Commentary

Divergent paths, but a shared journey

Originally Published: December 8, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

DURHAM, N.C. -- The last thing he remembers is standing inside the gym at St. Patrick's High School, getting ready for a preseason practice.

Jeremiah Green was a senior, part of a St. Pat's team that just the season before had won a New Jersey state championship. Like everyone else, he was excited to get the new season going.

And then everything went dark.

[+] EnlargeKyrie Irving and Jeremiah Green
Courtesy of Jackie Green Kyrie Irving and Jeremiah Green, right, became friends after Irving transferred to St. Patrick's High School in Elizabeth, N.J.

Green blacked out, just went down with a thud, with his coaches and teammates watching in horror.

The next thing Green remembers is his best friend, the one he calls a brother, carrying him to the sideline.

Kyrie Irving stood by Green's side that day and every day forward, through the visit to the hospital, the endless meetings with doctors and the countless tests that finally led to a diagnosis. Green had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart -- the same thing that killed Hank Gathers. His basketball career was over.

Or more accurately, his playing career was over.

Green's basketball dream still plays on through his best friend.

Basketball was the conduit to bring Irving and Green together, but the bond that connects them goes much deeper.

Irving helped Green get through his terrifying heart ordeal. Green helped Irving simply get through.

"Kyrie was there for Jeremiah and Jeremiah was there for Kyrie," said Jackie Green, Jeremiah's mother. "It has nothing to do with basketball. They refer to each other as brother, and that's truly what they are. I am so grateful for that friendship. It's a true friendship."


They heard the kid was good, heard he could play as well as the guys on their own team. But they also knew he was transferring in from Montclair Kimberley Academy, a school known and sought out for its academic pedigree, not its basketball résumé.

"Kyrie, he went to a smart school," Green joked. "He wasn't really welcomed here."

Truth be told, nobody was terribly interested in Kyrie Irving when he decided to leave Montclair Kimberley after his sophomore year, not any of the sainted schools that make up the holy trio of hoops in New Jersey -- St. Anthony's and Bob Hurley, St. Benedict's and Dan Hurley (now at Wagner) or really St. Pat's and Kevin Boyle. Boyle took a flier on the kid without seeing him play.

It's not as though Boyle was desperate for players. The roster of alumni at St. Pat's reads more like an all-star team. Villanova's Mike Nardi and Corey Fisher, Derrick Caracter, Al Harrington and Samuel Dalembert. All of them cut their teeth at the Elizabeth school.

So when Irving walked in fresh out of his $29,000-a-year private school, there were more doubters than believers.

"They didn't think I was any good at all," Irving said. "That first day of gym class, Coach Boyle made us play basketball on purpose. I just did what I do, and from then on I was OK."

What Irving could do, of course, was break ankles with his speed and make shots from just about anywhere. The player that would go on to become the top-rated point guard in his class and a McDonald's All-American may have spent his first two seasons in relative basketball anonymity, but it didn't take people long to figure out who he was and what he could do.

Count Green among one of the quickest converts.

He was a non-believer at first. In fact, Irving swears Green hurled a piece of paper at him on the first day of school, though Green insists he doesn't remember it.

[+] EnlargeKyrie Irving and Jeremiah Green
Courtesy of Jackie Green Irving, background, would spend a lot of his time at the Green household, even getting his own bedroom.

What he does remember is that gym class.

"I didn't want to play with him because he was trying to take my spot," Green said. "So I checked the ball at him and then he completely embarrassed me in front of all the coaches. You know the saying, 'If you can't beat 'em, join em?' After that game, I switched teams. I always played with him and we beat everybody."

The friendship that blossomed on the court spilled over to the school halls and eventually barreled its way through the Greens' front door.

Every day, Irving's dad, Drederick, drove his son the 30 minutes from their West Orange, N.J., home to St. Pat's. But in the evenings after practice, Kyrie hopped a bus.

"He didn't know the bus schedule in Elizabeth, so I'd go home at night and see him at the bus stop in the pitch black, bad neighborhood," Green said. "I knew he was scared. So I asked him if he wanted to come over to the house and stay."

He stayed the better part of two years.

One night became two, two became three and, before long, Irving was spending practically every night of the week at Green's house.

By the time Kyrie graduated from St. Pat's, he was the third child in the Green household, so comfortable that he'd walk through the back door, drop his backpack and yell out to Jackie, "What's for dinner?"

He even had his own room.

"I don't know how it happened; it just seemed like when my son and Kyrie developed a friendship, he became a part of our home, a part of our family," Jackie Green said. "He's always been such a joy to be around."


Kyrie Irving didn't need a second family. The one he has is pretty amazing.

Elizabeth Irving died suddenly when Kyrie was a toddler, leaving her husband, Drederick, to raise Kyrie and his older sister, Asia.

Kyrie prefers to keep his thoughts about his mother to himself, noting only that he has her name tattooed on his chest. "That's where she is, in my heart," he said.

Kyrie was there for Jeremiah and Jeremiah was there for Kyrie. It has nothing to do with basketball. They refer to each other as brother, and that's truly what they are. I am so grateful for that friendship. It's a true friendship.

--Jackie Green, Jeremiah's mother

Admittedly in a fog himself after losing his wife, Drederick leaned on the help of his in-laws and family, managing to keep the kids happy and well cared for while still holding down a job on Wall Street.

"Life is so fast when the kids are young," Drederick said. "It just never stopped. I wish the kids had a chance to experience their mother. She was a wonderful person. Who knows how things change if she was alive?"

