This summer, while discussions about resuming the NBA season in Orlando were ongoing, Kyrie Irving stood out as a dissenting voice. He was one of the few players to not support finishing the season, in large part due to concerns that playing basketball would be a distraction from the social justice movements playing out in response to the murder of George Floyd by police. He reportedly said, “I don’t support going into Orlando… I’m not with the systemic racism and the bulls--t. Something smells a little fishy.” While the league did try to bring awareness to the cause of fighting racial injustice once the season resumed, it’s hard to argue that Irving was wrong. The too-brief players strike in August gave credence to his concerns, but perhaps the sad fact that, once the strike was settled, basketball once again became the primary concern for many, putting justice on the backburner. There were games to watch instead.
It’s very easy for one thing to come to define a player’s reputation so that everything else comes to be interpreted through that particular prism. With a glut of information about celebrities, with new statements being regularly issued, new interviews given nightly, new games played 82 times per season, doing this can be useful even if it is necessarily reductionist. Sometimes it’s flattering -- no shot Ray Allen ever missed will matter nearly as much as the one he made in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals -- and sometimes it’s much more detrimental. Just ask Nick Anderson. For Kyrie Irving, even though he hit one of the most consequential shots in NBA history just four-and-a-half years ago, his on-court triumphs shape the perception of him less than an offhand comment made on a podcast in February 2017 when he suggested, in the style of a bored 19-year-old at a house party on Christmas break, that maybe the earth is actually flat.
This claim, inane and easily dismissable as it was, became the talk of All-Star Weekend. Lots of easy jokes were made, several players embarrassed themselves, and it may have been an amusing thing to look back on years later if not for the fact that the manufactured controversy refused to die. As Kyrie’s career went through a number of twists and turns following that weekend -- a falling out with LeBron in Cleveland, a trade to Boston, his teaming up with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, a bevy of injury troubles -- all of the discourse was shaded, whether explicitly or not, by the idea that Kyrie was unreliable and foolish, an idea that really hatched when he said the earth was flat. And now, those same assumptions are arising yet again with his refusal to speak to the media last week.
When the Brooklyn Nets made themselves available to media members last week, Irving withheld. Instead, he offered a pre-written statement in which he stated how excited he was for the season to start and that his goal for the year was to let his “work on and off the court speak for itself.” It’s a pretty unremarkable message, but what has rankled many is not what he said, but the manner in which it was delivered. Marshall McLuhan would be proud of Irving's contribution to the theorist's ever relevant phrase that "the medium is the message."
The NBA likes to see itself as the progressive sports league, the one that does not impinge on its players’ rights to speak out as they see fit, the one that is an ally to them by saying the right things and pledging money to progressive causes. It’s a posture that allows the NBA, as well as its fans, to congratulate itself for not being like the other leagues and for doing the bare minimum. While that may be enough for the NBA to be comparatively better than other major sports leagues or other multi-billion entities, it’s hard to be impressed by their efforts when the belief in incremental progress inexorably leading to substantial change is revealed time and time again to be rooted in a misguided naivete.
Kyrie, though, does not allow the league to congratulate itself. Most players know the rules of the game and play by them, spouting cliched statements about inclusion and equality that are fine enough while failing to capture the depth or gravity of the situation. It’s not that Irving grasps these things in ways that other players don’t, but that he seems to instinctively know there is something off about the whole arrangement and has decided, at least temporarily, to opt out of it. It’s all part of what he disdained this summer.
Even more important than his words are his actions, where he has done much to follow through on his convictions. Just in the last year he has donated $1.5 million to WNBA players who decided to opt out of their own season’s resumption, $323,000 to Feeding America, 250,000 meals through City Harvest, and pallets of food and thousands of N95 masks to the Standing Rock Sioux. In light of this, combined with the insight and passion he has often shown when speaking on these topics, his reluctance to speak with reporters on media day seems pretty inconsequential. People being able to eat is far more important than a beat reporter having a cliched quote from Kyrie about how much he’s looking forward to playing with Kevin Durant.
It’s easier to write Kyrie off as immature, crazy or stupid than actually consider the veracity and validity of what he says. He says in the message he released in lieu of speaking to the media last week that part of his motive was to “ensure that my message is conveyed properly.” With the established narrative about him, it makes sense why he has such a concern. In the past few days, he has been called “clueless,” “immature” and told that he comes across as “a damn snob.” These accusations are not new, and though one can see where they come from, that does not mean they are deserved.
Fans are drawn to athletes in part because of the wishes and fantasies they are able to fulfill on their behalf. None of us will ever be able to actualize those childhood dreams of dunking on someone or nailing a clutch three-pointer in Game 7 of the Finals. But by cheering for an NBA player, by aligning ourselves with them in some emotional sense, it’s possible to participate in their triumphs, to feel a part of them in some nebulous way. Kyrie though, while he is responsible for innumerable moments of on-court transcendence, does something else for many fans by reminding them of parts of themselves they are less likely to valorize -- the past self who spent hours watching conspiracy videos on YouTube, struggling to figure out what they actually believed about the world, embarking on a journey full of embarrassing missteps and false starts. It may be truer for most fans to relate to that, though it’s certainly less flattering. If one does not love these elements within themselves, why would they be more sympathetic to them in Irving? Again, it may not be deserved, but it’s explicable.
Irving is not clueless or a snob. He is a passionate man trying to meaningfully engage with the world and its issues, but he is forced to do so under the gaze of millions, with his every statement discussed and evaluated by people who have proven to not be charitably disposed towards him. While most of us have the luxury of pondering these things in silence, Kyrie does not, so every foible is magnified, every word not aligning with preconceived notions of what an athlete should say, amplified and scorned. Contrary to this general narrative is the fact he was elected as a Vice President of the NBPA. It’s hard to imagine his peers granting him this honor if they did not ultimately trust his motives and the validity of his concerns. What are they seeing that fans cannot?
On that summer phone call with other NBA players, Kyrie reportedly said “I’m willing to give up everything I have” for social reform. There is no reason to doubt him. My hope is that, considering what a unique talent and what a joy he frequently is to watch, he does not feel forced to choose between fighting for justice and playing in the NBA. But if those aims do seem mutually exclusive to him, it is not difficult to understand why.