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THE KYRIE IRVING CONUNDRUM: SO SPECTACULAR, SO EXASPERATING
After hijacking the Nets with his anti-vaccine stance, a gifted performer flashed magic in their postseason opener, then blew it with self-indulgent talk of his middle-finger combat with Boston fans
Planet Earth isn’t flat, contrary to Kyrie Irving’s oddball science. But the parquet floor in Boston indisputably is. And during a thrilling fourth quarter Sunday inside an unruly TD Garden, he reminded us why the Brooklyn Nets — actually, the Nuts — tolerate his various and sundry eccentricities.
In a word, he was otherworldly. Only this time, he was out in space in ways that left us worshipping instead of wincing. He assumed control in Game 1 of a series that might be the best the NBA offers this postseason, leading a solo escape from a 15-point hole with three-pointers, fearless lane attacks around big defenders, deft assists, five cunning steals, the complete Kyrie. I even began to wonder if Irving, playing with Kevin Durant for only the 18th time in a season that has given new and bizarre meaning to disruption, might be ready to propel the Nets/Nuts to the Finals.
But then, Krazy Kyrie hijacked his own spectacular narrative, as he so often does. At least twice during the game, amid the merciless booing and F-bombing of hateful New Englanders still sore about how he fled the Celtics in 2019, he flipped off taunting fans with middle-fingered salutes — including a double-barrel special behind his head before he inbounded the ball. Had he left his response at that, he’d have kept the narrative centered on a magnificent truth: Few basketball sights are more breathtaking, when his mind is right, than Irving in full takeover mode, and now that he’s eligible to play home games after the lifting of New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, he’s capable of owning the playoffs even as a crackpot anti-vaxxer.
No, he couldn’t leave it at that. When normalcy enters his bloodstream, he always must revert to the unavoidable reality that he is Kyrie Irving, rabble-rouser. The self-proclaimed “deep thinker’’ gave the Celtics a second triumph in addition to their stunning, buzzer-beating 115-114 victory. Afterward, he spent too much time indulging in his combat with the Boston agitators, who obviously have crawled under his skin for a permanent stay. This could haunt him and his team Wednesday night, when the fans now will be more raucous and vile. As if Irving didn’t make life difficult enough for the Nets/Nuts in the regular season — missing 53 games as he stubbornly stuck to his no-vaxx stance and prompted James Harden to demand a trade to Philadelphia — Irving just made it tougher to steal Game 2.
“It's nothing new when I come into this building what it's going to be like — it's the same energy they have for me, I'm going to have the same energy for them,’’ he said of his gestures and their insults. “And it's not every fan, I don't want to attack every fan, every Boston fan. When people here start yelling ‘p---y’ and ‘b----’ and ‘f--- you’ and all this stuff, there's only so much you take as a competitor. We're the ones expected to be docile and be humble, take a humble approach. F— that, it's the playoffs. This is what it is.
“Embrace it. Embrace it. It’s the dark side. Embrace it.’’
You heard the man. He wants us to accept his strategy of countering their vitriol with his middle fingers, a villain’s mantra if there ever was one. Sorry, even the most ardent Nets/Nuts fans — did they ever exist? — will have trouble embracing the embrace. They’re too exhausted, resigned that team management is better off waving goodbye to him in free agency. Because if it’s not vaccines and other unexcused absences that baffle the hierarchy, from owner Joe Tsai to general manager Sean Marks to coach Steve Nash, there’s always something going on in Kyrie’s daffy world that sidetracks the championship cause.
This time, it’s a concern he’ll start a riot in a league stll haunted by the Malice at Palace melee, not to mention the chance of a suspension if the scene spirals out of control. When the focus should be on Irving’s 39-point masterpiece and what it means in the larger picture of the Kyrie Experience, he threw the story line back to his past confrontations with Celtics faithful. Remember when he crassly stepped onto the leprechaun logo in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last year? When a loon in the crowd fired a water bottle at him, which happened after he accused some Boston fans of “subtle racism’’ in TD Garden? When he compared them to a “scorned girlfriend” last month? Those tensions immediately have become the overriding element of this series, all because Irving insisted on prioritizing his selfish grudge over the Nets’ rally. Again, as always, Kyrie comes first and his team second.