But Drederick did a good job on his own, raising intelligent and respectful kids who didn't give him too much pushback.

He was, Kyrie said, a father who made his point without being overly strict.

"With him, it was more about principle," Kyrie said. "He gave me and my sister a pretty long rope, but if we messed up, he was going to shorten it."

Along with his principles, Drederick passed on his game to his son. Drederick Irving's name is written in ink in the Boston University record book. He scored 1,931 points in his career, good enough to still rank second on the all-time list and merit a place in the rafters for his retired jersey.

He played professionally overseas, including a stint in Australia (Kyrie was born in Melbourne) and counts Rod Strickland among his best friends.

Drederick never pushed basketball on his son. He didn't need to. Genetics did the work for him. Kyrie found a basketball on his own and soon found a measuring stick in his father.

"My dad is the best player I've ever seen," Kyrie said. "As a kid, it was amazing to be able to say that he was my father. I'd go to the park and practice his moves. I wanted to be just like him."

Kyrie played as many pickup games against his father and his friends as his own peers, picking up their nuances and making them his own.

Drederick still marvels at how much Kyrie's game resembles Strickland's -- in how he finishes near the basket and handles the ball.

[+] EnlargeKyrie Irving
Scott KurtzIrving's father, Drederick, an accomplished player in his own right, thought St. Patrick's would offer his son better competition to improve his game.

Father and son balled in the backyard or at the park for years. A natural born trash-talker, Drederick never took it easy on Kyrie. He beat him and beat him badly, talking to him endlessly as the games wore on.

As he got older, Kyrie grew more frustrated. More than once, the games ended with a sullen or sobbing Kyrie heading into the house.

"I'd make him shake my hand at the end, teach him sportsmanship," Drederick said. "And then he'd cry at dinner. We had our wars, but he grew stronger and he got taller."

Eventually, the inevitable happened. When he was 16, the son finally beat the father and a few months ago, Drederick officially retired.

"He beat me 15-0, but it was like I wasn't convinced so I made him play me again," Drederick said. "There were people watching, so I threw the ball at him and said, 'OK, let's go to 15 again.' Well, he scored and I never got the ball back. He beat me 15-0 again. It was, uh, very humbling."

It was Drederick who had the master plan of giving Kyrie both the benefits of academics at Montclair Kimberley and basketball at St. Pat's.

He recognized perhaps faster than anyone that his son had an advanced skillset, one that needed more of a challenge than he could find at Montclair Kimberley.

Even today Drederick has perhaps the keenest sense of what Kyrie has to do to get better. He calls his son before and after each game, before to wish him well and after to offer his critique.

When Kyrie dropped 31 points on Michigan State, his father sat in his home watching the game on TV and pulling "hairs out of a bald head," over the close game and a handful of plays he thought Kyrie could have handled better.

Kyrie never flinches at the criticism. In fact, he invites it.

His comfort with his dad's two cents speaks not to just Kyrie's respect for Drederick's basketball knowledge but the incredible connection the two share.

"He did everything for me," Kyrie said. "Every time I go on the court, I think about him and my sister. That's all the motivation I need. I want to make them proud."


Perhaps the only person more giddy about Kyrie's success is Jackie Green.

The woman Kyrie calls a "second mom" finds all of this attention surreal even though it's not really new.

Jackie and Jeremiah were on the front lines during Kyrie's recruitment, not helping with the decision, but helping him survive the process.

Kyrie didn't settle on Duke until October 2009. He eliminated Indiana the previous month, deflating the hopes of Hoosiers fans, including one who purportedly wrote on Kyrie's Twitter page that he hoped he'd suffer a serious injury.

Eventually, Kyrie also had to go through the difficult process of telling Kentucky and Strickland, then an assistant coach who is like an uncle to Kyrie, no.

The attention was fun but the pressure immense. Every minute of every day someone wanted to ask where he was going or talk basketball.

[+] EnlargeKyrie Irving & Coach K
Lance King/Icon SMIIrving is averaging 17.4 points per game for Mike Krzyzewski and the top-ranked Blue Devils.

At Green's home, Kyrie found a haven.

"We would just talk about things other than basketball," Jackie said. "I felt like sometimes he needed that nurturing that a mother could offer and I tried to give him that. I just wanted to let him know that it would all be OK. We'd talk about things other than basketball, about school, whatever he needed."

By then Jeremiah had received his diagnosis.

When he learned his playing days over, he came back to school. But as he sat down to try to explain it to his teammates, he started to cry.

The players offered their support and Boyle stressed that, no matter what his health circumstances, Green was still a part of the team.

No one, however, did more than Kyrie.

The divergent paths of the two best friends were completely at odds, Jeremiah coming to grips with the end of his playing days while Kyrie weighed his future, choosing between the country's most elite basketball programs.

It didn't make a lick of difference to the would-be "brothers." Kyrie wasn't impressed with his lucky draw and Jeremiah was never envious.

Last week, in fact, when Kyrie starred against Michigan State, Jeremiah was in the stands. Now a freshman at South Carolina State, he made the three-hour drive to Durham and then turned around and drove back so he wouldn't miss a class, getting back to the Orangeburg campus at 4 a.m.

He'll be back this weekend, arriving Saturday and staying for the Blue Devils' game against Saint Louis.

"Everything I wanted to do, Kyrie is living it out," Green said. "It's not bittersweet at all. He's my brother. It's like he's doing it for both of us."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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