This Week in Sports History: Kyrie Irving burns Timberwolves for 50 in Brooklyn debut

This column seeks to profile important events in the history of sports.

In a league so infatuated with the prospect of a “super team,” it’s refreshing to see NBA stars driven by something other than a championship. For Kyrie Irving, his move to the Brooklyn Nets was far more sentimental than most. 

After six seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, one of which saw the team taking advantage of the Warriors’ slump in the Finals and bringing a championship to the city, Irving requested a trade. Playing alongside LeBron James irritated him, as he felt as though he didn’t get enough respect playing in his shadow and desired his own team to captain. 

In 2017, his request was granted, and he was sent to the Boston Celtics on Aug. 22. The season began very promisingly. Irving had many consecutive games with over 24 points even from the beginning of the season, and helped the Celtics tremendously along a 16-game winning streak in Nov. 

Though Irving’s efforts helped them reach second-seed in the Eastern Conference with a record of 55-27, Irving himself would undergo a major crisis in March of 2018: after a removal of a tension wire in his left knee, he was given a rest period of three to six weeks to recover. In two weeks, however, he needed to remove two patella screws after the operation, and his recovery increased to four to five months. 

Despite making it to the Conference Finals and losing in seven games, losing Irving was undoubtedly a massive blow for the Celtics. After his recovery, his second season as a Celtic had its bright spots; he’d tied his longest streak of games with 25 or more points, having done it six times in a row in 2019. He’d also helped them make fourth-seed, although the Celtics lost the Conference Semifinals 1-4 against the Milwaukee Bucks. 

Fans around the NBA were incredibly disappointed, however, especially Celtics fans. With Jayson Tatum on the roster, they felt robbed. This was Irving’s worst year yet, and they could not believe such a promising player could not get it done, especially with weapons around him. Despite talks of re-signing with the team, he left Boston for Brooklyn, joining Kevin Durant on the Nets. 

As much of a generic super team situation as this move sounds, there’s more than something so superficial. Tragedy struck Irving hard in 2018. His grandfather, George Larson, had died in Oct., and it was a silent tragedy that plagued Irving. He said he felt like the joy of the game was “sucked away from” him and that he “failed those guys” in Boston for not being a strong enough leader. He added that “after [his grandfather] passed, basketball was the last thing on [his] mind.” He told nobody of the grief he felt, and it ate away at him, robbing him of his true skill and commitment to the game. 

Irving’s return to Brooklyn was for him rather than for anybody else; his family mostly lives in New York, and since the passing of his grandfather, he needed the support of his family. His debut as a Net was the therapeutic release he was looking for. A year to the day of his grandfather’s death — and exactly one year ago on Oct. 23 —  Irving dominated the spotlight, both for the Nets and the Timberwolves. 

His play on all fronts was lights out. In 38 minutes, Irving scored 50 points on his own, with a 50 percent success rate from the three-point line at 7-14. For reference, all other Nets players scored 76. He added eight rebounds, seven assists and zero turnovers the entire game. Nobody could touch him, guard him or hope to stop him. The Timberwolves were lucky to walk away with an overtime win, as an NBA street-level fader nearly missed at the overtime buzzer. 

As disappointed as Irving was to lose, he told reporters exactly what was motivating his spectacular performance: “Yesterday was a little harder than this just talking to my grandmother, talking to my dad, talking to my sister … But, today, I made a conscious choice when I woke up just to be grateful for the day and every day going forward. Irving continued, “Just had to make a choice just to be happy out there. My grandfather would only want it that way. He was my biggest fan over when he was in Wash., and he was definitely in there tonight. I felt him, and I know he’s gonna be with me the whole entire journey of this season and moving forward.” If Durant returns to Brooklyn, they’ll most definitely be a terrifying opposition in the East.