It would be easier if we could just dismiss Kyrie Irving, or minimize him, or use a simple term of identification to explain him. It would be simpler if he were merely a malcontent, a chronic underachiever, a guy whose every move was contained to the worship of himself.
But Irving doesn’t allow that.
He is too complicated for that.
He has spent time in media exile, declaring himself off-limits to inquisitors … and yet when he speaks he is almost always worth listening to. At his very best he is the quintessential point guard, capable of making the other four players on the floor better than their talents … and yet he has also gone full Machiavelli twice in his career, forcing his way off of a championship team in Cleveland and off a contending team in Boston.
It is why his present predicament is at once appalling and confounding. He stopped reporting for work last week, and while Irving’s absence means this hasn’t officially been cited from his own lips, it is believed to be attached to last Wednesday’s troublesome events at the U.S. Capitol.
What we know is this: Irving has engineered a sabbatical, citing “personal issues,” and at the least it falls under a growing list of examples of “Kyrie being Kyrie,” issues the Nets knew about when they signed him (and which may have given the Knicks pause, too).
We know he spent some time before the NBA began the bubble in Florida last summer publicly questioning the appropriateness of the setup, and this was before the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., brought the proceedings to a halt, and nearly to extinction.
“I’m willing to give up everything I have [for social reform],” Irving said on a conference call with players in June, more than six weeks before the NBA season resumed in Lake Buena Vista, more than two months before the Blake shooting. “I don’t support going into Orlando. I’m not with the systematic racism and the bulls–t. Something smells a little fishy.”
It was an eloquent sentiment, if somewhat uncomfortable for some to hear.
Except not 10 days earlier, Irving expressed interest in joining the Nets in the bubble even though he was injured, something the league’s protocols wouldn’t allow. Some — notably ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins — surmised that rejection might be linked to his awakening.
Is that fair? Is that right? Irving wouldn’t say. Impossible to know.
So it is in Irving’s current quandary, which caused him to miss Tuesday’s game against Denver at Barclays Center, which will keep him out of Wednesday’s first Nets-Knicks game this season at Madison Square Garden and for at least the rest of the week. This is what we know: the insurrection happened last Wednesday, and Irving’s leave began Thursday. He didn’t immediately let the Nets know he was taking time off.
And then — complicating matters to the max — video emerged Monday of Irving dancing at his sister Asia’s birthday party. It isn’t 100 percent clear if the video is recent or not, but Asia did turn 30 Tuesday. If it is, it isn’t just a likely breach of the NBA’s constantly evolving COVID protocols but an undeniable slap in the face at the Nets. And if it is it, means that both Irving and the Nets have allowed this to become something worse than it had to be. With little sign that either know how to make it better.
Still — as is often the case with Irving — there is another complexity. Irving has spoken openly about past bouts of depression, and talked of his inner conflicts a year ago when ESPN reported some odd behavior on his part during the Nets’ preseason trip to China.
“Human beings have mood swings,” he said then. “It’s OK to be human. I don’t have to be perfect for anyone here, nor do I have to be perfect for the public. So I’m not here to dispel any perception. I’m just here to be myself.”
It is this unknown that has kept the real scourge of public backlash from fully reaching Irving. Let’s call it straight: nobody wants to make the same mistake some made back in 1980, when Astros pitcher J.R. Richard wasn’t able to pitch and nobody seemed to know why, so Richard was labeled lazy, a slacker, and much, much worse.
Then he suffered a career-ending stroke.
That was the last time most media folks and right-thinking fans thought it was OK to play physician without a degree. Can Irving be frustrating? He can. Is this a sore point for the Nets? Absolutely. Do things like his brief preseason media boycott — when he labeled those who question him “pawns” — infuriate and puzzle? They do.
But I also know this: my wife has shared the same room for 10 straight months of Zoom interviews, a dozen coaches and a hundred different athletes, a domestic side effect of working remotely. She has overheard, literally, a thousand questions and a thousand answers in that time. She has commented only once:
“Who is that?” she asked a few weeks ago. “Those are the best, smartest and most insightful answers I’ve ever heard anyone give — athlete, coach, politician, anyone.”
Of course, it was Kyrie Irving.