Director Charles Stone III kept repeating the question to his assistants throughout last summer’s filming of “Uncle Drew,” Kyrie Irving‘s feature-length-film debut.
Invariably, someone would set off running in the direction of any bouncing ball.
Irving’s penchant for pickup between scenes became such an issue that Stone and his crew had a difficult time preventing games from breaking out between Irving and his NBA brethren.
“At one point,” Stone said, “we had to hide the basketballs.”
One year ago, during one of the most uncertain times in Irving’s basketball career — from when word of his trade request leaked in late July to the awkward weeklong holdup of the deal that eventually sent him to Boston — Irving distracted himself during long days on set by routinely breaking the rules and sneaking off to play pickup basketball against any and all challengers.
In full Uncle Drew makeup.
Irving didn’t just find peace in a Hollywood side project but more so the pureness of some quick pickup hoops that helped fill his downtime.
“He would be playing basketball in between takes and I’d be on set and always asking, ‘Where’s Kyrie?'” Stone said. “‘Oh, he’s playing one-on-one against his body double.'”
“It’s like [with] a kid, ‘Kyrie, come here! Come here!’ … When we shot the scene of [Irving and] the old guys playing against the high school girls, again in between takes he’d be taking on the girls. And there’d be like s— talking and the whole nine.
“So I had to just constantly wrangle him because god forbid he breaks his ankle because he was playing one-on-one. But then one of the extras would be like, ‘Yo, I’ll take you on,’ and he’d be like, ‘Well, come on with it.'”
“Where’s Kyrie? Oh, he’s playing one-on-one against his body double.”
“Uncle Drew” director Charles Stone III
Stone had been told to limit Irving’s basketball activities, especially with Irving coming off a 90-game season and an NBA Finals appearance. The crew could film Irving playing basketball for only two hours every other day.
But getting Irving to stick to that plan proved to be more challenging than many of the more obvious hurdles associated with filming a makeup-heavy basketball movie in the tiny window of an NBA offseason.
Stone applauded Irving’s ability to focus on the project even as his basketball future hung in the balance.
“He didn’t bring [any drama] on the set, he didn’t bring it into the production and I was actually pleasantly surprised, like, ‘OK, well, damn,'” Stone said. “I didn’t have to worry about that. I had too much other s— to worry about with the actors, the makeup and just all the various elements that come together.”
While Irving the actor was able to distract himself from his NBA uncertainty, the Boston Celtics were left sweating whether the offseason’s biggest blockbuster might unravel before Uncle Drew could trade in his gray sweatsuit for a green jersey.
CELTICS ASSISTANT GM Mike Zarren had just plopped into his seat on a flight from San Diego to Las Vegas in mid-July, and there was finally a sense of relief. Maybe for the first time all summer, a finish line to what had been the most dizzying stretch of roster activity in his 15 years with the team seemed within reach. But it wasn’t.
Zarren had flown to San Diego on the morning of July 14 to get new Celtics free-agent acquisition Gordon Hayward‘s signature on his four-year, $128 million maximum-salary contract. The corresponding roster moves necessary to clear cap space for Hayward had previously left Zarren walking around summer league in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas with a cellphone glued to his ear and battery chargers filling his pockets.
Even when Zarren and the Celtics’ summer squad returned to Boston a couple of days later, things were no less chaotic. On July 17, Paul Pierce dropped by president of basketball operations Danny Ainge’s office to sign a one-day deal to retire as a member of the Celtics. Over the ensuing three days, Boston formally completed five of its nine offseason signings by inking Semi Ojeleye, Aron Baynes, Kadeem Allen, Daniel Theis and Guerschon Yabusele.
Then, on July 21, just as Boston’s front office staff was preparing to downshift, an eye-catching headline appeared:
KYRIE IRVING REQUESTS TRADE OUT OF CLEVELAND
It was back to the phone for Zarren, and a call was placed to the Cavaliers’ recently promoted general manager, Koby Altman, who confirmed that Cleveland was willing to listen to trade offers for its All-Star point guard.
“I was kinda hoping for a quiet August,” Zarren said.
Boston’s front office inner circle — Ainge, Zarren, director of player personnel Austin Ainge and director of scouting Dave Lewin, with heavy input from coach Brad Stevens — was in agreement that Irving was the sort of player the team absolutely had to pursue.
“I feel like there’s opportunities that you have to look at and explore, and Kyrie was one of those opportunities that, unanimously, internally it was something that we all felt like we should do,” Danny Ainge said. “Everybody, unanimously, wanted to do it.”
What followed was a monthlong dance in which the Celtics and Cavaliers discussed the parameters of potential deals. While confident the pieces they were offering were as good as any other team in the league could provide, the Celtics also knew that their primary Eastern Conference rival had to be leery of doing business with them.
“In about a 20-hour period, it went from, ‘I didn’t think it was happening’ to, ‘Holy smokes, this might happen.'”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens
Finally, on the night of Aug. 21, a full month after the story about Irving’s trade request appeared, the Cavs and Celtics zeroed in on a deal: Irving for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the highly coveted Brooklyn Nets‘ 2018 first-round pick.
But even with the slow build, there was still a bit of shock when it first came together.
“First of all, I didn’t think [the trade] was happening, and then, in about a 20-hour period, it went from, ‘I didn’t think it was happening’ to ‘Holy smokes, this might happen,'” Stevens said.
The deal, exciting as it was, still left Boston brass with mixed emotions, particularly because of what Thomas had given to the team during a mesmerizing 2016-17 season in which he finished fifth in MVP voting and gave up his body to help Boston get to the conference finals, all while dealing with the tragic loss of his younger sister.
