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Midway through the feature film Uncle Drew, the titular character confronts the coach who lured him and his over-the-hill teammates out of retirement and into a basketball tournament at New York City’s famed Rucker Park. Feeling conned into cooperating for the love of the game while a $100,000 winner’s prize went purposefully unmentioned, Uncle Drew flips his totally convincing wig. “You just don’t get it, do you, Young Blood,” he says. “This game, the love I got for it – it’s all sacred to me.” Looking back, it was a hell of an acting job by Kyrie Irving.
It has been two weeks since the 28-year-old All-Star guard was last seen in uniform for the Brooklyn Nets. That’s counting the Barclays Center dates against Orlando last Saturday and against Milwaukee on Monday, which saw former league MVP James Harden back up his axis-tilting trade out of Houston with 66 points and 26 boards in a pair of Nets wins. “Personal reasons” was the line Irving offered up as cover for his extended leave, which ended on Tuesday. And in these quote-unquote unprecedented times, only a monster would have thought to challenge him on it. Or at least that was until a maskless Irving was caught on video celebrating his sister’s birthday at a packed New Jersey nightclub last week.
And while the threat of a $50,000 fine and upwards of $800,000 in docked pay for breaking the NBA’s Covid-19 protocols might have compelled a lesser talent to get back to work, Irving – whose salary is $33m this year – can afford to press pause, apparently. Days after the maskless birthday video surfaced, he was spotted at a virtual event for Manhattan district attorney candidate Tahanie Aboushi that took place as the Nets played host to the Nuggets last Tuesday. It’s enough to make you wonder: What’s Kyrie’s motivation?
He has been a tough nut to crack since the LeBron-less Cavaliers grabbed him with the first pick in the 2011 draft. After posting three consecutive losing seasons to open his promising career, you’d think Irving would have welcomed King James when he returned to the Cavaliers in 2014. But Irving mostly brooded over his loss of primacy as the Cavs snapped a 52-year championship drought in Cleveland. A forced trade to Boston in 2017 should have marked the end of Irving’s inferiority complex, but he bristled under the direction of coach Brad Stevens while openly pining for a seasoned ensemble. (Never mind the two rising stars he had in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, or the veteran experience that Al Horford brought to the table.)
Signing with the Nets in 2019 was supposed to be a homecoming of sorts for the New Jersey-raised Irving – and then, when an injured Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan joined him in Brooklyn, the culmination of a grand plan that had been brewing at least since Irving and Durant were spied huddling inside a Staples Center tunnel before the 2018 All-Star game. But all Irving has done since arriving in town is shade his greatest co-conspirator, deny first-year coach Steve Nash and pick a fight with the most pugnacious media market this side of the Atlantic. The dissenting position is about par for a player who famously has said he does not believe in dinosaurs and wondered whether the world is flat. Playing the contrarian is as much a feature of Irving’s game as his unstoppable dribble and clutch shot-making.
And yet: Irving is often justified in going against the grain. On a Ringer podcast last week, writer Jackie MacMullan recalled a years-ago argument she had with Irving about the NBA draft and his contention that college players “should be able to go wherever they want” given that they are not chattel – and damned if he doesn’t have a point. (MacMullan’s cringe response: “Yeah, you are, dude. That’s the way it works!”) When the NBA suspended play last summer, Irving – incidentally, the vice president of the players’ union – was the most notable player to object to a restart, believing that it might steal focus from a worldwide reckoning on anti-black racism following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. And damned if the avalanche of MLK Day tributes from Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, Mike Pompeo and so many more willfully ignorant Republican lawmakers didn’t prove Irving right on that score, too.
Some say Irving’s opposition to the NBA restart was meaningless as he was injured anyway. But the fact that Irving also gave $1.5m of his own money to female peers who opted out of the WNBA bubble over Covid-19 or the social justice movement hints at a deeper thought process. Hell, Stephen Jackson, the former pro and a close friend of Floyd’s, recently revealed that Irving had bought a house for Floyd’s family. Clearly, when it comes to the things Irving does and says – not least moving on from basketball by his early 30s – nothing is out of bounds.
Even Uncle Drew, the creaky old man who wrong-foots much younger playground players with his explosive game, plays against type. Only a true artiste like Irving would dare take a character that was intended as a vehicle to sell fizzy drinks and spin it into a basketball version of The Nutty Professor. As for the experiment Irving created in Brooklyn, well, that’s pretty heady stuff, too. Forget the Johnson-Pierce-Garnett troupe that tipped off the Nets’ Brooklyn-era and the James-led Miami triumvirate that augured the modern epoch of player-built super teams. With the Harden trade, the Nets new Big 3 put the reigning champion Lakers on notice: they’re in it to win it all. That they also reflect their local constituency more clearly than any pro team since the Brooklyn Dodgers – between the long beard, the beanpole, the truther, the hipster coach and Amar’e Stoudemire, the Orthodox Jewish assistant who also happens to be black – means they have finally overtaken the Knicks as New York’s hoops standard bearers. It only took nine years.
Then again, that’s the view on paper – which assumes Irving, now that he is back, will be the non-ball hogging third banana on offense while assuming a greater role on the opposite end to help mitigate the loss of rim protector Jarrett Allen. To hear Nets GM Sean Marks tell it last week, Irving couldn’t be happier with how things turned out. But of course there’s no way to know for sure until the mercurial guard returns to work, and even then he’ll still likely remain the toughest read in sports. Does he truly mean to be difficult? Is he trolling? Or is he, as Uncle Drew himself might suggest, “nuthin but a hustler”? Hoops historians will be sorting out Irving’s many complexities for decades. Really, if anything’s for certain about the man, it’s this: keeping the world off-balance is what he does best. Now as for the shape of said world? Oof. Please. Do not get him started.