High School Sports

Before Kyrie Irving became an NBA star, his mom starred at Rogers and Lincoln

Elizabeth Irving (then Larson) starred for the Rogers High girls basketball team. She’s No. 12, and the mother of Kyrie Irving, who now plays for the Boston Celtics
Elizabeth Irving (then Larson) starred for the Rogers High girls basketball team. She’s No. 12, and the mother of Kyrie Irving, who now plays for the Boston Celtics

Asia Irving stood in the center of the stage, towering over all of the members of the two greatest girls basketball teams to ever come through Rogers High School.

She said she couldn’t help but consider the depth of that moment, standing in the place of her mother, who died before she could develop many of their own memories to recall.

“It was an amazing experience,” Irving said. “I didn’t even know I’d be standing up there until about two minutes before it started.”

Elizabeth Irving (then Larson) wanted to become president of the United States. She was as gifted in music as she was in athletics.

She was 29 years old when she died of sepsis, leaving behind her husband, Drederick, and two children, Asia and Kyrie.

Yes, that Kyrie Irving.

Of course, he’s now an NBA superstar playing point guard for the Boston Celtics. But few know of his ties to the South Sound – other than he was traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers this past offseason for former Curtis High School and University of Washington standout Isaiah Thomas.

Kyrie Irving didn’t make it to the Rogers Rams basketball event on Saturday, where the Puyallup school honored his mother’s state-bound basketball teams. But his father and sister came, and his grandparents live in Port Orchard, where Kyrie spent most of his summers until he was about 13.

“When Elizabeth played, she would get this look in her eye. We called her Bessie Warbonnet,” said George Larson, Elizabeth’s adopted father. “And her son plays basketball with the same look. You can see he zones everything out and he’s just laser-focused.”

Drederick and Elizabeth were living in a Puyallup apartment when they had Asia. Kyrie was born a year later in Melbourne, Australia, where his father was playing professionally with the Bulleen Boomers.

They moved back to the South Sound, but Elizabeth died suddenly after a two-day stay in Tacoma General Hospital when Kyrie was 4. His father moved them to New York shortly after.

But Kyrie honors his mom in many facets today. “Elizabeth Irving” is tattooed in script on his left pec. It’s bookended by angels wings with a halo above. Her birthday, Aug. 13, is etched on his wrists with “VIII” on the left and “XIII” on the right.

His daughter is Azurie Elizabeth Irving. His mother’s name is also etched on the sole of his Nike-produced Kyrie shoes.

George Larson was part of a Lutheran seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, before he and his wife, Norma, adopted Elizabeth when she was nine days old.

They later moved to Puyallup because George founded the Celebration Lutheran Church in South Hill.

So Elizabeth attended Rogers High School. She was one of two sophomores playing on the 1982-83 girls basketball varsity team – and, just like her son, she was a guard.

Rogers won the 4A SPSL title and finished 23-5 with a fifth-place finish at the state tournament. Her junior year, Rogers finished 20-7 and with a fourth-place state finish.

Those are the two-highest placing teams in school history.

“She was so intense,” said Denny Nelson, Rogers’ former coach. “She didn’t say much. Very quiet.

“But, boy, when she hit that basketball floor, she was all business. She gave it all and she was a great kid to have.”

Christine Imhof played on the team, too, and brought her yearbook to Saturday’s ceremony. She showed Asia some of the funny phrases Elizabeth wrote inside.

Next to one picture of herself, Elizabeth wrote, “Sophomore of the year.”

Next to another, with Elizabeth standing at the end of the bench, she wrote, “Look at me, riding the pine.”

“She was just funny and sarcastic and had a great sense of humor,” Imhof said.

“Every time I come here (to Puyallup) I hear different stories about my mom,” Asia said. “And I never really get to otherwise. I was so young, so it’s hard to remember things, but from the stories I’ve been told she was an amazing woman.”

She was part black, part Native American, going to a school that was predominately white. So Elizabeth asked if she could transfer to a more diverse school.

So she transferred to Lincoln for her senior year.

“She had a real hole in her heart,” George Larson said. “Because she was one peppercorn in a salt shaker in Puyallup. And we wanted her to experience more.”

Current Lincoln boys basketball coach Aubrey Shelton trekked to the school’s library to open up the 1985 yearbook. It’s adorned with photos of her dressed up and honored in the school’s annual Abe and Mary competition, which is an annual event held around President’s Day.

She also played basketball there. Former assistant coach Mike McCormick recalling her as an occasional starter and key role player.

“I remember her being this really nice person,” said McCormick, who still teaches at Lincoln. “We had a really nice group of girls on that team. But for being here just one year, she fit in really fast.”

Meanwhile, Rogers that year missed state by one game.

“If I would have had her back …” Nelson said, before he paused to ponder.

“She was a player. No doubt about it. She was probably going to be one of our best.”

Elizabeth then went to Boston University, where she played volleyball and met the school’s star basketball player, Drederick, in a nearby convenience store.

“The world just stopped for about 30 seconds,” Drederick said in a New York Daily News story in 2011. He declined an interview for this story.

Drederick graduated as Boston University’s all-time leading scorer, and he and Elizabeth soon after moved back to Puyallup.

Nelson said he didn’t know that Kyrie Irving was his former’s player’s son until about two years ago, when he ran into George Larson while he was working at the Puyallup fairgrounds.

“I’m not surprised, though,” Nelson said. “She was so athletic and then she married Drederick and he’s so athletic.”

And after Elizabeth’s death, Drederick and the Irving family might as well have adopted the Larsons, George said.

And her two children? Kyrie Irving went from a year at Duke University to winning an NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers (he signed a Cavs championship jersey and sent it to the Rogers Rams Hoops Auction) and Asia graduated from Temple University and earned a degree in fashion merchandising.

“I really hope I took some of her determination and will,” Asia said. “That’s something that both my parents had and that was instilled in me and Kyrie.”

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677