US water polo player Max Irving is inspired by his father, a longtime college basketball referee

WALNUT, Calif. (AP) — Throughout his water polo career — from growing up in Long Beach to playing for UCLA and the U.S. national team — Max Irving has drawn inspiration from his father, Michael.

Each of them knows what it's like to work in front of a hostile crowd.

Max Irving is preparing for the Paris Olympics — looking to help the U.S. to its first medal since it won silver in 2008 — while Michael Irving is a longtime men's college basketball referee assigned to the NCAA Tournament again this year.

“Just to be able to see him and his professionalism and just how focused he is when he is officiating a game is something that’s really inspiring to me,” Max Irving said, “because I know if my dad’s been able to do it for as long as he’s been able to do it, then I can definitely at least try my best to continue that legacy in the water.”

Making the most of his time in professional leagues in Italy and Greece, Irving has turned into an indispensable member of the U.S. team. He scored 25 goals as the U.S. clinched a spot in Paris by winning the 2023 Pan American Games in Chile. He collected 10 goals as the U.S. finished ninth at the world championships in Qatar last month.

“If you ask me, 2017, he was first time with us ... is he going to be here where he is right now, I would give you wrong answer, I would tell you no,” U.S. coach Dejan Udovicic said. “He’s really improved.

“Without Max with this team and this roster, if Max is not playing or he is not playing on that level with what he’s supposed to give us, it’s not easy to replace him."

The 28-year-old Irving played in his first Olympics in 2021 in Tokyo, but there were no fans in the stands because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Irving, who has two brothers and a sister, should have plenty of support this time around.

“Being able to watch Max compete in person at the Olympics is really going to be one of the biggest thrills that we've ever had as a family,” Michael Irving said.

Max Irving got into water polo as part of a family emphasis on staying active. He played baseball, football and soccer before he went to a summer camp at a community college that included a couple weeks of diving and water polo.

A couple camp counselors told Michael and his wife, Kelly, that they thought Max was a natural for water polo, and they suggested a local club for the sport. Max also had two cousins on his mother's side who played water polo.

“I remember going to watch some of their games," he said, “and just being completely interested in the game because I thought it really had a cool mix of basketball, soccer, a little bit of ice hockey with the exclusion and the penalty box.”

Michael Irving said Max “found his calling with water polo.” He became a three-time All-American at UCLA, helping the Bruins win three national championships. The 6-foot-1 attacker still ranks among the career leaders at the vaunted program with 102 assists, 105 steals and 40 field blocks.

Along the way, through his time with the U.S. team and playing abroad, he also has become an advocate for increased diversity in water polo — a seemingly perpetual challenge for the sport. He is the only Black man on the national team, but he said he sees signs of progress in the lower levels.

“You’re definitely seeing a lot more diversity. ... Is it at a level that things are completely inviting and inclusive? We’re trying to make it that way,” he said.

Michael Irving, who played college basketball at Rice and got into refereeing through a friend, said he knew nothing about water polo when Max started playing. He pitched in by taping Max's games so his son could watch them later.

He also used his perspective as a referee to help Max learn to focus on his play.

“I can share with Max as well some of the pet peeves that officials may have as far as player misconduct or coach misconduct or maybe mouthing off too much,” he said. “Just letting him know, control what you can control. You're going to waste your efforts and your energy if you're worried about the officials.”


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