As the Celtics and Cavaliers prepped for a trade call on Aug. 22, Ainge made the heart-wrenching call to alert Thomas of the impending deal. Zarren said he isn’t sure he could have made that call; neither is Stevens.
“The range of emotions were really wild because you would have no thought that Isaiah Thomas would ever be a part of a trade,” Stevens said. “I thought, with Isaiah, that was really hard. I’ve talked about the emotional investment that you have as a coach and a player, and working together every day, and that’s why I’ve said that I don’t think I could do the front office because those hard decisions — I do not envy those.
“The only way you would even consider doing that is for a person of Kyrie’s caliber. But that doesn’t make it any easier.”
Neither did the uncertainty that followed.
THE SCREAMS CAME first, followed by a couple of loud expletives. Stone pivoted in the director’s chair and looked toward the commotion just in time to see Irving sprinting through a set of doors leading to the exterior of the Atlanta night club that the “Uncle Drew” crew had rented to film that night.
One of Irving’s friends had rushed onto the set between late-night takes of a key dance scene to alert Irving that the trade to Boston had finally gone through after the Celtics sweetened their offer by adding Miami’s 2020 second-round pick to their original package.
Eight excruciating days after the original deal was first reported, Irving was finally a member of the Boston Celtics.
“All of a sudden I hear someone screaming, like a guy is just yelling and screaming. And then I see Kyrie run across the dance floor and down through the club and book it right out the door,” Stone said. “And I’m already numb from the grind of shooting. I just kinda looked at my [assistant director] and deadpanned, ‘What happened now?'”
Irving, poised throughout most of the film’s production, couldn’t help but exult.
“I left out of the club that we were shooting at and I had to decompress for a quick second and it was just an energy shift,” said Irving, who said he stood on the curb watching traffic speed by while trying to savor the moment and what was next for his NBA career.
Eventually, Irving collected his emotions and returned to the dance floor to finish shooting. But those on set contend that Irving’s dance moves probably benefited from a jolt of trade-completion energy.
Nate Robinson, who played Boots, one of Irving’s geriatric buddies in the film, said Irving’s excitement was palpable and he was happily telling cast and crew the deal was done as he joyously ripped the makeup mask off his face at the end of the night’s filming.
While neither the Celtics’ nor Cavaliers’ front office desired to revisit and dissect the reasons for that holdup, Danny Ainge admitted there were times he was truly concerned the deal would get rescinded.
“It’s like you’re a real estate agent and someone has agreed to buy your house, but until the papers are signed and the bank is on board, the sale doesn’t go through. And that’s sort of how it is after you make any deal in our league.
“It’s never done until it’s done.”
AS INITIAL RUMBLINGS that Boston was trading for Irving started to trickle out, Terry Rozier rushed to his phone — to shut it down.
“I gotta turn my phone off,” Rozier said recently with a laugh, recalling his immediate reaction to the news. “If this involves me, it involves me. I don’t even want to know about it right now.”
Given that just about every member of the previous year’s Celtics team had been dealt that summer, it was a fair concern.
Once Rozier was certain he wasn’t part of Boston’s trade package, he was able to power his phone back on and digest the news that he’d now be backing up one of the biggest stars in the NBA.
Despite no prior relationship, Rozier and Irving became fast friends, the two guards challenging each other in one-on-one drills before the start of training camp practices. Later in the season, the duo would often play spirited games of P-I-G after practices on the road, each busting out his fanciest ballhandling moves and layups, trying to one-up the other.
Much like on the set of “Uncle Drew,” Irving seemed to embrace these moments of basketball spontaneity.
The way Irving embraced Boston’s younger players went a long way toward giving those players confidence, especially after Hayward and eventually Irving went down with season-ending injuries.
“Kyrie is a special guy, a great leader,” Rozier said. “He makes you feel comfortable. He doesn’t act like a guy that’s been through and accomplished so much. Like, you can’t even tell because he’s so humble and he’s just a great guy to learn from.”
“I had to decompress for a quick second, and it was just an energy shift.”
Kyrie Irving, on being told he was officially a Boston Celtic
Like Rozier, Jayson Tatum rushed to his phone. Only he elected to call Irving to gauge his reaction. Tatum was in Boston, and Stevens was hosting a bunch of the team’s youngest players at his home for dinner when word first trickled out about the impending deal.
“Obviously, [Irving] was really, really excited,” Tatum said.
Tatum and Irving are represented by the same agent, Jeffrey Wechsler of 24/7 Sports Management, and the agency is so small that Irving took the entire crew to the Bahamas last summer, right after Tatum was drafted No. 3 by the Celtics. With a Duke connection, Tatum and Irving had forged a relationship but couldn’t have known in that moment that they would soon be teammates.
Even as his own star rapidly rises, 20-year-old Tatum marvels at what it’s like to have a megastar like Irving on the roster.
“Just having a superstar on your team, you see what it takes,” Tatum said. “How they manage their time, how they go about their business, what they do on and off the court. That can only inspire somebody like myself at a young age.”
The addition of Irving, during a summer when the team added Hayward and drafted Tatum, also morphed Boston from spunky overachiever to legitimate title contender. It’s why the Celtics couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pursue Irving last summer — no matter the obstacles it took to get him.
“I thought Kyrie was going to be a great fit and obviously I still feel that way,” Danny Ainge said. “At the same time, [the trade] was a challenge, as was moving Isaiah and Jae, and there’s always a part of that when you’re in the middle of acquiring a player. That’s the hard part of it.
“The price and the timing, it was all critical. I think there’s risk in every deal we do, but with a player like Kyrie, I think we were all willing to take that risk. And we’re glad we did.”
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