Kyrie Irving has a lot on his mind

And it’s riling up the NBA

BY JAROD HECTOR and HENRY ABBOTT

Kyrie Irving is among the most skilled players in NBA history. He hit a shot that decided a championship, and many say he has the best handle in the history of the game. The Brooklyn Nets, in their current construction, are largely the product of Irving’s choice to join with Kevin Durant—an instant superteam, it seemed. Then last year, injuries kept them from uniting, which only built anticipation for this season, which is finally here. And it could be amazing.

But … after sending several weird signals to start the season, including announcing he would not talk to the media, Irving is currently not with the team. What exactly is happening is unclear. And it has fans somewhere between concerned and angry, which has only grown more confusing now that Irving has popped up on the internet evidently pursuing other, non-basketball interests, like attending his sister’s birthday party and an online political forum. 

Henry: When I first started covering the NBA, you were a jerk if you attended your parent’s funeral or the birth of your child. We have moved a little on that. But in my heart, my first thought on seeing this video was to bury my head in the sand on all the other issues and just think, “I’m glad he got to dance with his sister and dad at her birthday party.” I’m happy for her that he was there, and for him. It feels weird to use this video as proof of everything that’s wrong in the world. It feels closer to what’s right. 

Jarod: I don’t disagree with you Henry. The “mental state” of Kyrie Irving is often discussed and bandied about on social media and television. He seemed genuinely happy in this video with his sister Asia and his dad, Dredrick. 

Is it weird that I counted the amount of people and wasn’t too alarmed because it wasn’t a packed club? I know the optics are bad, given the reason we haven’t seen Kyrie since last Tuesday was “personal reasons.” But finding joy is certainly something we should all be in favor of, yes?

Kyrie finding joy reminds me of something he said after a preseason game against the Celtics last month, when he was asked about his time in Boston with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown: 

“It’s like another day at the job,” Irving said. “Honestly. I’m grateful to be able to have relationships with a lot of these guys who are still here, guys who aren’t here still. And, at the end of the day, we went to war together. And I respect all those young men down there. We’re not even young. We’re just young kings growing in a business where we want to do what makes us happy. To see Jayson get better, to see Jaylen get better, to see these guys mature and be in the positions they’re in, I’m nothing but proud of them. To see other guys be happy, that’s all I could want.

“Coming here is easy, man. Performing here is easy. Performing here is easy. Basketball is the easy part. It’s just the external stuff beforehand that gets noisy, so I try to limit that.”

Is it as simple as wanting to be happy?

Trying to parse through a Kyrie Irving statement and identify deeper or hidden meaning is a fool's errand to be sure. But I can’t help myself. He’s a basketball genius, a wizard on the hardwood. Off the floor, he might be even more fascinating. 

Earlier this season, Kyrie issued a statement about not speaking to the media. His intent was to make sure his message was properly conveyed, and a small part of me believes he hoped it would be interpreted exactly as he intended to convey. Eventually he did speak to the media and something he said stood out to me. It’s a phrase he would use just about every time he did speak to us. “Basketball is the easy part.”

That makes complete sense on its face. Kyrie is one of the most skilled players the NBA has ever seen. Basketball is easy. The “external stuff” is not. 

Kyrie has often bemoaned the hassle of media responsibilities. The process is strange in many ways, and over the years has become performative. But, as someone once famously said, “that’s what the money’s for!”

On a recent episode of BRING IT IN, Coach Thorpe noted a similarity between Kyrie and the late comedians John Belushi and Chris Farley. To be clear, we are not diagnosing Kyrie or saying he’s on the same path. What we are saying is, there is an undeniable common thread among some great performers: They perform a skill very few can at the highest level and under tremendous duress, but seemingly struggle with managing the more rudimentary aspects of life. 

Henry: I would be interested to know what Kyrie’s colleagues think of him. From afar, blowing off COVID protocols and work reads as selfish. Do they see it that way?

The reason I ask is I think a reasonable person could also get a little overwhelmed by the bullshit. There’s this incredible thing that happens when good players get close to the NBA … at some point they enter the league office’s orbit, and the league just takes over. Many times Jade Hoye and I interviewed players late in the afternoon the day before the draft, and while hooking up the mics we’d make smalltalk like “how’s your day?” Short story: Their families traveled from miles away and they haven’t seen them, they’re exhausted from wall-to-wall scheduling from 8 am to question mark, and at every stop they are supposed to be smiling and charming and “on.” Inspire kids at a school! Pose for photos! Sit down for a TrueHoop TV interview!

And that’s nothing compared to All-Star weekend. The NBA diet is heavy on “grip and grin.”

It’s true that players make good money to smile through all this, but we know now that it’s more taxing for some than others.

The usual remedy is just to bullshit your way through it. Just perform. Praise the hell out of whoever is in charge, and move on with your paycheck intact.

For whatever reason—and I’m sympathetic to this—the B.S. doesn’t tumble easily from this player at this time. Say what you want about what he says, but it’s authentic. 

From Kyrie Irving’s Instagram feed.

Jarod: You made a point about Kyrie’s authenticity. I believe that’s right. Being Black and Native American matters a great deal to him. Take a look at his Instagram feed. Again, it’s easy to call him “third eye Kyrie” or “Kung-Fu Kyrie” or a "flat earther" or as you and I have said, “not Confucius.” It is easy to be cynical about what he's said and roll your eyes. But above all else, being Black and Native are what matter to him. He knows basketball is his gift and talent. But I think he's also keenly aware of the platform it provides him and what he can do for people with the platform. I've always believed the "external stuff" would push him out of this game earlier than people think and he would go out into the world pursuing the things that matter and bring him joy.

