In early February, as Barclays Center was blanketed by the latest snowstorm to hit Brooklyn, Kyrie Irving sat 600 miles away in a sterile press room in Detroit. With slumped shoulders, Irving addressed journalists’ Zoom tiles after his team’s third consecutive defeat. The guard looked, well, guarded. The words “SOMEWHERE DISCONNECTED” were stitched in orange block letters onto his black cap. And on this night — as on countless other occasions during his career — Irving and the media appeared somewhere disconnected, indeed.
Let’s recap for a second. In January, Irving missed seven games as the Nets cited “personal reasons” for the New Jersey native’s absence. When you skip a few days off work for personal reasons, what happens? You phone your boss, drop a message and some emojis in your team’s Slack channel, or email Human Resources, right? You don’t print your “sick note” in a national newspaper or read it aloud on ESPN. Well, in Irving’s case, things played out differently. A nationwide search for the nature of his personal reasons was launched.
The New York Post, quoting “a source familiar to the situation,” reported that outrage over the Trump mob breach of the U.S. capitol on January 6 had sidelined the Nets’ #11 with shock. The equally well-sourced “The Association” newsletter wrote that Irving was protesting the lack of punishment given to the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor. As the media’s thirst for Irving gossip remained unquenchable, Kevin Durant, speaking for all of Irving’s on-court colleagues, said, “We support him 100 percent.” Irving’s coach Steve Nash said he had been in touch with his player over text. So far, so (extra)ordinary.
When Irving finally faced the media after his absence, he did so while resting his head on his crossed-over arms on the podium, wearing a black hoodie and looking rather sleepy and glum. Kind of like a little kid that got dragged to Sunday Mass by his parents and is unapologetically bored by the priest’s somber sermon.
“When things become overwhelming in life, you’ve got to take a step back and realize what’s important,” Irving told the media that day. Rather remarkably, he also added that, “It has been a lot to balance. I called for help. And now I have so many people reaching out and mentors helping out.” Said Irving, “I’m not alone in this. It’s just a big thing about mental health, just being balanced with yourself first and then being able to perform.”
Cue the media onslaught! Stephen A. Smith, a New York Knicks fan who caused hilarity this spring when he suggested that Irving may regret joining the Nets over the Knicks, cast the first stone. “He’s not worth [the drama] at all. Matter of fact, let me say this straight up and down: I think Kyrie Irving should retire.” The ESPN commentator said he was “disgusted by all this” and suggested Irving focus solely on social issues if basketball didn’t matter to him. “He acts like he can’t chew gum and walk at the same time.” Bang! Slap in the face.
Later, Smith pulled back a little bit after talking with someone on the Nets, but that got lost in his earlier rants, like the correction of a Page 1 story that winds up on A21.
Here’s the truth of the matter. Irving is a human being with a heart and a mind, not just a capable pair of basketball-handling hands. He is a father, a brother and a son. On top of that, he happens to also be an employee, a very well paid one, of course. He said he spoke with each teammate individually to explain his absence.
What more can a man do? Kyrie Irving does not owe you, me or the media a sick note.
Irving had two further periods of absence in the regular season — one in March, one in April — where he did not file a “sick note” with the NBA-watching public. Stephen A. wailed on ESPN again, lamenting how much we all want to see Irving play.
Well, basketball is a team sport. This isn’t men’s tennis, women’s gymnastics or your favorite horse in the Kentucky derby. If you pay to attend Barclays Center for some basketball, it says “Brooklyn Nets” on the ticket, not “Kyrie Irving.”
Irving’s press conferences, whether in person or over Zoom, are their own form of performance art. His elasticity on a basketball court is matched by his eloquence in the media room. This year alone, he used this platform to address sexism in college basketball, human rights issues in Palestine, racist slurs in professional sports, Islam’s fasting month of Ramadan and the mental health of athletes, among other subjects. His KAI Foundation has invested in minority-owned businesses and vouched to support entrepreneurs from disadvantaged backgrounds. He donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Brooklyn food banks at the start of the pandemic. Many a Congressman or -woman would pale with envy at the athlete’s colorful palette of politics.
In his day job as a professional basketball player, Irving played the most games (54) and scored the most points (26.9) of the Nets’ “Big Three” in the regular season. Check it out.
By mid-March, so after his controversial absence, Kyrie’s #11 shirt was the sixth most popular jersey of any player in the NBA. In April, he became an inspiration for Muslims in America and beyond when his sensational performances during the month of Ramadan removed the stigma that many athletes who, like the 29-year-old, observe the faith of Islam, often face.
“Kyrie has developed his own unique style in today’s NBA, where many players are a carbon copy of someone else,” Isaiah Thomas told Forbes. And therein, the Hall-of-Famer has pinned down Irving’s blessing and his curse. In this athletic age of social media, the 24-hour-news cycle, marketability and shut-up-and-dribble blandness, the Brooklyn Nets star is no “carbon copy of someone else.” He is 100 percent Kyrie Irving, without apology — and without a “sick note.”
For more of Schulte-Bockum’s reporting on the Nets, check out her Bruce Brown profile in the Times this week.