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Media Day filled with promise, hope, humility, a clearing of air

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets-Media Day Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Everything is good on Media Day. It has that first-day-back-at-school vibe with smiles and laughter and the rookies and newbies all dressed up in their new uniforms for the first time. But after the Nets summer of discontent — you can call it chaos, Sean Marks did — if Media Day had turned into a media circus on Monday, no one would have been surprised.

But it didn’t. Instead, it was a bit of a master class in how to get beyond all the ugly scenes — like a superstar trade request, failed contract talks and even an ultimatum to fire the coach and GM — and replace it with promise, hope, even a bit of humility. Kumbaya amidst fragility.

Mostly though, it was a chance for clearing the air as Marks, Steve Nash, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving spoke for the first time about what the happened after KD and Kyrie made it appear they wanted out, Durant with a request to be dealt and Irving providing a list of acceptable destinations for a sign-and-trade. The tone at HSS Training Center, while positive, was also deadly serious. No one denied any of the chaos took place, nor downplayed it either.

Perhaps Irving summed it up best, if in raw terms.

“Being in the middle of it, it was kind of like a clusterf–k,” Irving said Monday early in the Media Day about the off-season. “All of this — all of the stories. We’ve come up with all of the narratives surrounding this team that it’s hard to answer every single question.”

At the center of it all, of course, was Durant, the 33-year-old superstar who some believe is still the best player on the planet. Before Irving spoke, a subdued Durant tried to explain why on June 30, he request a trade, making that request not to his GM, Marks, but to team governor Joe Tsai ... just hours before his four-year, $198 million no-trade clause contract was to kick in.

“I wanted everybody to be held accountable for their habits as a basketball player,” Durant said. “I think a lot of stuff was getting swept under the rug because we’re injured or this guy’s not around or just the circumstances. I thought we could have fought through that a little bit more and focused on the guys that were here a little bit more.”

Durant specifically spoke of the six weeks he missed due to a sprained MCL when the Nets went from the No. 1 seed to a non-contender, losing 11 straight (he said 10.)

“When I went out with the injury, we lost 10 in a row,” said Durant. “And I’m like, we shouldn’t be losing some of these games that we lost, regardless of who’s on the floor. So I was more so worried about how we’re approaching every day as a basketball team. And I felt like we could have fought through a lot of the stuff that I felt that held us back.”

KD did not say anything close to that on his return or even in April when he twice praised Nash had been dealt “a crazy hand” and was “handling it all perfectly, to be honest.”

But after the season and after the Nets and Irving couldn’t come to an agreement on an extension, leaving him on an expiring deal, Durant apparently changed his mind.

“I want to be in a place that’s stable and trying to build a championship culture,” Durant said. “So, I had some doubts about that.

“That’s what was putting doubt in my mind, is that when adversity hit can we keep pushing through it?” Durant said. “I’ve been on championship teams. I’ve been on teams that have been right on the brink of winning a championship, and they did those things. So, I want to be a part of a group that did that.”

It wasn’t so much the losing, he said, as it was the team’s culture, once its pride and joy but last season a glaring hole.

“Winning and losing — I can take all that. I’ve been in the league for a long time. So, it’s not more so about just a result. It’s like how we get to that point. And I wasn’t feeling how we was getting to that point.”

Durant also sternly rejected the impression that he is his brother’s keeper, that Irving’s inability to come to terms with the Nets was not his rationale in calling Tsai. “I’m not the liaison between Kyrie and the organization,” he said. He dismissed the possibility that his desire to be traded was the result of unhappiness with the Nets stand on Irving’s contract talks.

Ultimately, though, he told reporters, he looked at the situation, talked with Tsai and had the meeting in L.A. where he and manager, Rich Kleiman (who was HSS for Media Day), met with Tsai, he wife Clara, Marks and Nash. in Los Angeles on August 22. His future was still after all that in Brooklyn.

Although he didn’t mention it, more than one writer noted that after Kenny Atkinson and the Nets reached a “mutual” decision to end their relationship in March 2020, Durant had criticized the Nets for not building championship habits.

In the end, he said he understood that the Nets would not get “like for like”, as Marks later put it, in trade talks and that the team was not going to give him away. “I know I’m that good that you’re just not going to give me away,” Durant said. The standoff ended in large part because Marks and Tsai refused to cave. They appeared ready to call his bluff and demand he report. That level of confrontation was never reached. Durant told reporters that he was not disappointed that he wasn’t traded but on the other hand did not express much enthusiasm.

