Kyrie Irving wants to lose himself in basketball, and if you’d had the last few weeks that he’s had that’s probably what you would want, too. What he learned Sunday night, if he didn’t know it already, is that sometimes actions have consequences that extend to a time well after you answer for them.
Sunday morning Irving had, for the first time, sounded genuinely publicly contrite for the firestorm he created a few weeks ago, tweeting a link to a virulently anti-Semitic movie.
“I feel it was necessary for me to stand in this place and take accountability for my actions, because there was a way I should have handled all this,” Irving said after the Nets’ morning shootaround. “And as I look back and reflect, when I had the opportunity to offer my deep regrets to anyone that felt threatened or felt hurt by what I posted. That wasn’t my intent at all. I meant no harm to any person, any group of people.”
Sunday night Irving battled some rust but still managed 14 points in 26 minutes as the Nets outlasted a stubborn Memphis Grizzlies team missing its superstar, Ja Morant, and four other major rotation players 127-115 at Barclays Center.
Irving received mostly cheers and a smattering of boos when he was introduced, and then he stepped aside to let a parade of his teammates take a few turns in the spotlight: Kevin Durant scored 26 points, topping 25 for the 16th straight game. Yuta Wanatabe made four 3s and scored 16 points and had everyone inside Barclays — including a towel-waving Irving, on the Nets’ bench — on their feet in the fourth quarter.
And, perhaps most encouraging of all, Ben Simmons continued his recent breakthrough with 22 points and five assists, by far his best outing as a Net in advance of his return to Philadelphia Tuesday night, the first time he’ll be back in his former home wearing a Nets uniform (instead of street clothes).
But Irving was still the main feature, both inside Barclays and outside, where dozens of members of the group Israel United in Christ sang and handed out flyers to show support of Irving; leaders of this group have reportedly referred to Hasidic Jews as “evil despots.”
Asked about this, Irving quickly said he was unaware of the group or its gathering and immediately said he wanted to focus on basketball only. And it is true: Irving can’t be held directly responsible for every group that gathers in his name from here on in.
But they were clearly at Barclays for a reason.
And while the intensity of the fire Irving lit may soon dim (and, in fact, already seems far less hot than it was), this is all collateral damage created by both his tweet and his initial defiance to denounce the contents of the movie he linked to.
“I mean, I was rightfully defensive that there was an assumption that I could be anti-Semitic, or that I meant to post the documentary to stand side-by-side with all the views of the documentary that I was defensive initially,” Irving said in the morning. “How can you call someone an anti-Semite when you don’t know them? How can you call their family out on things that we don’t have a track record of?”
But it is assumption that draws a myriad of supporters for Irving’s cause, too. Surely Irving didn’t ask them to do this; they have chosen to make their own assumptions. And so Irving is forced to answer for them, too, even if he won’t answer questions about them.
So yes: you can understand why Irving so badly wants to use basketball as a salve, as a comfortable cocoon. Basketball has always been the thing at which Irving can communicate without fear of issuing an alternate message, because at his best Irving can make basketball look as beautiful as ballet. There weren’t a lot of those moments Sunday. But they’ll come.
“There’s some rust getting back into NBA basketball,” Irving said after the game. “There’s no way to recreate NBA basketball when I’m sitting at home with my friends.”
He has his cocoon back. But the auxiliary circus still trails him, and will, no matter how badly he’d like to tune it out.