Kyrie Irving has sought to make sure the public realizes there is more than one side of him. While he appreciates the adulation that comes from making five All-Star teams, winning an NBA championship, and emerging as one of the league’s top point guards, Irving’s view on strengthening his off-the-court brand has been just as focused as working on his ballhandling skills.
Irving was flattered to be invited to the Forbes Under 30 Summit this past week to speak to fellow business-driven millennials.
Irving was able to squeeze some basketball talk into the 22-minute Q&A, but he was proud that the focus of his appearance was his innovative strategy to become an icon off the floor.
According to Forbes, Irving is the 29th highest-paid athlete of 2018 and 91st highest-paid celebrity.
Kyrie’s talk at Forbes’ #Under30Summit is officially billed as “Hoops to Hollywood.” His first move was to hide the Core water bottles because he and Pepsi haven’t renewed their deal yet. pic.twitter.com/MHmoI9uakh— Nicole Yang (@nicolecyang) October 1, 2018
“Being in front of the business students, I got a chance to shed some light on what I do outside the court,” Irving said. “What I do off the court also helps me perform on the court. How I perform on the court has impact on what I do off the court, as well. The business deals as well as philanthropy, that comes from within. I just try to keep an open mind with my brand who I associate with and trying to be as honest as possible. The decisions I’m making in my life and my career and being OK with it.”
Several other basketball superstars have become business moguls, including Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O’Neal.
“We have great examples in our league, Steph [Curry] and LeBron [James],” said Irving. “Silicon Valley is right down the street from Steph, and obviously LeBron has done a great job the way he’s marketed his brand, as well as being a global, iconic figure with our league, as well as outside of it.
“You just take as much as you can, great examples like Kobe [Bryant], Magic, you see the transition they’ve made from their playing careers to being businessmen, and that’s the true echelon of greatness, connect with those guys, pick their brains, and apply it to your life.”
Irving said he had no intention of making “Uncle Drew” into a movie. He thought it was merely a neat idea for a Pepsi commercial. But the character’s popularity grew, calling for more commercials.
“I wasn’t on board with it at first when they approached me. I was like, ‘You guys aren’t going to make a movie about a YouTube older man,’ ” he said. “When the studios approached me, it just evolved from Internet. It was the first time ever that an Internet kind of short had turned into a movie. It was a great role to be in at that time.”
But Irving made an astute move by insisting on owning a piece of the rights to “Uncle Drew,” and he detailed contentious negotiations with Pepsi.
“That was a fight, because of the way it just grew exponentially in a matter of a day or two,” he said. “It went from we got 40,000 views, we got 500,000 views, we’re at 5 million, we’re at 10 million, and Pepsi and my team were like, ‘OK. who’s going to jump to trademark this thing.’ That was the conversation and they allowed us to get in and I say allowed, because Pepsi was a huge company and they have way more lawyers. They came in and snatched that up, but the opportunity to have a percentage in the movie was awesome from an investment perspective. I thought if I am going to be in this, I should have a piece of it.”
And Irving’s contract with the earbud/headphone company Skullcandy resulted in a stake in their burgeoning business, as well as his own headphone brand.
“That was at a time where I didn’t even know what equity stake meant,” Irving joked. “I was so used to the framework of athlete sponsorship of how that works. Over time you just realize there’s a business component you have to understand, of time versus value.”
And finally, Irving said he wanted something different than a common shoe deal. He sought more input in how his shoe was designed and its target audience. Nike has just released the fourth edition of Irving’s shoe, and the NBA’s recent move to allow players to wear their shoe color of choice should serve as an on-court advertisement.
“I pictured myself doing what everyone else was doing at that point, of just wearing Nike shoes and wearing Jordans. I was just happy I was getting a box of Nikes sent to my house,” Irving said. “When they approached me, I thought it was interesting to hear how the [shoe sponsonship] process works. How they identify an athlete, they have focus groups, a group of kids, 14-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 21-year-olds, and ask, ‘What do you think about Kyrie?’
