CHAPEL HILL — Kyrie Irving didn’t get the chance to play at the Smith Center while he was at Duke because of an injury that cost him most of his one-and-done season with the Blue Devils.
So when the opportunity finally presented itself on Friday when his Boston Celtics played the Charlotte Hornets in the NBA preseason opener for both teams, he made it a point to rep his school by wearing a Duke basketball T-shirt in the locker room before the game.
“It is what it is,” the five-time All-Star said with a mischievous smile.
Irving might not have been able to help himself when it came to throwing a little shade at an old rival. At the same time, though, he admitted that it was something of a bucket list item to finally take the court at one of college basketball’s most iconic venues.
“There’s a lot of history here, a lot of tradition,” Irving said before scoring nine points with three assists in 22 minutes of Boston’s 104-97 loss to the Hornets. “Obviously any chance you get to play where (Michael Jordan) played, there’s nothing but respect that I have for the great UNC Tar Heels that came through here. Obviously, Duke and the rivalry, it’s awesome to finally get a chance to get a game in at the Dean Dome.”
Whether it was because of that respect or the fact that he never played against the Tar Heels either in Chapel Hill or Durham, Irving was greeted with mostly cheers from the crowd of 18,081 in attendance at the first NBA game in the Smith Center since 2006.
The same can’t be said for the other former Blue Devil on the Celtics’ roster.
Second-year forward Jayson Tatum heard mostly boos when he was introduced, but jokingly suggested that the UNC fans in the stands probably should have been more sympathetic to him.
“I only played one game here and we lost,” Tatum said. “And I played pretty bad, too. I only had like eight points and four fouls. It wasn’t my best game.”
Tatum had exactly eight points and four fouls again Friday. Only this time, it was just a warmup for a season in which his team harbors realistic championship hopes.
One reason for the Celtics’ optimism is the departure of LeBron James, who left eastern rival Cleveland for the Western Conference and Los Angeles this summer. Another is the return of injured stars Gordon Hayward and Irving, who missed the final 15 games of the 2017-18 regular season and all of the playoffs because of surgery on his left knee.
“Kyrie is terrific,” Boston general manager Danny Ainge said of his veteran point guard. “He plays against all kinds of defenses, he can make people better, he takes responsibility loads off other players and he’s a great finisher of games. We’re very fortunate to have him.”
Irving said he feels equally fortunate to be healthy and able to contribute again after the disappointing way his season ended last spring.
“Anytime anything you love is taken away from you, you’ve got to figure out a way to deal with it,” he said. “In this case, basketball was taken away from me. I did my best to rehab this summer and be supportive as I could with the guys. Now I’m looking forward to start this season.”
He’s especially anxious to play beside Tatum, an NBA all-rookie selection who emerged as an up-and-coming star by averaging more than 18 points per game in Irving’s absence during the postseason.
“He’s really special,” Irving said of Tatum, who also went the one-and-done route at Duke in 2016-17. “From the first time I saw him play when he was still in high school, it was easy to see he was going to be a pro. He’s continued to develop and got the unbelievable opportunity to become a leader on our team going to the playoffs. He showed on the biggest stage what he could do.”
As much as the two former Blue Devils enjoyed playing in Chapel Hill, they used some of their free time on Thursday to make the short drive up U.S. 15-501 to visit their old stomping grounds.
Although they didn’t get to see coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was out of town recruiting, Irving and Tatum did get to spend some time with this year’s crop of Duke one-and-done freshmen.
And they came away impressed.
“I’m excited to see the guys they have. They’re a very talented group,” Irving said of R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, Trey Jones and Joey Baker. “Five freshmen coming in is pretty tough, but Coach K is pretty special about doing things like that. To get the No. 1, 2 and 3 player in the country to commit to your school just adds to the lineage of great players coming through.”