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Joe Vardon of The Athletic on Kyrie Irving, basketball ... and trust

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Brooklyn Nets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Joe Vardon, now of The Athletic, was on hand for some of the great moments of Kyrie Irving’s career including what is arguably the greatest Game 7 dagger in NBA Finals history, a 3-pointer from the right wing that dispatched the winningest team ever to the trashbin of history.

He’s also reported on everything Kyrie from his promotion of the “earth is flat” conspiracy theory, which he first broached on a podcast while in Cleveland, to his trade to the Celtics and the reasons behind it — mostly a resentment of all the attention paid LeBron James and a desire to win it all on his own terms.

So when Vardon spends weeks researching Irving’s recent history and writes a deeply nuanced profile, it’s worth more than a read. It’s worth re-reading and re-reading.

Irving, of course, is a complicated man with raw intelligence, deeply held views, a generosity that’s staggering in so many ways; a mercurial, yes, even manipulative personality and a relationship with the game that Vardon thinks is not what it used to be. At the core of Vardon’s profile is a belief that Irving needs to embrace both trust and help.

Again and again, Vardon hears Irving ask the question, “who can I trust” whether literally with a cousin at his mother’s Standing Rock Sioux reservation or figuratively like when he disagreed with the Nets medical and performance staffs over treatment for his shoulder impingement two years ago.

This seems to be a question Irving has been asking for years.

Which team can he trust? Which teammates? Which friends? Which scientific facts?

In the end, Vardon seems to say that this deep skepticism of others’ intentions is the issue with Irving. Of course, that’s not something unfamiliar to those who reach the top rung of American celebrity, no matter what the field. Do people like me, respect me, for who — or what — I am? But there are other themes that Vardon touches on, too, one that is whispered about: is he still as committed to his sport as he once was? Irving has denied that.

During dinner with Irving, his cousin Char White Mountain, said he told her that basketball was “more or less just a job” to him. Vardon summarizes his own concerns about Irving and quotes a “league executive” as well on the issue.

He’s an Olympic gold medalist, a Nike ambassador and a very wealthy man. But with each passing year, I’ve witnessed him do and say things to pull at the threads of his career, as though he wants it to unspool.

“I am worried about him because I can’t find the upside for him in his actions,” a league executive told me, one of the more than two dozen people I spoke to for this story. Many of those I spoke to who work in the NBA shared a similar sentiment.

The “actions” he cites of course are not just about the vaccine but other issues like the “flat earth” comments and intentional or intentional disses of teammates. Vardon offers an intriguing explanation of what Irving may have been doing with the “flat earth” comments: it was Irving’s way of calling attention to the disparity between the reaction he gets when he says something important and when he says something silly. He ultimately apologized to science teachers for messing up their curriculum, noting he’s a “conspiracy theorist.”

Vardon also tries to look at Irving through the prism of his parents, the mother he lost to an infection when he was four and the father who many in the NBA see as a dominant, even domineering, force in his life. He interviews people in South Dakota and New Jersey who knew both, but fails to get Irving to talk. Getting to who Irving is a challenge.

The Athletic writer lays out Irving’s familiar history of kindness and generosity — often involving strangers —whether it’s the family of George Floyd for whom he anonymously purchased a house or a town in the most arid region of Pakistan for whom he built a water filtration plant. But he also adds some not familiar, like his private meetings with the loved ones of those who lost their lives in America’s wars.

Irving has been known to meet grieving families of fallen soldiers in the bowels of arenas before games, too.

“Even when he’s ‘bad’ Kyrie, when he meets the family of a fallen soldier behind the scenes, in the underbelly of the arena, he is genuine and real and, like, hugs the mom,” said a league official who’s known Irving for years. “Right now, today, I believe he would take care of someone in that way.”

He notes as well that it was Irving who during a momentous day in New York when a grand jury had refused to indict a New York policeman in killing of Earl Garner, came up with the idea of wearing the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts that memorialized Garner’s last words. It was others, including LeBron and Jay-Z, who got most of the credit.

On Dec. 8, 2014, the Cavaliers played a game in Brooklyn. That night in the New York borough, Prince William and Kate Middleton were courtside. So were Jay-Z and Beyonce. And outside the arena, a large protest in response to a grand jury choosing not to indict the New York police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man.

Irving, a socially conscious 22-year old, wanted to do something to join the protest. He found a hook-up for a T-shirt that read, “I Can’t Breathe” — what Garner said as the policeman choked him — and wore it during pregame warm-ups. LeBron got a hold of one and wore it too. Headlines around the world trumpeted LeBron for wearing the shirt. Irving’s participation was almost an afterthought, as far as the media was concerned.

There are other incidents in the Vardon profile of Irving being kind or abandoning long-time friends, adding to the difficulties of pinning Irving down, characterizing him in simple terms.

Vardon doesn’t detail what’s keeping Irving from getting the vaccine. Irving’s tweeted that he “and my people” are protected by God, more than once stated that his issue is with the mandate not the medicine, but there’ve also been reports from those close to him that he’s concerned about the long-term effects of the vaccine ... and is skeptical of medical advice in general. Vardon does lay out in detail the issues he had with the Nets medical staff on his shoulder issue.

He sought second, and third, and fourth opinions, which is not uncommon in the NBA, but cutting team doctors out of the process is. He missed about two months while the team guessed when he might play again. He returned after deciding to take a cortisone shot, played for another month, and ultimately decided on surgery.

Beyond that, there’s nothing new in the report about what’s going on behind the scenes currently in Brooklyn, although Vardon does suggest that Irving could exercise his player option and become a free agent in the summer.

Unlike a lot of writers, Vardon has an appreciation for both Irving the man and Irving the player and doesn’t offer any specific prescription for Irving other than the final word in his piece: “Help.”