Luke DeCock

Friends and rivals, Irving and Barnes finally teammates – DeCock

U.S. teammates and old friends Kyrie Irving (left) and Harrison Barnes relax after Tuesday’s practice at the USA Basketball training camp in Las Vegas. Irving (Duke) and Barnes (North Carolina) never played in college but have competed for the past two NBA titles and are finally teammates for the United States.
U.S. teammates and old friends Kyrie Irving (left) and Harrison Barnes relax after Tuesday’s practice at the USA Basketball training camp in Las Vegas. Irving (Duke) and Barnes (North Carolina) never played in college but have competed for the past two NBA titles and are finally teammates for the United States. ldecock@newsobserver.com

This time, Harrison Barnes said yes, without any Skype connection involved. Mike Krzyzewski called with the offer, and Barnes couldn’t say no twice. Having spurned the Duke coach to attend North Carolina in 2010, Barnes accepted his invitation to play for the U.S. Olympic team.

“I thought you were going to say ‘No,’ again,” Krzyzewski told him.

With that, the inextricable careers of Barnes and Kyrie Irving were once again intertwined. As sought-after recruits, they became friends before choosing opposite sides of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, yet never met on the court in college, nor did either make it to the Final Four. The NBA has been kinder to both: Two years ago, Barnes beat Irving for the NBA title. Earlier this summer, Irving beat Barnes for the title, although Barnes’ recovery from the Game 7 loss was hastened by a massive free-agent deal with the Dallas Mavericks.

Four years after Barnes was a preseason all-American without ever playing a game and Irving stepped into a Duke lineup that had just won a national title and only needed a new point guard, they’re two of the 10 first-time Olympians on the U.S. roster for Rio.

Friends. Rivals. Teammates. Finally.

“We’ve been really good friends, but being on the same team and being able to represent our country, that’s the highest honor,” Barnes said.

Irving and Barnes had talked about playing against each other throughout the recruiting process, but Irving’s only season at Duke in 2011 was cut short by a toe injury before ACC play began. By the time he returned, in the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels were on different trajectories, not to meet again. Irving turned pro after that season; Barnes turned pro after his sophomore year.

“We’ve been friends for a while now, since we were 16 or 17 years old,” Irving said. “Seeing him become an NBA champion, fit into a role with a lot of talented players with Golden State and now, being one of those guys, go-to guys. Instead of trying to fit in, guys are going to be looking to him to be a franchise guy. So I’m just really happy for him and really proud of him.”

They’ve continued to progress and they’ve now become two of the better players in the NBA and they have an outstanding friendship.

Duke and Olympics coach Mike Krzyzewski on Harrison Barnes and Kyrie Iriving

And so the currents and eddies of history swirl. Barnes, who spurned Krzyzewski as a recruit, answered his call to the Olympic team. Irving, who stepped immediately into the point-guard role at Duke, does the same for the United States with no Chris Paul or John Wall or LeBron James, who handled the ball as often as any point guard.

The two sought-after recruits who chose different sides of the biggest rivalry in college sports are now teammates on the biggest team in international basketball.

To Irving, it all seems like a long time ago: “Yeah, it absolutely does.”

To Barnes, it seems like the opposite: “To be honest, it feels like it was yesterday we were kids at the top 100 camp, talking about dreams and goals that we had. Now we both have championships and we’re both on the Olympic team. It’s pretty special.”

To Krzyzewski, it’s the conclusion of a long and twisted road that not only brought Barnes and Irving together but Krzyzewski and Barnes together for once and Krzyzewski and Irving back together again.

“First of all, it means that Roy (Williams) and I were spot-on target as far as talent goes,” Krzyzewski said. “So I’m going to give some plaudits to the two head coaches. The fact is, they’ve continued to progress and they’ve now become two of the better players in the NBA and they have an outstanding friendship.”

This Olympic team of NBA superstars makes for strange partnerships. There was Draymond Green, suddenly the most hated man in the NBA, helping his finals opponent Irving from the floor during practice Tuesday. There were Krzyzewski and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, fierce rivals in the ACC, absorbed in deep conversation between the practice courts, plotting.

And there were Irving and Barnes, sitting together after practice, sharing the kind of moment they hadn’t had since they were kids – only now, as Olympians.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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