“The vision I have for my particular brand with Nike is something I don’t think they’ve seen before. I’m really hands-on. I’m really intimate with that group. How Nike has progressed over the years, I think when I came in I had a collaborative mind-set.”
Irving decided he wasn’t going to be a normal shoe client. He said he implored Nike officials to get out of the office, hit the streets, and see the shoes and clothes young people were wearing, a primary reason why Irving’s shoes are so colorful. Irving the businessman was just as motivated as Irving the point guard, even when speaking to the highest Nike officials.
“I’ve had pretty historic, iconic Nike meetings, where I’ve just gone in and [swore at] everybody,” he said. “As a 24-year-old kid you say, did I just say that to the vice president of Nike?”
Nowitzki still enjoys playing
The Mavericks have tried for years to build a championship-caliber team around an aging Dirk Nowitzki. Dallas won the NBA title in 2011, then allowed free agents such as Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd to walk away. And the Mavericks haven’t advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs since, and have not been to the postseason since 2015-16.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has long maintained he will keep Nowitzki, 40, as long as he wants to play. That said, this could be Nowitzki’s final season, and the Mavericks have built a team that can compete for a playoff spot, with Nowitzki serving as a complement.
Most athletes don’t have the opportunity to retire with the team that drafted them. Nowitzki is already considered the greatest Maverick of all time, bringing a title to a city that did not get an NBA team until 1980.
“I’ve been around for a long time. I felt welcome in Dallas 20 years ago when I came. Everything worked out for me,” Nowitzki said during the team’s trip to China to play a pair of exhibition games against the 76ers. “Mark Cuban bought the team and supported me on and off the floor whenever I had problems. I’ve just been lucky that it worked out that way and that Dallas really embraced me when I came there 20 years ago. They were so loyal to me — the city, the franchise. It was always easy for me to be loyal back to that community. It’s been a great relationship and it’s been a great ride.”
With the additions of Harrison Barnes, Dennis Smith Jr., and Wesley Matthews over the last few years, Nowitzki’s role and responsibilities have been greatly reduced. He averaged just 9.8 shot attempts per game last season, his fewest since his rookie season of 1998-99. His scoring average and minutes have decreased in each of the last three seasons.
There remains a role for Nowitzki, but with the Mavericks adding rookie Luka Doncic, who is considered a potential Nowitzki clone, and DeAndre Jordan, Nowitzki’s moments to shine could be limited.
“I was fortunate being pretty injury-free for such a long time,” Nowitzki said. “The last couple of years have been tougher — with not winning, with not being in the playoffs. But I still enjoy playing. I still enjoy competing at a high level. I still enjoy helping the young guys develop and using my experience to help us win some games. I still enjoy being in the mix, being in the grind, being in the locker room joking around, traveling, the bus rides. I still enjoy all that. Once that’s over, I am going to miss the fellowship, the camaraderie, the locker room spirit. All these things are going to make it tough when I walk away finally.”
There is no guarantee that Nowitzki will even be a starter. Smith, Barnes, and Jordan are locks, and Dwight Powell has been emerging at power forward. Nowitzki said he would not be offended by joining Doncic, fellow rookie Jalen Brunson, Northeastern product J.J. Barea, and Devin Harris with the second unit.
“I always said whatever is best for the team. We’ve had two tough seasons. Whatever is going to help this team win,” he said. “We obviously got DeAndre Jordan, he’s a great player. He’s probably going to be our starting [center]. He’s a great center, a great shot blocker. But we will see how our team shapes up, and coach [Rick Carlisle] will figure out what’s best for us. It’s about the team. It’s about the franchise. It’s not so much about one guy.”
Nowitzki missed the two games in China with nagging injuries that could carry into the regular season. The Mavericks have enough talent to move forward without him, but there’s something sad about a Mavericks team without Nowitzki. He realizes those days are close and he has accepted that fate.
“It’s getting harder. I turned 40 this summer and it’s not easy keeping up with the young kids,” he said. “I had foot surgery in April, so it’s healing a little slow. But I’m looking forward to hopefully a good season. We’d love to make the playoffs.”
