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A different look at Kyrie Irving emerges since shutdown

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Don’t you tell Fahad Saleem that Kyrie Irving is a bad guy. Fahad, you may recall, was the Nets fan from Sheepshead Bay who lost everything in a house fire except for his his Kyrie Irving jersey that hung on the wall of his bedroom.

The Nets got the jersey to Fahad’s favorite player and sent it back with an important message: “With peace and love we all can heal from life’s unexpected events. I am grateful you are okay.”

Fahad was grateful, too.

Tellingly, the jersey Fahad received was signed, “Kyrie Irving #11 J.B.Y.” Just.be.you.

And that, say some who know him, is what Irving is about. He’s different, not a bad guy. Yes, he’s been accused of shortening one dynasty (Cavaliers), failing to launch another (Celtics) and helping getting a coach fired (Nets). And everyone with a zip code within 50 miles of Boston has psychoanalyzed him. Some of it quite ugly. Not a leader. A phony, etc. etc.

In Brooklyn and environs, though, it’s different despite his injuries, the ups and downs of one bizarre season. His teammates like and respect him. His fans love him and those (of us) from New Jersey have a special affinity for him. After all, he signed his Nets contract in a West Orange gym wearing a vintage “New Jersey” cap.

Ian Eagle, like Fahad Saleem, thinks Irving gets a bad rap.

“I really do think there’s been a strange, false narrative that has been out there in regards to him,” said Eagle in an interview with the Glue Guys back in February. “All my dealings with him on a personal level have been excellent. He is a really likable guy. He is a very smart guy, he is a very deep guy and often times that is hard for some people to accept or understand. They want pat answers, they want the same old thing, it is a really weird dynamic.”

And, Eagle adds, Irving he doesn’t really care about his rep at this point in his career. It is what it is.

“Maybe because he’s now been at this awhile and he’s achieved the ultimate success, winning a championship and he has come to peace with a lot of things that may have bothered him early in his career and he is at a stage in life where he doesn’t care as much, I don’t know.

“But I don’t think he feels he needs to answer these things on a day-to-day basis and if he did it would be very time consuming and probably unproductive.”

Sue Bird, the iconic womens’ player, counts herself as a good friend of Irving’s. The two point guards first got to know each other in Rio de Janiero where they played for the mens’ and womens’ national teams at the 2016 Olympics. The teams hung out together, Bird told Ryan Ruocco last weekend how much she likes Irving as a player ... and a person.

“Right away, I met him the first day we got together and right away we just hit it off,” Bird told Ruocco on “YES, We’re Here,” wearing a Kyrie Irving t-shirt.

“We were able to talk about you name it, life in general, basketball stuff, all the above. everything,” Bird said. “Just hitting it off, having a great time and we’ve had a good friendship ever since.”

Like Eagle, Bird thinks Irving is more misunderstood than anything ... and that’s because he isn’t typical, doesn’t fit the “mold.”

“The thing I know from getting to know him, to talk to him is you know being a basketball player an athlete, you fall into these ... stereotypes is not the right word ... it’s almost like a mold,” Bird said. “You just kind of do what the person before you did or you do the workout. ‘Oh, I saw Dawn Staley do this workout, so I’m going to do it.’ Kyrie is always kind of looking at it from a different angle, questioning things. And that goes for off the court and on the court.”

And that questioning, she adds, isn’t about him being contrary or ornery.

“So whether you’re talking hoops or talking about like life, he has a different way of looking at things. He’s always trying to learn more, trying to better himself. It’s just cool to have conversations with him.”

Bird, who’s 39 and won four Olympic golds, three WNBA championships and four Euroleague championships, knows her hoops. She says Irving is one of the few players she would pay “significant money” to watch him live.

“Everything like from his commercial shoots when he’s out there ball handling ... it’s jaw dropping. I’ve always said there’s only a few basketball players in my mind where you would say, I would pay to see that like I would pay significant money to be in the building to watch what they do and Kyrie is at the top of that list. It’s just the stuff he does is so unique. so different and like in a way, that’s him.”

Ruocco agrees.

“The thing about Kyrie and i first started appreciating this the first year he was in Boston,” When you do NBA games and you play or whatever it is, there’s there’s some people who you see up close and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s just different,” he told Bird. “And I feel that with certain guys ... and Kyrie is one of those dudes when you watch him up close, you’re just like, oh my gosh, the things he can do, it’s just the things he can do with his talent.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Jaylen Hands drafted out of UCLA at No. 56 and signed to a G League deal. He got to see Irving last summer when the team gathered in California.

“It was dope just to see him work,” he told Bryan Feeney of Locked On Sports. “I got to see him everyday. I got to see how seriously he takes pick up games. I got to see how seriously he takes shooting by himself. I got to see how seriously he takes the weight room.

“He’s a great teammate. Very uplifting. From him I got, he was always, ‘keep getting better, keep your head down, keep working, pay attention, listen.’

“He’s a great person.”

Irving’s preparation or his play have never been the issue for his critics. No one thinks he isn’t one of the best players in the NBA. Some believe he is the best ball handler in NBA history, better than Allen Iverson or, if your memory extends back farther, Bob Cousy.

It’s more his personality. Some will never “get” Irving the way Bird or Hands do. Certainly not in New England. But one measure of his differentness (or whatever you want to call it) is that he actually apologized to Celtics fans in very clear language. You don’t see that very often.

“In terms of being a leader in that environment (Boston), I failed.” he told the media back in September. ”I failed those guys in the sense I didn’t give them everything I could have [last] season.”

No matter. They still hate him. (But it gave us special glee when the Nets started their big comeback in Boston when Celtics fans began chanting, “Where’s Kyrie?” in the third quarter. Shut those babies up.)

In the past few weeks, since the league shut down, Irving has been among the leaders among NBA players in confronting the coronavirus, giving $323,000 to national feed-the- hungry campaigns, local programs as well, for which he has been widely praised.

As Michelle Roberts, executive director of the players union wrote, “What a way to celebrate your birthday - feeding the hungry in our community! So proud, Kyrie!! A great example for us all!!”

Roc Nation Sports, which represents him, has posted a lot of that praise online and more recently, tweeted out a Tik-Tok of him and his younger sisters dancing in the backyard of his suburban New Jersey home. Shoulder looks fine by the way.

... and drew attention to how he helped Fahad.

That led to other outlets like ESPN and Bleacher Report —and even the New England Sports Network (!!) — doing positive stories.

Then, this weekend, a nearly year-old video clip of Irving with his middle school crossing guard showed up on Bleacher Report. Hmm.

Kyrie Irving Reminiscing With His Childhood Crossing Guard

Kyrie Irving reminiscing with his childhood crossing guard was an all-time moment ❤️

Posted by Bleacher Report on Friday, April 17, 2020

Sure, it’s what agents are paid to do, show their clients in a good light. But maybe as people reflect on what he’s done, who he is, they’ll start taking a second (or third, or fourth) look at No. 11, a Brooklyn look, so to speak. Maybe they’ll be able to put aside the past and appreciate him in a different light. Fahad does already.