It was about two months after demanding a trade.
He hasn’t been back since.
“It is odd,” former teammate Kevin Love said following the Cavaliers’ 116-106 loss versus Boston. “I know he’s been hurt, I know he’s been gearing up for the playoffs, as he should, and getting his body right and his mind right for that. But whenever he comes back, I know for a fact that we and the whole city and the state of Ohio and everybody who remembers him from 2016, that big shot, it will be all love.”
Irving’s Celtics went to Cleveland during the 2017-18 regular season just that once. He was sidelined during the seven-game Eastern Conference finals matchup, failing to join his teammates on the road for any of those games.
This season, the Cavs and Celtics played twice in the preseason. Irving rested the first exhibition game at the TD Garden. He sat out the second one with a rib contusion, once again staying back in Boston. Of the four games between Cleveland and Boston during this regular season, Irving missed three, including the pair at Quicken Loans Arena, where Irving dazzled Clevelanders for six brilliant years, cementing his place as one of the best players in franchise history.
Tuesday night marked his 13th missed game this season. He only played in the series opener against his old squad at home. The next game Irving was ill. A strained left hip sidelined him for the other. Tuesday, it was load management.
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens called it “one of those days.” Irving’s rest was planned in advance.
“He’s played a pretty significant amount since the All-Star break,” Stevens said following the Celtics’ early-morning shootaround. “We want to make sure going in (to the playoffs) we are as fresh as possible. His freshness is key.”
Irving has had a few different nagging injuries that have kept him off the court on different occasions. Irving and the Celtics knew there would be maintenance games, especially given surgery on his left knee that ended his first year in Boston early. But three missed games against the Cavs? Tuesday night, a game in which the Celtics entered riding a four-game losing skid? With an important showdown versus fourth-seeded Indiana not coming until Friday?
These continued absences cause plenty of speculation.
“This is nothing against anybody not coming back, or Kyrie for that matter, but I know that as his former teammate and as a friend of his, I love him,” Love said. “Signing back on with the city of Cleveland, what, this is my fifth year now, will be heading into my sixth next year, like, this is a great city. The fans are going to support you. And when he does come back they’re going to embrace it and they’re going to support him.”
The Cavs will do the same — if Irving ever steps foot onto the Quicken Loans Arena hardwood again.
In Irving’s 2017 return game, the franchise had a video tribute planned. It was going to air during one of the timeouts during the first quarter, celebrating Irving’s countless accomplishments. But Gordon Hayward’s gruesome leg injury altered their plans. The Cavs didn’t think the timing would have been appropriate, not after Hayward was stretchered off the court.
According to a source, the Cavs haven’t shut the door on that recognition. How long the tribute would be, what form it would eventually take are both uncertain.
But Irving has to come back to Cleveland first. That part is up to him.
The Cavs have no ill will. Inside Cleveland Clinic Courts, the team’s spacious practice facility in Independence, hangs a giant mural that celebrates his Game 7 shot, the one that will go down in Finals lore. Nearly 40 yards down the hall from the team’s locker room at The Q is another painted graphic lauding Irving. The Westfield Champions Club on the fourth floor of the renovated arena has a large photo of the Cavaliers’ 2016 trophy presentation. Irving is in that as well.
Irving hasn’t been scrubbed from the facilities. He hasn’t been forgotten. He can’t be. He won’t be. He’s too important when telling this franchise’s story.
“In 2026 it will be the 10-year anniversary of the championship team,” Love said. “What will that be like? He’s going to have his jersey retired. And he should. He hit the biggest shot in franchise history, one of the biggest in Finals history.”
While the Cavs have made no point to diminish what Irving meant, the same can’t be said for him.
When asked Sunday following Boston’s loss to San Antonio, two days before his expected arrival into Cleveland, whether it still means something to go back, Irving answered quickly and succinctly.
“No, not at all,” he said.
Not even three years ago, a shirtless champion celebrated in the packed streets of downtown Cleveland. His signature moment came days before. Fans adored him. Irving returned that love.
Now? He won’t even step foot inside the building he called home for six years. The one that will someday display his jersey in the rafters, alongside the other Cavaliers legends.