BOSTON — Kyrie Irving insists it’s all about the basketball to him.
But the newest Celtics star knows enough to know it’s going to be about a lot more than that to a lot of other people on Tuesday when he returns to Cleveland for the first time as an opposing player in the NBA’s season-opening game.
“Excited to play some basketball in Cleveland,” Irving said prior to the team’s Shamrock Foundation Tip-Off Gala Thursday night. “Personally, it’s just basketball, man. I am going up there understanding the legacy that I was a part of team-wise and individually. Just seeing the maturation process that I went through coming in as a 19-year-old kid and being in an unbelievable city such as Cleveland. Seeing it grow, and obviously leaving a championship there, is awesome.
"It’s going to be an adjustment (going back). But I’m looking forward to it.”
While Irving said all the hype surrounding his return is “created anywhere except from me” he did toss another drop of gasoline on the smoldering fire when he was quoted Wednesday as saying playing in Boston is like being in a “real, live sports city.”
“Kyrie and I talked a lot about that,” teammate Marcus Smart said. “He’s excited about being in the city. He’s been quoted as saying he’s in a more sports-related city. It definitely is in Boston.
“Every athlete dreams about playing in a city like Boston where every night you go out those fans are going to give it everything they have for you just like you do everything you can for them.”
It’s a transition that Al Horford experienced last year when he made the move from his only NBA home in Atlanta to Boston as an unrestricted free agent.
“Here in Boston you’re part of the winningest franchise in NBA history,” Horford said. “It’s just different. There’s a lot that comes with it. It’s exciting for me. I’m very lucky to be a part of this.
“People here, in general, are passionate. People here are passionate about their city that they represent and it translates to sports. That’s great to have. You really respect that and I appreciate it.”
Horford got roughed up a bit by the Atlanta fans in his first trip back last year, and Gordon Hayward said he’ll be taking some mental notes on Tuesday as he looks ahead to his return to Salt Lake City for the first time as an opposing player on March 28.
“It’s going to be a fun atmosphere for sure,” Hayward said. “A huge game for Kyrie. We’re all looking to play our best for him. Not only for the team, but for him too.”
Terry Rozier, who grew up in Ohio and is a diehard Cleveland Indians fan, said he’s already heard some blowback from friends back home about Irving’s “real, live sports city” comment.
“I’m defending him because that’s my teammate at the end of the day,” Rozier said. “We’re coming into the first game with the mindset to get a win. He’s my teammate, so I’m with him.
“I’m so hype about it I can’t wait. People who love basketball can’t wait to see this game.”
It’s the game that Irving said he is looking forward to much more than all the fanfare about his return to Cleveland – and certainly more than the soap opera surrounding his desire to break up his union with LeBron James one year after they won a championship together.
“I’m just happy to start NBA basketball again,” Irving said. “It was a long summer. Coming off the Finals loss, and all we went through, and then the trade happening.
“Now it’s time to move on to more NBA basketball in a new uniform.”