak play basketball. So too, should we celebrate Kyrie Irving, but that’s an easier task. Irving isn’t yet building a legacy; he’s just a delightful rook with fly facial hair. He’s also the fourth-youngest player in the NBA. He lead the league in crunch time scoring. And what does that mean for his future? I don’t know. That’s part of the joy of watching a young talent emerge. Irving needn’t mean anything. He is free to speak in the language of ambient music and lightning bugs. He’s the MVP of my heart. Do it to ‘em, Mr. Full Court.