Kyrie Irving, The Human Being, Deserves More Nuance Than He Gets As A Basketball Player

Kyrie Irving, the basketball player, is polarizing.

He is electric with a dexterous handle, picturesque jumper and championship-winning shot on his resume. A highlight machine in real time. A six-time All-Star. One of the NBA’s premier guards and a vivacious offensive talent. That same player also owns a checkered injury history, questions about the effectiveness of his leadership style and ability (hello, 2018-19 Boston Celtics), and, according to his harshest critics, is more flair than substance.

There’s certainly some validity to the critiques of Irving. He could probably be better about accountability. He doesn’t always seem like the most pleasant locker room presence. Deciphering how exactly to balance the aesthetic beauty of his game with the impact it produces is a narrow road to walk. He is very good, though perhaps less than the montage of his peaks suggest. I understand all of that. Nobody has to enjoy or even appreciate this side of him.

I also, quite frankly, don’t give a damn about it. Because Kyrie Irving, the human, is different, and so many people fail to separate these components. Kyrie Irving, the human, is thoughtful. He’s outspoken. He challenges oppressive institutions. He utilizes his platform to educate about and advocate for social justice and change. And yet, among many, all of his work in this realm is immaterial because of his basketball persona. Others will point to his comments about the earth being flat, which he has since apologized for and clarified.

Some think he’s corny. The labels “fake intellectual” or “fake woke” are tossed around with him when he speaks about important topics more recently as a means of discrediting him. His motives are questioned. Merely by virtue of Irving authoring these ideas, they pack less or no gravity for many. Troublesome gate-keeping, at best, exists in dismissing Irving’s ideas, all because he does not conduct himself in a manner people deem appropriate or within cultural norms. I’m exhausted, discouraged and frustrated by how Irving’s advocacy and the way he carries himself are received and portrayed.

With media, he can be brash in his approach. He does not always consider decorum and platitudes; in a world that obsesses over those concepts, his messages about legitimately important topics sometimes ring hollow. That’s absolutely absurd. Value the subject matter, not the delivery or one’s history involving trifling events. And, seriously, re-evaluate the thought process of glossing over his words about injustices because he threw a ball in the stands or failed to lead a basketball team to its goals.

That’s sports. This is life.

Failing to hear and absorb his concerns and beliefs because of trivial affairs is emblematic of an American tradition: the oppressor silencing its oppressed through critiques of transmission and a disregard of the expressed plights.

Back in June, when the NBA’s plans to resume the 2019-20 season gathered steam and coincided with protests for racial justice and the abolition/defunding of police forces, Irving was hesitant to embrace the league’s revival. Many players had led and participated in these protests or used their time away from the game to maximize the social justice platform afforded to them. Irving worried a return to play and months in an isolated bubble would diminish and inhibit those efforts. He wanted players to sit out the rest of the season and maintain their directive on the fight for racial equality, even saying he’d “give up everything” for social reform.

Many, fans, media and NBA constituents alike, considered Irving’s actions a continuation of his prickly in-house nature, which most prominently led him to demand a trade out of Cleveland and contributed to Boston’s underwhelming 2018-19 season. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski described it as such, writing, “Irving, 28, has forged a reputation as a disruptor within his career, and that’s emerging again at this crucial moment for the NBA. Irving’s stance has pitted him against the league’s establishment, including his former Cavaliers teammate LeBron James, once again. There’s significant support to resume the season among the league’s superstars — most of whom are on playoff contenders — and Irving seems to be relishing the clash.”

But the framing seems disingenuous given the difference between his basketball activities and his big-picture intentions; Irving was not being difficult for the sake of confrontation but because he’s passionate about the fight, something much larger than poking the bear to argue about pick-and-roll coverages or what time the team should meet for tomorrow’s film session.

Irving’s devotion to philanthropy and social reform extends beyond this instance. In 2016, he publicly opposed the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline and two years later, he donated $110k to the Sioux tribe. Earlier this year, he donated food items and masks to Standing Rock Reservation. He’s repeatedly donated resources — time, money, food — to food banks. Before the WNBA season opened this summer, Irving launched the KAI Empowerment Initiative, which committed a $1.5 million fund to any players who opted out and also offered a financial literacy program. He participated in a protest against systemic racism this summer.

His Instagram includes odes to racial justice icons such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Fred Hampton. More recently, his feed features posts demanding equality for Native Indigenous Black people and justice for Breonna Taylor, and reading selections supporting feminism and railing against colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. Positing Irving’s reluctance to embrace the NBA’s restart stemmed from a desire for conflict was ignorant. His prior and continued behavior emphasizes that.

As it turned out, Irving’s reservations about the NBA Bubble were warranted. When Jacob Blake was shot in August by Wisconsin police officers, the players, led by members of the Milwaukee Bucks, including George Hill, organized a strike to thrust police brutality and systemic racism back into the spotlight. Hill even said they shouldn’t have come to the Bubble in the first place. The scope of their advocacy, as Irving worried, had grown limited, proving that his fears were genuine rather than a pesky, egocentric hurdle standing in the way of a sport’s return. Questioning them and insinuating he weaponized the pursuit of racial justice for his own pleasure was always, in its kindest form, asinine.

Friday was media day for the Brooklyn Nets, and Irving was scheduled to meet virtually with the assembled press for the first time since then. That afternoon, Alex Schiffer of The Athletic, tweeted out an email from an Irving spokesperson indicating that he would not be participating.

The backlash to the statement was swift and prevalent across social media, but went far beyond what would normally be the response to a player not meeting with the media specifically because this was Kyrie and he handled it in the manner he did.

Irving is not establishing some dangerous precedent. He’s not the first nor the last athlete to skip media duties. Obligations like media day exist and are indeed part of the job, but skipping out on one does not mean the very thread of sports journalism’s fabric unraveling. Media day is generally a boilerplate endeavor filled with cliche quotes. Bypassing that is not an affront to sports media’s most important aspects. Though it would be nice to hear how Irving sees the new-look Nets coming together, crucial storytelling will not manifest from a Zoom call with 50 other reporters on the line.

It seems clear the way his comments about the Bubble were received did not make him more likely to speak his mind, either. Kendrick Perkins said, “If you take Kyrie Irving’s brain and put it in a bird right now, guess what that bird is going to do? It’s going to fly backwards. Because Kyrie right now, he’s confused.” An ESPN commentator who has since fled to Fox News said Irving supported racism. Irving has since revealed that reception put him in a “dark place.” As such, it’s pretty simple to recognize why Irving is less willing to speak with media and his statement described as an effort to “ensure that my message is conveyed properly.” In this case, being wary of an institution and practice that has attacked his character seems justified.

The NBA — its fans, media, partners and leaders — often laud the league for its progressiveness. But it can be a transparently self-aggrandizing title. The treatment and narratives of Kyrie Irving, the articulate, socially conscious human, and inability to parse this from his polarizing basketball tendencies are a summation of the institutional facade. Social justice, so as long as its execution and messengers are good and proper in our eyes.

Irving deserves far more respect for his work than he’s ever garnered. I worry I’ll be expressing a similar belief years after he’s stepped away from the game, too.