In his mind, he’s having fun in pointing out a Boston social disease. It’s Irving trying to prove he’s of a higher mind than everyone else in the arena. How about sticking with hoops talk, Mr. Deep Thinker, after months of anti-vax lectures that now seem fruitless as the coronavirus continues to linger?
“It is what it is. I'm not really focused on it, it's fun, you know what I'm saying?’’ he said of the fans. “Where I'm from (New Jersey), I've dealt with so much, so coming in here you relish it as a competitor. ... What you guys (the media) think is entertainment, or the fans think is entertainment, all is fair in competition. So if somebody's going to call me out on my name, I'm gonna look at them straight in the eye and see if they really 'bout it.
“Most of the time they're not.”
As we try to determine what he means by “‘bout it’’ — probably, whether a heckler has the nerve to maintain close eye contact with Irving — he says bird-flipping is a regular part of his road arena routine. “This is the first time you actually caught it because this is a big-time game,” he said. “I respond in different ways. If you want to ask me questions about the fans, go ask them. Go on the street and ask them questions.”
It’s a shame, really. Anyone who watched the game was emitting joyful sounds — myself included — as Irving tried to rally the Nets. After he hit a stepback 3 with 45.9 seconds left, I texted a pal, “Kyrie is Michael Jordan. Who knew?’’ Said Nash, who has lost untold sleep waiting for Hall of Fame Kyrie to shed Krazy Kyrie: “This is a guy who has made the game-winning shot in the FInals. He's played in the Olympics. He's played in the All-Star Game, All-Star Game MVP. I don't know that there's any atmospheres that are really gonna rattle him. ... I don't think the crowd is a factor for Kyrie. This guy's done about all you can do in the game.”
It was Durant who risked his massive legacy to leave Golden State, where he won two championships and left more on the table, to join hands with his quirky friend. He continues to defend Irving, despite constant distractions. “I don’t think he worries about it,’’ Durant said of the environment. “I think he just plays his game and do what's required out there. And tonight, the shot-making, just controlling the game for us, was incredible. And that's what we're going to need going forward — so no matter where he's at, I think he's the same player. … We know they're going to show out and support their team, but we know they're going to let Kyrie hear it as much as possible. It is what it is. It's a part of the sport."
Just the other day, Irving sounded like a self-conquering hero as he spoke of his decision not to be vaccinated. Never mind that more than 1,400 city workers in New York’s five boroughs were fired for not complying with the mandate. Never mind that he still could cost the Nets/Nuts if they had to play a conference series against the Raptors in Toronto, where Canada’s mandate is intact. Never mind that he still could infect teammates. Never mind that he could get sick himself. Was it really worth losing millions in salary? Why not just get the jabs and win a title?
“I know I made the right decision for me,’’ Irving said. “I think that should be not just an American right, I think that should be a human right. And when you stand for something like that, in a nature of society that we’re in where we have a lot more followers than we do leaders, then you’re going to be forced into being seen or somebody as a black sheep that people can attack and can clickbait your name and say these things that don’t really describe who you are or what you live like on a day-to-day basis.
“Some people disagree with me in public, some people disagree with me in private. It doesn’t really bother me as much as it did in the beginning of the season, because everything was just so new. Everything was just being thrown in my face, in terms of like what I should be doing. And it was like, ‘Well, the majority says you should do this’ and ‘Why are you going against this? You know, you’re losing out on millions. You know you’re giving up on your teammates.’ I heard everything. I was called so many different names. People just continuing and continuing to drown out the media space with what I should be doing and I just felt like there’s going to be a time where all this stuff is going to be in the wind and we can talk as human beings.”
You know where this story is heading. Kyrie Irving is Aaron Rodgers in shorts. And just as Rodgers fell short in the postseason, after wasting too much energy in vigorous defenses of his anti-vaccine theories, the Nets will fall short, too, possibly in a first-round elimination. Irving must play ball and shut up, but drama and exasperation are his constant companions. Take the final play Sunday, when Boston’s Marcus Smart saw Jayson Tatum cutting unnoticed toward the basket. Tatum snuck behind a clueless defender, performed a pirouette and made the game-winning shot.
“I just made a layup,’’ Tatum said.
That defender? Kyrie Irving, who put his head down and walked away from the bedlam, no middle fingers left in his holster.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.