The question you raise about his teammates is an interesting one. How do they feel?

After the game against the Jazz (the last time we saw Kyrie) he didn’t speak to the media. The next day at practice he wasn’t made available. Do we know for sure he was at that practice? I ask because the next day was the game against the 76ers and we found out before pregame media availability that he was out for personal reasons.

It came out after that game that he had texted with his teammates prior to the game and they all said, “we support him.” In the days since, Steve Nash has been very clear that all communication between Kyrie, the team, and front office will remain private. What struck me as interesting was Kevin Durant was asked about Kyrie after Sunday’s game and said, “I won’t speak on Kyrie. I’ll let him do that for himself. I’m sure you guys will see him soon whenever he comes back and we support him 100 percent and pray for the best.”

“Pray for the best” could just be Durant looking for something to say and that sounded good. Or it was a way to deflect. But before the video surfaced, people wondered if this was in response to the continued unrest in America. Kyrie has been outspoken and was organizing players to not go to Orlando and play in the bubble. Or is there something more serious going on with him.?

NBA players aren’t immune to the ills of the world. Kyrie, by all accounts, is impacted a great deal—as many of us are. I know for me, sometimes it’s all too much and I don’t want to talk to or see anyone. My way of coping is watching Downton Abbey for the one millionth time. That brings me joy. There is comfort in the familiar. Maybe being with his dad and sister on their birthday was comfort and joy.

Kyrie joined a Zoom session of 218 people in support of Tahanie Aboushi for Manhattan District Attorney. According to her website Aboushi believes that the only way to end mass incarceration is through fundamental and wholesale change to the criminal legal system, focusing on decarceration at every opportunity. 

This tracks. He has been outspoken regarding Black and Indigeneous peoples’ rights. He helped produce a television special on the Breonna Taylor murder, and in a statement at the time, said:

In a time when society is calling out police brutality, social injustices, and systemic racism, it is critical to magnify how these unjust behaviors and practices are directly impacting Black women. I stand for Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and the countless women whose names are never said but have shared the same unfortunate fate.

In March, April, and May, Irving donated 50,000 N95 masks and 17 pallets of food to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe – a group that his late mother was a member of and that he and his sister Asia were welcomed into in 2018 – that was distributed across North and South Dakota; 200,000 vegan Beyond Burgers to food banks in New York City; and $323,000 to Feeding America so that 250,000 meals could be provided to New Yorkers in need.

These are all good things. We often hear the quote “being the change you wish to see in the world.” It looks like Kyrie is doing it. Is it bad that while he’s doing this he misses maybe a week or two of work? Academics take sabbaticals. Would that be so weird here? Henry, I think back to what you said at the top, “When I first started covering the NBA, you were a jerk if you attended your parent’s funeral or the birth of your child.” The sports culture is hardwired for conformity and nothing matters more than the game. Kyrie bucks that. When we hear him described by peers and people around the league, the phrase “different kind of dude” comes up a lot. Maybe he takes the Maya Moore path and leaves the game in his prime for more fulfilling work?  

Henry: Maya Moore! That’s exactly who I was thinking about! She gave up a season in the name of social justice. Can we process that kind of thinking from someone who makes as much as Kyrie? From a man?

I remember reading that before the Memphis bus boycott, there was some effort put into identifying the correct figure to take that visible stand. Rosa Parks was unimpeachable. The same is true of Jackie Robinson in baseball. He wasn’t just an excellent player. When people went looking for ways to beat up his reputation, to belittle his accomplishments, they wouldn’t find them. He had a chance to win hearts and minds before they could shuffle him off stage left.

You probably wouldn’t pick Kyrie Irving first in these sweepstakes, mostly because he’s enigmatic, but also partially because his reputation is a little beaten up. Things didn’t work long term partnering with LeBron, so he moved on to Boston where the team was a giant disappointment. He doesn’t have the benefit of the doubt. When he used a smudge stick—a legitimately common thing in America—some presented it as evidence he was out of it. He has made comments about the earth being flat. It’s easy to make a case he just doesn’t “get” it. 

But what if he does? When it comes to Sandra Bland or who should be the next Manhattan District Attorney, maybe he’s way way way better at this than LeBron James. Maybe he’s putting in the time. 

And maybe you don’t get to indulge in stuff like that mid-season. But I don’t feel like I need to lead in telling him that. Joe Tsai is paying the dollars. He has recourse if he feels he needs it. Steve Nash and Sean Marks have jobs managing the staff, and I have no reason to believe they aren’t good at it. The victims of his disinterest in basketball are people like Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan—they can tell him if they are mad. 

Jarod: I think that’s exactly right. The perception of Kyrie among many is the “unreliable narrator” but maybe that’s wrong. Helping to elect a progressive Manhattan District Attorney is seeking to dismantle the current structure, whereas wealthy person philanthropy is working within it. 

If this is what he wants to do, I’m good with that. He just owes it to his team and organization to let them know that’s what he wants. If what we have heard over the years about the NBA being a brotherhood and a tight fraternity is true, after the initial disappointment in Kyrie for not continuing his playing journey, his brothers should support him. 

I do wonder, continuing on the teammates thread, what does this do to morale? This team has lofty expectations. Does any of this help or hurt them? In a strange season where training camp was shorter than normal and with a pandemic team activities on the road are neutered. Where does this leave them? If this was a Disney movie they’d all galvanize and win it in the end. But this is real life.


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