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The Self-Inflicted Demise of Kyrie Irving

Has Kyrie’s time in the NBA come to an end? If so, the persistently stubborn star has only himself to blame.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday evening, the Brooklyn Nets (finally) suspended Kyrie Irving for a minimum of five games, without pay, hours after he once again refused to apologize for publicizing a film that embraces and disseminates antisemitism.

When asked earlier that day during a press scrum whether he was surprised by the amount of pain his decision had caused, Irving instead proposed his own question. “Where were you when I was a kid, figuring out that 300 million of my ancestors are buried in America?” Later asked whether he had antisemitic beliefs, Irving eluded the question and said “I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from” two times rather than provide a simple “yes” or “no” response. This is not what anyone associated with the Nets wanted to hear, though Irving’s tack shouldn’t have surprised a single one of them. His intransigence has been par for the course long before the team even signed him.

Brooklyn’s subsequent press release hours later announcing its decision to suspend Kyrie was firm and direct, which can’t be said about the word-salad statements on this matter that were previously released by the NBA, the NBPA, and … the Nets. (Zero of Irving’s colleagues have spoken up to admonish the seven-time All-Star.)

“We were dismayed today, when given an opportunity in a media session, that Kyrie refused to unequivocally say he has no antisemitic beliefs, nor acknowledge specific hateful material in the film. This was not the first time he had the opportunity—but failed—to clarify,” Brooklyn’s most recent statement read. “Accordingly, we are of the view that he is currently unfit to be associated with the Brooklyn Nets.”

The Nets claim they won’t allow Kyrie to rejoin the team until he “satisfies a series of objective remedial measures that address the harmful impact of his conduct.” The suspension comes one week after Irving’s initial tweet, and just 24 hours after the Nets, Irving, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released a joint statement trumpeting a pair of $500,000 donations from Irving and the Nets. In it, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said the organization would work with Kyrie to “open dialogue and increase understanding.”

But when Irving’s suspension was announced by the Nets on Thursday, Greenblatt released another statement, announcing the ADL would not accept Irving’s money after all because he’d shown a lack of accountability for his actions. Earlier on Thursday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had put himself on the record by qualifying Irving’s decision as “reckless” before articulating how disappointed he was when he realized that the donation would not come with an apology or denouncement of the antisemitic messaging Irving had amplified.

Nets owner Joe Tsai was the first official party to rebuke Kyrie by name last Friday, tweeting that he was “disappointed that Kyrie appears to support a film based on a book full of antisemitic disinformation …” Tsai followed that tweet up with everyone’s favorite nothingburger—“This is bigger than basketball”—then declined to administer any punishment for another six days. Before that punishment could even materialize, Tsai reportedly signed off on the potential hiring of Ime Udoka.

Despite all that’s transpired, it’s clear Irving still agrees with some of what he mentioned on social media or saw in the film. If not, he would condemn it in full then show remorse or regret. His apology on Instagram, which didn’t come until after he was suspended without pay late Thursday night, clarified little. Irving is anything but flippant when it comes to how he utilizes social media. He shares what he thinks is vital, what he believes others need to digest. It’s how a self-described “beacon of light” behaves.

When asked by ESPN’s Nick Friedell after a game last Saturday why he recently chose to share an old Alex Jones clip, Irving picked his microphone up off the podium and rolled his eyes.

“I do not stand with Alex Jones’s position, narrative, court case that he had with Sandy Hook, or any of the kids that felt like they had to relive trauma. Or parents that had to relive trauma. Or to be dismissive to all the lives that were lost during that tragic event. My post was a post from Alex Jones that he did in the early ’90s or late ’90s about secret societies in America of occults,” Irving said. “And it’s true.” And it’s true!

All of this is disturbing. None of it is isolated. Irving has been a mercurial, exasperating, wildly popular NBA player for years. He has a humongous platform and undeniable influence. What he chooses to do with it often has been discouraging, to say the least. In February 2017, Irving infamously appeared on the Road Trippin’ podcast with Allie Clifton, Channing Frye, and Richard Jefferson to cast doubt on the shape of planet Earth.

In 2019, he told The New York Times about his plan to one day own a television network. (Later, in the same interview—one year after he apologized for suggesting the Earth was flat—Irving said: “I’m not against anyone that thinks the Earth is round. I’m not against anyone that thinks it’s flat. I just love hearing the debate. It’s fun to talk about.”)

Then there was his refusal to get vaccinated in the middle of a pandemic that was killing thousands of Americans every day. The decision forced the Nets to banish him from team activities, a stance they only reversed months later when they realized winning basketball games is their actual priority and decided to allow Irving to compete when the team was away from New York City (which enforced a mandate that disallowed Irving from entering Barclays Center until he got the shot).

If he’s still interested, Irving may now have an opportunity to change careers and really sink his teeth into TV production. Or he may suit up on Nov. 13 in Los Angeles, in a nationally televised game against the Lakers, and act like nothing ever happened. This story is hard to follow, let alone predict.

But for the latter scenario to occur, Irving would need to express contrition about something Irving does not feel contrite about. Instagram apology aside, he remains a stubborn pseudo-intellectual. And assuming that post isn’t enough, there’s a real chance Irving’s four-point dud Tuesday night against the Bulls is the last time we ever see him in a Nets jersey.

If so, nobody really knows what will happen next. Would the Nets trade him? Where? Would Brooklyn waive him? Would Kyrie be willing to sign a minimum contract on another team? Would any of the NBA’s 29 other franchises even want to be in the Kyrie Irving business anymore? That last question deserves some interrogation. Irving’s talent is unquestionably valuable. He’s in the fourth year of a $136,490,600 contract because (a) millions of people enjoy watching him play basketball and (b) he (ostensibly) drives winning, which yields attention, marketability, and lots and lots of money.

But there’s a point when someone’s behavior can do more damage to a company’s bottom line than any amount of talent does good. The Nets might be at a place where the benefits can’t outweigh the cost. (As I wrote earlier this week, it’s hard to take any team seriously that calls Irving an employee.)

So, if his time in the NBA does actually come to an end, either imminently or once his current deal expires this summer, where would Irving, who will turn 31 in March, go from here? China? Retirement? Tucker Carlson?

His playing career could resume in a couple of weeks or be over, as we know it. Irving’s Instagram apology was the bare minimum. In it, he said he was sorry for tweeting the link “without context and a factual explanation outlining the specific beliefs in the Documentary I agreed with and disagreed with” without actually explaining what beliefs he could possibly agree with in this particular film.

It felt like too little, too late, and certainly doesn’t qualify as an “objective remedial measure.”

There are plenty of people who want to see Kyrie reckon with what he’s done and understand its magnitude—who care enough to forgive, extend grace, learn, grow, and move on. This isn’t up to them, though.

Pride comes before the fall. Kyrie’s future is in Kyrie’s hands. And, despite being an avid reader of the Oxford dictionary, he might be the only person suffering through this experience who doesn’t understand that.