“I still love to play, I knew that wasn’t going to be affected, he said adding “Nets fans should know me after three years, the work I put in. We’ve been through a lot as a team and I still go out there and do my job so I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to Nets fans after three years.

“You’ve seen me. You know what I do. You know how much I care about playing and how much I care about my teammates and this organization by what I’ve shown these last three years.”

In fact, throughout the discussion, Durant was unsmiling, serious as he often is. Irving, on the other hand, seemed genuinely relieved and happy that things worked out. “This was the best opportunity for him and this is the best opportunity for me,” Irving said.

He spoke about his desire to stay near his home in West Orange, N.J. and near his family which included his agent, Shetellia Riley Irving, his stepmother. Without being contrite for his decision not to get vaccinated that was a the heart of a lot of the Nets troubles, Irving was open that things had indeed gotten out of hand.

“It’s awkward,” Irving said he recalled thinking. “Very awkward.”

“There were options,” Irving said in discussing his own choices, “but not many, I’ll tell you that, because again, this stigma of whether or not I want to play, whether or not I’m going to be committed to the team, which I thought was really unfair at times. But also the timing was ideal to be able to put that on me because I wasn’t available.”

The “stigma” was related to his refusal to get vaccinated which in New York meant he couldn’t play, he argued. adding “I gave up four years, $100-something million deciding to be unvaccinated, and that was the decision. The contract, get vaccinated, or be unvaccinated and there’s a level of uncertainty of your future as to whether you’re going to be in the league, whether you’re going to be in this team. So I had to deal with that real-life circumstance of losing my job for this decision.”

He did say that he understood — indeed “honored” — where the Nets were coming from after he only played 29 out of 82 games and did a lot of thinking about not just the vaccination controversy but other issues in his tenure in Brooklyn.

Without going into details, Irving also endorsed his teammate and friend’s belief that some things needed to change.

“There was a level of uncertainty in this building, not just for last year, but for the last few years,” Irving said, “and that accountability that he asked for should be available and accessible at all times and we should have that type of environment.”

Irving was jocular at points as well, getting into a joking back-and-forth with ESPN’s Nick Friedell who became his most persistent interlocutor last season.

While Marks and Nash were asked about the ultimatum KD gave Tsai in a meeting in London on August 7, they did not mince works. Yes, it hurt, but hey, it happens in the closest of relationships was their take.

“Alright, if that’s the way he feels, what’s going on here? What do we need to change? Is it personnel driven? Is it logistics? Processes? What is it?’” Marks said during joint appearance with his head coach and friend. “What can we do to get back to that? I totally understand his frustration. I don’t know if there was anybody more frustrated than the two of us. We’re all-in on this. We all know what’s at stake here, what our ultimate goal is.”

Similarly, Nash tried to smooth over what happened by noting how all the parties involved have a realization that it’s a business. It’s not personal.

“Kevin and I go way back. So families go through things like this — go through adversity, go through disagreements,” he said. “This is not new to the NBA. It has happened dozens of times, I’m sure every organization has faced that. So, you know, it’s a part of the process. It’s a part of working in this business.

“We all have expectations and when we get dinged up like we did last year, everyone’s disappointed. We cleared the air and we spoke and we got on the same page,” said Nash. “So I’m glad we got it behind us and he’s been outstanding since we had our chat. He’s coming in and been amazing in our gym and I think he’s putting in a tremendous amount of work this summer as have we. So everyone’s done their part. Now it’s time for everyone to get on the floor tomorrow and come together.”

Marks also made certain everyone knew that the Nets embrace of player empowerment was still as tight as ever.

“First off, I’m not his boss,” Marks said when Brian Lewis referred to him as Durant’s boss. “We’re partners. If he wanted out and still wanted out, he wouldn’t be here.”

Later, talking with NetsDaily, Marks broadened that partnership to include not just him and Nash but Joe and Clara Tsai and Kleiman.

By day’s end, perhaps the most important comment came from the other member of new “Big Three” who spoke at length last week with J.J. Redick and Tommy Alter on The Old Man and The Three podcast.

He talked about he, KD and Kyrie had “been playing all week.” Asked how it looked, Simmons broke into a big smile. “Incredible.” he said. And that is all that matters.