This was not the inevitable. It only feels that way because it was so appropriate, fitting to the point where, if professional sports leagues really do write season-long scripts ahead of time, you could chide the NBA for lacking creativity. They phoned it in when it came to Kyrie Irving’s departure from the Brooklyn Nets.
The entirety of Irving’s final chapter in Brooklyn took place within the armpit of the American sports calendar - during the pre-Super Bowl weekend, smack dab in the middle of the NBA’s dog days — starting with a trade request that hit the streets on Friday, February 3, four months into a season that has yet to take a breath. The day’s second-biggest headline did not mention the nationally televised contest between the Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics, two of the last four NBA Finalists, but was instead “WATCH: Mo Bamba and Austin Rivers try to Beat the S**t Out of Each Other.” It’s time to put the NBA on pause, grab a soda, and predict what song Rihanna is gonna do next.
Not even Kyrie Irving, ever the entertainer, could save us from this malaise. However, if your now-just-memories of his Nets tenure are ones of exasperation, if phrases like “off-court distractions” or “private-sector mandate” have been forcefully tattooed on your subconscious, then you must have enjoyed Irving’s goodbye to Brooklyn. Shams Charania tweeted 11 times about him from Friday to Sunday, and by the last one, Kyrie was a Dallas Maverick. There was no epic meltdown, no tearful good-bye, no lasting final image. His swan-song here featured some guy sitting on his phone, making sure there were no typos, and hitting send 11 times. It was how we operate in 2023, excessively boring and ruthlessly efficient. Gratuitously unoriginal. It was the perfect ending to Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Net.
Every night, we watched Irving perform feats that we struggled to comprehend. Every morning, we read headlines that we also struggled to comprehend. Every day, the experience trended further and further towards “disappointing” until there was hardly another way to feel about it. It’s only right that Irving’s final act was easily his most digestible. It’s only right that such an unforgettable stretch ended so forgettably. He wanted his money; Joe Tsai and the Nets weren’t going to give it to him. For the first time, we all comprehended.
Where you fall on the issue itself doesn’t matter. Not having Irving on roster decreases Brooklyn’s chances of capturing that ultimate, elusive prize. So they should pay him, right? Sure. On the other hand, Tsai and his franchise have paid Irving a lot of money for what they view as a fairly miserable four years, so far, largely due to Irving’s actions. No way they should pay him more, right? Sure.
Yeah, this is the fitting end. And it’d be so comforting to view this fatal dispute between an astoundingly wealthy employee and his unfathomably wealthy employer as an inevitable end as well. Don’t fall into the trap.
If Kevin Durant sees Kyrie Irving a second earlier on his wide-open cut to the basket in Milwaukee on June 13, 2021, YES Network’s Ryan Ruocco may be wondering what pose the #11 statue on Flatbush Avenue should be making. Instead, his send-off to Irving called him “incredibly destructive to NBA franchises, including this one.”
I know what you’re going to say. It was always going to be something (eh), and there’s a reason these Nets never overcame the ifs that didn’t go their way (fair). But “It was never going to work” is true until it isn’t. “You can’t win a title shooting that many threes” until the Warriors implemented a dynasty doing it. “You can never win with him” until you can.
Maybe these Nets are forever destined to be a Shakespearean tragedy in shorts, immortalized as three stooges unable to stop stepping on rakes they forgot they dropped. Fans need to enjoy throwing tomatoes at something. It’s likelier that the Nets (and their fans) are the Greek tragedy of NBA lore, with destiny ensuring that only the tantalization of success can exist in Brooklyn (and New Jersey). Success only exists so that the impact of the fall crushes more bones. Fans need something to pity, to sympathize with, hopefully from a distance.
It’s likeliest, however, that there’s no narrative. Our favorite sports team, for no pre-determined reason at all, kept losing every battle of the “ifs”. Sometimes the bird poops on you. Rightfully so, many Nets fans will never forget the issues they have with Kyrie; for a few, he’ll be one of their least favorite Nets ever. But you sign Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant every time. You trade for James Harden eight days a week. If you argued otherwise at the time, that these were mistakes we’d all come to regret, you were and are still wrong. I know I can’t convince you of that, though. I know I can’t sway those that believe Sean Marks could have saved the whole era by trading away Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot earlier, or those that think the era of prosperity is finally upon us now that Irving is in Dallas. So it goes. None of us will ever be proven right.
These Nets, particularly with Kyrie Irving, were an explosive intersection of my sports fanaticism. A die-hard Yankees allegiance established an early comfort level rooting for the villain. Thus, Kevin Durant and James Harden quickly became two of my favorite players ever, ascending my list the more I heard classmates and friends call them snakes, or floppers, or chokers. I was enamored with the technical precision of each of these mercenaries. KD scowling, tweeting, and raining down elbow jumpers over helpless, smaller defenders, Harden becoming a revolutionary in the land of individual skill development on his way to 60-point triple-doubles. I resented the loudest commentary on one of the greatest offensive players of all-time being “you can’t win playing like that,” which, ahem, likely folds if Chris Paul’s hamstring doesn’t.
