Each summer, with NBA training camps fast approaching, former UCLA guard Rico Hines organizes elite scrimmages at the university involving some of the world’s best basketball players.
Although the games are not televised, it does not take long for it to seem that they were, as videos flood out through social media. This season, all-everything point guards such as Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Chris Paul and Ben Simmons took part.
But Celtics guard Kyrie Irving, who played in the games last season, did not.
“Obviously, I could have gone to LA, could’ve gone to UCLA, but it just became too commercialized, honestly,” Irving said in an interview with the Globe. “Rico Hines is great, but going up there just became a freaking show. I appreciate the competition, but for me, I just needed a little peace and quiet to get my mind and body right.”
For Irving, this summer was not quite like the others. He missed Boston’s playoff run after having two surgeries to remove infected hardware that was installed during his 2015 procedure to fix a broken kneecap.
Irving made substantial progress this summer, and when he was ready at the start of August to resume playing in full-court, five-on-five games, he wanted to go to a tranquil place where the focus would just be on basketball and making himself right.
As a child, Irving spent summers with his grandparents in Port Orchard, Wash., which sits just across the Puget Sound from Seattle. He returned there for about three weeks this August, both to clear his mind and to find his rhythm.
He called NBA veteran Jamal Crawford, who has known Irving’s family for more than 20 years. Crawford is a godfather of Seattle-area basketball, a mentor to pros there, but also teenagers with hoop dreams. Irving still remembers attending Crawford’s pro-am event there when he was just a kid, and the event still takes place today.
Basically, Jamal Crawford is the person to call if you’re looking to organize high-level pickup games in the Seattle area. He knows where to find the players, the gyms and the privacy.
“I was honored when Ky called, for him to place that trust in me,” Crawford said in a telephone interview. “I wanted to really handle it delicately as far as finding an undisclosed location and keeping it that way, off the grid.
“And I wanted to get players I felt were the best in terms of talent, and not being in awe. He wanted guys that would come at him, because he wanted to get better. He wanted to get his timing down. You want guys that know how to play, not guys that are out there trying to make a name.”
The revolving group included NBA players such as Bulls guard Zach LaVine, Rockets forward Marquese Chriss and Spurs guard Dejounte Murray, and there were also others who played professionally overseas or are currently in college.
They changed locations and lineups often, going from places like the University of Washington to gyms at private health clubs.
“We were everywhere,” Crawford said. “And yet nobody in Seattle knew we were doing this besides the people involved.”
The main rule everyone knew was that no one was supposed to know. There were no trainers taking videos, no players posting the clandestine workouts on social media.
Ironically, the only public evidence was leaked by one of the most private—and dominant—players in NBA history. Celtics legend Bill Russell had attended Crawford’s pro-am a few days earlier, and Crawford had invited him to watch some of these private sessions. Russell and his wife, Jeanine, attended at least two of the games, and Russell posted a picture on Twitter of himself with Irving, Crawford and LaVine.
The matchups were competitive, intense, long and final. Each day, the two sides played just one game split into five, 25-point periods. The first team to 125 was the winner, and the loser had to stew until the next meeting.
The first game was also Irving’s first five-on-five competition in nearly five months. The Celtics star was a bit winded, but mostly he needed had to regain his feel and rhythm. His timing was a bit off on his passes. His drives weren’t quite right.
“The first day was really ugly,” Irving said. “But it was just great to play again and try new things. Just to feel the ball again and straight hoop was fun, man. It had been so long.”
And it did not take Irving long to knock off the rust.
“You saw him turn into the Kyrie that everyone knows and loves,” Crawford said. “He’d do moves — and we wouldn’t talk about it until after the game was over, because it was that competitive — but he’d do moves and I’d look at him like, ‘That was the 2K Kyrie right there. That was top-10 “SportsCenter” Kyrie right there. If there had been a camera there and some of that footage ever got out, it would be, like, whoa. It’d be some of the best plays you’ve ever seen.”
Crawford and Irving bonded off the court, too. Crawford paid for Irving’s membership at the PRO Sports Club in Seattle, and did things like help set up his massages and make sure they made the right smoothies for him.
The two would eat together after workouts and talk about the game they had just played before discussing just about everything else. They shared dribbling advice, they watched old video clips of their favorite players, and they talked about life away from their sport.
“The thing that stuck with me is how driven he was,” Crawford said. “He has a thirst like, ‘That’s the next challenge? I want to attack that.’ And that was really cool.”
The teams were switched up often, but one constant was that Irving and Crawford — two of the most talented ball-handlers in NBA history — were always on separate teams. The matchups had been mostly even heading into the final game of Irving’s 18-day visit. By then, Irving had regained his swagger.
“I told them, ‘On this last day, I’m really going to try to get myself, work myself into a great rhythm,’ ” Irving said. “And I did. They knew.”
Crawford chuckled when he thought back to that final game. He said Irving scored about 30 of his team’s first 50 points.
“He couldn’t have left on a better note, and I was like, ‘Damn, he got us,’ ” Crawford said. “And he knew it. He was dancing around the gym after like, ‘I got y’all. I was ready for y’all.’ He was magical that day.”
Of course, there is no video or photographic evidence of Irving’s tour de force, but those involved prefer it that way. Irving said the privacy and family-like atmosphere was just what he needed. Crawford said Irving’s play is etched in his mind, where it will stay.
“Some things just aren’t meant to be documented,” Crawford said. “Sometimes, the memories and the moments mean more than the footage. Like, ‘Remember that time we were in Seattle and Kyrie was there and they were going at it and he did this move? I wish you were there to see it.’”