The notation into the play-by-play log was basic: “3:05 (4th quarter) – Alex Kirk enters the game for Anderson Varejao.”
But for the 7-foot center from Los Alamos who played in his first NBA game Tuesday night in Portland, Ore., the moment was the fulfillment of a dream he was too long told would never come true.
“At first when they said to go out there, I was shaking a little bit to be honest,” said Kirk, the former University of New Mexico Lobo who is now a rookie center for the Cleveland Cavaliers. “I was nervous, but Andy kind of stepped up to me and looked at me before I went out of the floor and just said to take advantage of the minutes and just play. Do what you do and don’t try to do anything different and just try to enjoy it. And I did. It was an amazing feeling walking onto that court.”
Ten seconds into his career he chalked up his first statistic: an assist to starting point guard Kyrie Irving. Later he drew a foul and calmly knocked down both of his free-throw attempts.
The Cavaliers lost to the Portland Trail Blazers 101-82, but it was hard not to feel some euphoria for Kirk, the undrafted free agent who worked his way onto the opening night roster of a team assembled this past offseason with championship-or-bust aspirations thanks to having the likes of superstars Lebron James, Kevin Love and Irving, among others.
And how does a roster full of some of the world’s best players reward its rookie backup center for scoring his first points in the NBA?
After flying to Salt Lake City late Tuesday after the game, he and fellow rookie Joe Harris from the University of Virginia were right back to their early morning duty of walking to the nearest Starbucks to make sure the veterans had their coffee to start the day.
“They’ve put me in my place,” Kirk said. “I’m the rookie. I know my role, but that’s never been an issue with me. If that’s going with Joe Harris and getting Starbucks in the morning, hey, that’s my role for the team right now. It’s just playing the rookie role and playing that right – doing all the little things that help the bigger picture.”
Truth is, Kirk said despite the star power he shares the Cavaliers locker room with, he’s never felt big-timed by his teammates or star-struck with his new co-workers. He says James, Irving and Love are great teammates on and off the court, and called Varejao “one of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” adding the 10-year veteran center has worked especially close with Kirk helping him develop.
And while Kirk isn’t suggesting he’s on par with those teammates, he said he genuinely believes he belongs on this team that the rest of the basketball world has under a microscope this season.
“Yeah, I think so,” Kirk said. “And I think if you ask any of these guys here, they see that I do, and I know I’m getting better. And you know, it’s crazy, but I have two points in the books. You can’t take that away from me. You can’t take that away from my career. It’s a huge achievement not only for me, but for everyone who helped me get here.”
It’s an achievement not many outside of his close circle always had much faith would happen.
From the days of hearing critics rumbling about the 7-footer from Los Alamos High School having inflated statistics only because he was beating up on 6-foot-4 post players at schools like Española Valley, St. Michael’s and Taos; to the times at the University of New Mexico when he was told he’d never be able to replace Drew Gordon, especially after spending a year off the court rehabilitating from back surgery; to the weeks and months of criticism from his own fan base that followed his decision to leave the Lobos with a season of eligibility remaining, he knows there have always been doubters about his ability to reach basketball’s highest level.
None of it stopped him before, so he doesn’t plan on letting it stop him now.
“If my potential is only to be a third-string center in the NBA, I’m going to be the best third-string center I can be,” Kirk said. “But I believe I can be better than that, and that’s what I’ve been working to do and keep working to do. This is still the dream.”