By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — Kyrie Irving is coming home to where his NBA journey began six years ago.
There will be familiar faces and new sounds.
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.
When Irving takes the floor in Quicken Loans Arena, the All-Star point guard will likely 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 — including his recent slap at Cleveland’s athletic 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.
Cleveland has some sports anger issues these days. After the Indians were knocked out of the playoffs much earlier than expected, and with the Browns a winless train wreck, Cavaliers fans need to blow off some steam.
It will be directed at Irving, who downplayed his visit.
“It’s just hoops man,” he said. “I’ve been in Game 7 in San Francisco (Oakland), playing in a high-intense environment. There’s no blocking out the noise or anything like that. It’s going to be there whether I like it or not. It’s going to be rowdy in there. It’s going to be a great game opener, like it was the last six years when I was there. It was the same getting used to the unbelievable Cavs fans that cheer on the Cavaliers and now I’m coming in as an opponent, trying to get a W.”
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 Cavs 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 was already going to be one of the NBA’s top regular-season games, and his comment took it to another level. Irving understands there’s some animosity toward him, but he’s not going to get caught up in how other’s feel about his decision to leave.
“The excitement and the energy is there but I think everything extra has been created by outside influence,” he said. “I don’t know what that reality is. I don’t necessarily concern myself with that because if I do, I’d really be doing myself a disservice and my teammates a disservice of trying to figure whether or not I want to give some distractions or specific people energy in terms of what they’re or what they think about what is going on.”
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 endured a night of hatred he’ll never forget. To this day, James rattles off “December 2, 2010,” like it it’s one of his kid’s birthdays.
On the eve of Irving’s return, Cavs 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.”
Like everyone with the Cavs, guard J.R. Smith was disappointed when Irving asked out. But he respects him for wanting to make it on his own.
And as for defending his former teammate, Smith may have gotten in the first insult of many too come.
“We just got to put bodies in front of him,” Smith said. “Hopefully he dribbles so much he gets tired.”
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