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Etan Thomas takes a look — don’t call it a defense — at Kyrie Irving and the media

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets - Game Two Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

In a thoughtful essay for Basketball News, Etan Thomas, former NBA player, poet and political activist writes about Kyrie Irving. Although Thomas doesn’t mention the Nick Wright tweet that suggested the Nets were interested in trading Irving, it is obviously the touchstone for his piece.

For Thomas, the story is not so much about any individual tweet or individual writer or whether the Nets should consider dealing Irving — an issue lesser writers have entertained, but how much the current controversy is part of “media noise” that makes the mercurial Nets guard an easy foil ... and, he argues, goes a long way toward proving Irving’s point about the media in general, and Wright in particular, being “pawns.”

Creating baseless gossip and chit-chat for ratings, clicks and shares is very pawn-like.

Isn’t that the script that the media is following?

Look at the evidence — articles with “anonymous sources” claiming that the Nets are looking to move Kyrie, commentators drumming up baseless trade chatter and spreading rumors that Kevin Durant secretly wants Kyrie gone, reports that if Kyrie is traded he’ll retire, suggestions that a Ben Simmons swap is even in the realm of a possibility, etc.

Thomas also enlists three former NBA point guards, a Hall of Famer (Isiah Thomas), a Nets legend (Kenny Anderson), and a journeyman (Sherman Douglas) to discuss the issue ... as well as Irving the man.

“I respect the independence that Kyrie has shown throughout this entire process. Just like we [do] as professional athletes, we as human beings, we as fathers, husbands, brothers — sometimes we get it wrong. And at the same time, sometimes the media gets it wrong,” Isiah Thomas said. “And when the media gets called out on being wrong, their response is almost ‘How dare you?’

“Just like one side can be wrong, so can the other side. So, don’t jump on me when I’m wrong, but be quiet when you’re wrong. You received information about me, and what I am thinking and what my intentions are, and whoever told you that didn’t tell you correctly. Now, this is what I meant, this is my voice. This isn’t whatever source, this is my voice. So respect my voice, and that’s what Kyrie has been saying. And he has been very authentic in his voice.”

Anderson told Thomas that Irving has to be ranked among the greatest guards to play the game and that without him, there’s no chance the Nets would win, He dismisses any “rumors,” as made-up.

“I think that’s just something the media came up with to have something to talk about before the season starts. We got the best player in the league, Kevin Durant, with the best point guard in the league. Kyrie Irving. and an unstoppable scorer in James Harden. So no, trading Kyrie from the Nets perspective shouldn’t even come into their minds and definitely shouldn’t come out of their mouths as even a consideration.”

“The General,” as fans of Douglas called him at Syracuse and in his long NBA career, discussed Irving’s subtle leadership.

‘[A]s a leader, one of the many things that had impressed me with Kyrie is that he can take a step back and let other guys score,” said Douglas. “So when he sees Durant is scoring or Harden has it going or whoever, he has the humility to take a step back and allow those guys to get off when he knows he could be doing the same exact level of scoring. And I’ve seen Harden do that as well. It’s not a competition, and that’s special. You don’t just throw that away, because that chemistry isn’t easy to come by and they jelled quickly.”

Thomas also delves into how Irving’s wider — and often controversial — interests are either dismissed or used in arguments to paint him as odd. Irving has never been one to hold back, whether it’s about whether NBA players should boycott the “bubble” following the George Floyd murder, or how Muslims in Gaza are being killed by Israeli jets or whether there was racial element in how the mostly white January 6 insurrectionists were treated compared to young blacks or how Boston’s race relations leave a lot to be desired. Similarly, he has spoken about how it all weighs on him as a man. As Thomas writes, “This is who he is. He cares deeply.”

“When things become overwhelming in life, you know, you just got to take a step back and realize what’s important. I’m not alone in this. And that’s just a big thing about also mental health, you know, just coming in and being balanced with yourself and then being able to perform,” Irving said after January 6. “So, with everything going on in the world politically, socially, it’s hard to ignore. I want to make changes daily. You know, there are so many oppressed communities, so many things going on that are bigger than just a ball going into the rim. So it’s just the balance of it.”

Thomas also delves into Irving’s absence during the middle of the season and his disregard for COVID protocols at a family birthday party ... and finds it wanting.

No one is going to deny that Kyrie’s absence from the team was unexpected, and the lack of details opened the door for speculation and chatter. And to be fair, the way he handled it wasn’t the best either. Breaking the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols and attending a party is obviously not the greatest thing to do, even if it’s part of the taking a step away process.

Finally, Thomas lays down the familiar litany of community efforts Irving has taken on himself, sometimes with publicity, sometimes not.

On my show “The Rematch,” while I was interviewing Stephen Jackson, he revealed that Kyrie bought a house for the family of George Floyd, who was murdered last year at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Irving also paid off the college tuition of nine students from an HBCU (Lincoln University) on Dec. 10 as part of his foundation’s 11 Days of Giving.

At the height of an international covid pandemic, he committed $1.5 million to help support the income of WNBA players who chose to sit out the 2020 season due to health and other personal reasons.

This past August, he donated funds to help build a solar water center in Pakistan that will provide clean water and electricity to over 1,000 people.

He also sent tens of thousands of pieces of PPE to his mother’s Native American tribe in the Dakotas at a time when they were desperate.

Anderson summed up what he thinks is the issue, that too many in the media don’t want to hear him or any athlete deal with larger issues.

“They just want him to just shut up and play basketball. He has things other than basketball that he feels passionately about, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Anderson told Thomas. “He cares for people in a way that is foreign to a lot of folks, but he’s supposed to care about people. He wants to make a difference in the world and that’s what he is doing. He’s looking at what’s going on overseas, what’s going on here in America, things affect him — but they are supposed to affect him. He’s a human being with a huge heart and the financial ability to make a change.

“I think he is doing great, and he needs to keep doing everything he’s doing — whether it’s challenging whoever, or helping whoever, or speaking up for whoever. It obviously didn’t take away from what he is doing on the court. He can’t help injuries, but when he laced them up, he dominated.”

Thomas expects that when the games are played, you won’t hear much about retirement talk or trades or whatever. You never do, he writes.

Isn’t it interesting that so much of the noise seems to magically disappear as soon as he starts playing? I’m sure that will be the case again as soon as this season begins. That usually means the reports and commentary and “anonymous sources” never really had any substance in the first place, but were just more media noise that was manufactured to create chatter in the slow months tor ratings. Again, very pawn-like.

The former NBA big man also has some advice for the media when dealing with all of this, all of Irving’s many facets, including his criticism of the media as “pawns.”

Irving’s words should have resulted in a lot of the media taking a hard and long look in the mirror instead of getting their notepads in a bunch (see what I did there).

Media Day is a week from Monday.