NBA — Kyrie Irving’s first days as a Celtic

 In Sports
BOSTON – “Wall-tham? Wall-thumb? Am I saying that right?” Kyrie Irving wondered.

Twice during his first week on the job with the Boston Celtics, Irving has stopped press conferences to ask reporters how to properly say the name of the Boston suburb that hosts the team’s practice facility. For the record, the town of Waltham is pronounced “Wall-tham,” though history suggests that has more to do with New England accents than the original intent.

Nevertheless, this is the sort of thing that weighs heavily on Irving’s mind right now. This is a man who has repeatedly explained his decision to request a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers by suggesting that he wants to “perfect his craft” and he is likewise obsessed with adapting to his new surroundings.

Beyond pronunciations, Irving is still trying to settle into his new home. He playfully detailed the frustration of trying to furnish his new place, and the challenge of picking the right paint colors. He’d also like to find some good restaurants where he might be able to blend into the scenery, as unlikely as that seems as the new face of the Celtics franchise.

Yes, there’s plenty to work through here, both on and off the court, and yet one thing has been consistent with Irving since he first came to Boston last month for an introductory press conference: His smile. It’s ever-present. He smiles throughout interview sessions, he smiles at the notion of what the Celtics might become. He smiles even after putting unleaded gas into the new diesel-craving engine of his beloved Jeep that broke down on his way to his first Celtics practice.

A bunch of Bentley University students were willing to help Irving fix his car, in the rain no less. Instead, Irving called his new employer to say that (1) he was going to be a little late for a meeting with coach Brad Stevens and (2) Ask is someone could come fetch him. Sure, he was told, the Celtics would send equipment manager John Connor to get him. But where was Irving?

“Wall-tham? Wall-thumb?” said Irving. “Am I saying that right?”

Kyrie Irving has been smiling often since landing in Boston. Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports

Al Horford is a four-time All-Star and a veteran entering his 11th NBA season; which is to say, it’s hard to impress him on a basketball court. And yet, Horford stood transfixed on the sideline at Boston’s practice facility last month while watching Irving go through his first on-court workout with the team.

“I was just blown away,” said Horford. “I’ve played against him over the years. You see him on the court, you see some of the moves, you’re impressed like, yeah, he’s an All-Star player. He’s a really good player. But when you see him work at what he does in practice and how easy he’s able to score the ball and handle it and do certain things, it just really blew my mind.

“I don’t think people really understand how good a player he is. He’s gonna showcase that this year. He needs time to get acclimated and to catch up to speed with everything we have. His ability is unreal. I’m very intrigued to see how the season’s gonna develop. He’s gonna be great for us.”

Horford admitted it was jarring to watch as the Celtics overhauled the roster of a 53-win team this summer. And just as he was coming to grips with the initial batch of changes, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and a couple of future draft picks (including the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick) to the Cavaliers in exchange for Irving.

Boston brought back just four players overall. Even after adding the All-Star talents of Gordon Hayward and Irving, Horford needed to digest the overhaul. Horford knew how good Irving was – heck, he played a huge role in ending Boston’s season in May – but they had also given up a lot to obtain Irving.

Horford’s excitement spiked when he got to watch Irving up close. Now Horford is certain Irving is going to take his game to another level with the Celtics this season.

“I just think that, playing with LeBron, Kyrie probably couldn’t be everything that he possibly could be,” said Horford. “Just because LeBron is such a great player that he just kinda — Kyrie could have a great game and everybody focuses on LeBron because he had a triple-double and he was awesome.

“I just think now, Kyrie will be in a position where people will see him and it’s going to be like, ‘This guy is elite.’ That’s what I sense with him.”

Irving is on a mission to do everything right with the Celtics. Charles Krupa/AP

After three days in Newport and a couple of practices at their training facility, the Celtics ventured to TD Garden on Sunday for an open practice in front of season-ticket holders. About 5,000 fans crammed the arena’s lower bowl on an NFL Sunday just to watch these new-look Celtics go through a series of shooting drills and on-court interviews.

The Celtics had already completed their real off-day workout on the Garden parquet before fans were even let into the building. While waiting for the crowd to settle in, Irving was asked what it felt like to be wearing green in the building.

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