Ironically enough, a break in my contrarianism allowed me to get swept away by Kyrie Irving, who held a more special place in my heart. He had the best shoes, the best HoopMixtape, the best NBA highlights, and was Uncle Drew! He claimed New York as well as Jersey. You couldn’t create a more alluring player for the East coast, basketball-loving kid if you tried. We talked about him non-stop, during practice, during lunch, imitating his moves, and then he pushed our beloved LeBron over the top for Cleveland. For many, sure, he was another villain like Harden and KD. But Irving was, and is, a God to a certain sect of hoop-lovers. Even when that total adoration goes away, you never forget what the connection first felt like.
Much of it has to do with what it’s like to watch him play, a sensation many Nets fans now have to give up after experiencing it less often than felt they were owed. Most players are constricted by their physical limitations - you have to build strength to pull off certain moves, you have to have the foot-speed to keep up on defense, the leaping ability to finish at the rim. Kyrie Irving is only constricted by an imagination that, luckily for him and us, moves at warp-speed. All his absurdly ambidextrous body needs to do is receive the signal. It only makes sense to us after the ball is in the hoop. Of course the defender shifts his weight ever so slightly, so Irving can get to the paint by pulling off a behind/cross/spin combination. Of course he can and should get low enough to split that double-team. Kyrie hands you a solved Rubik’s Cube before you knew he had one.
The idea of Irving, Harden, and Durant teaming up just because they could, steamrolling teams and sleepwalking to 120 points a night out of pure spite kept me up at night. And it was only right that they decided to do it on the Nets. There were the perfect, villainous trio playing on the perfect franchise in the age of Online Haze, where misinformation rules simply because the truth is often too difficult, too stupid, too horrifically funny to believe. These three, playing for the Brooklyn F. Nets. For once, I was going to sit on a throne with thunder and lightning behind me, reaping all the benefits. This was my payback for endlessly defending these guys in chat rooms and cafeterias for years. I treated those 2021 playoff games like religious services and relished in the poetry of Brooklyn’s gentleman’s sweep of the Celtics, fantasizing domination for years to come over the dreaded Bostonians.
Kyrie Irving is gone now. He snuck out in the middle of the night, seemingly, with Harden long-gone and Brooklyn in waiting mode for KD’s return from injury. He was playing well, there was relatively little noise around the team, and then it ended in 48 boring hours. The most mundane way Irving ever made news. There’s no use in recounting the moments of his Nets tenure we all remember. I’m sorry I even mentioned vaccines, we should instead get what we can out of his departure.
This, if you can’t tell, is catharsis. I don’t want to talk to my friends and family about Irving, at least not right now. There’s too much I have to sift through. Staying up past my bedtime to watch Uncle Drew videos, or highlights, or playing with him on 2K. Buying his shoes and practicing that double behind-the-back in the park. Feeling like I was losing the para-social relationship I’d developed with Irving just as I got to college and he got to Boston. (I couldn’t bare to see him in a Celtic uniform, to root for a Boston athlete.) Then he signed with my Nets. How long ago does this feel?
I headed to the Barclays Center for my first experience as a credentialed reporter and felt honest-to-god butterflies as Irving sauntered into the press room, and then I felt the butterflies turn into something else as he launched into a monologue about tweeting that link to that video. I had to field a whole lot of questions from my Jewish family in the days following. Now, the end of this chapter. I’m sure there will be more.
I don’t know how to feel, completely, and I certainly don’t know what my point here is, other than it didn’t have to end like this. Why, in a non-sensical world, would the most appropriate ending be the unavoidable one? It’ll be hard to shake the feeling that Kyrie Irving and the Nets should have been champions, to shake the disgust that history’s most dominant offense shared a cup of coffee together and nothing more. To shake the belief that Kyrie could’ve done five different stupid things and still brought a title to Brooklyn, that only this moment and nothing before actually closed the door on that possibility.
We all understand, for the first time, why and how Kyrie Irving is in his current situation, that being Dallas. I’m certainly not blaming any party involved for his departure. I can’t see where the top of the mountain is, and it’d be absurd to get angry because I feel like the Irving-led Nets were just one push away from getting there. Just because I don’t believe in basketball fate doesn’t mean I won’t consider the evidence accumulated over these last four years. Who knows, though? Maybe this will be the biggest what-if, that we’ll look back eventually and say, “If only Irving held on for four more months.” It’s far from logical or expected, but hey, there is no script. And that’s the hardest part to accept. Goodbye, Kyrie.
Hooray, I awake from yesterday
Alive but the war is here to stay