Cavaliers not team of pushovers
The Cavaliers aren’t exactly feeling sorry for themselves after losing LeBron James to the Lakers. They brought back most of the team that reached four consecutive NBA Finals, and drafted gifted Alabama point guard Collin Sexton.
The Cavaliers came to Boston last Tuesday and spanked the Celtics in an exhibition game, with Kevin Love now the focal point of the offense. It’s like old times for Love, who once was the No. 1 offensive option for the Timberwolves.
With Minnesota, Love was a rebounding machine who also stretched the floor with 3-pointers. He averaged 26.1 points and 12.5 rebounds in his final season with the Timberwolves before being traded to the Cavaliers. With James, as well as Kyrie Irving for three years, Love rarely saw the shots he will see this season.
“Leading by example, getting teammates shots, I know he’s going to be the No. 1 option, but with the No. 1 comes the responsibility of making your teammates better,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “He has the capabilities of doing that. If they see him doing that every single night it would help our team out tremendously. Just being our leader and being a scorer we go to every single night, but also being a great passer and making guys better.”
The Cavaliers have playoff aspirations, and while they no longer have a dominant player, they have a bunch of good players, a younger core looking to prove itself. Love, despite being 30 and a five-time All-Star, also has something to prove.
There is a perception that he has lost the skills he possessed in Minnesota. He was one of the league’s dominant post players and rebounders, but he became essentially a stretch-4 after joining the Cavaliers. That will no longer be the case.
“I hope it’s kind of close to what he did in Minnesota. I think in Minnesota Kevin got the chance of being the focal point, playing a lot from the elbow, posting a lot more,” Lue said. “We know he can do that. When he came in here, he sacrificed to win a championship, and he did that playing alongside Kyrie and LeBron. Now he’s back in his role and he’s pretty excited about it. I’m excited, as well.”
The Cavaliers will not be an easy opponent in the East. Players such as George Hill, Tristan Thompson, and Kyle Korver return. Rodney Hood should see an expanded role, along with Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson. And Sexton could be one of the league’s dynamic guards in a few years, so there is reason for optimism.
Cleveland won’t return to the Finals this season, but there is an opportunity to make a playoff run.
“I’m excited to win at a high level, but now LeBron’s gone, the best player in the world [is gone], so we have a chance to do some different things,” Lue said. “A new challenge, new roles, new situation. I’m excited for the younger guys to take the next step.”
The Thunder were considered one of the contenders in the West after re-signing Paul George to a four-year contract, but Russell Westbrook underwent arthroscopic knee surgery, and now key defensive swingman Andre Roberson, already trying to return from a torn patella in his left knee, required an Irving-type procedure to remove a painful suture and likely won’t be back until January. As competitive as the West is, playoff seeding is critical, and the Thunder may absorb their share of losses in the early going with Westbrook coming off surgery. General manager Sam Presti did pick up Westbrook security in former Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder . . . The Warriors and Kings played Friday night at KeyArena, the first NBA game in Seattle in 10 years. Seattle lost the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City in the summer of 2008 when the city settled a lawsuit with owner Clayton Bennett, allowing the franchise to escape the final two years of its lease and move to Oklahoma. There are still those around the NBA who wonder how the Sonics would have done if they played those two years in Seattle with an emerging Kevin Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden. Would they have been good enough for the city to devise a new arena plan to keep them? But nothing has gotten done in 10 years since as far as building a new basketball venue. The NBA does not want a team in KeyArena, which was the league’s smallest arena when it housed the Sonics. There has been so much haggling between city and state officials regarding a new venue that efforts from business tycoon Chris Hansen have been wasted. Steve Ballmer, who now owns the Clippers, would have been interested in buying the Sonics from Bennett had the team been for sale. Instead, Ballmer purchased the Clippers for $2 billion. The NBA has no interest in expansion, meaning Seattle would have to nab a relocating team and would have to devise a feasible arena plan. There is a $750 million plan on the table to refurbish KeyArena for an NHL team, which could begin play in 2020-21. But the NBA has made no commitments to Seattle and would want to see more than an arena plan.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.