Kyrie Irving’s silence won’t stop anyone from trying to understand him

You won’t read this the way I want you to. All communication is imperfect, inevitably mediated through our unique experience of the world. I can try my best to convey exactly what I mean, but something will get lost in translation.

On Friday, Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving released this statement through a spokesperson:

Irving’s decision to not talk won’t stop anyone from trying to understand him (Exhibit A: the column you are currently reading). I wonder if he even wants that. We all want to be seen and understood in a specific way and we are all perpetually misconstrued. But only famous people regularly come face-to-face with the chasm between who they think they are and who people think they are. This divide — fair and not — is what Irving takes issue with.

Depending on how long he chooses to stay away from the microphones, this will likely cost him and the Nets some money in fines, since NBA players are contractually obligated to be available to speak with media, which brings us to the root of the criticisms being lobbed at Irving: a Belichickian imploration to “do your job,” including the parts you don’t like.

You’re a famous athlete, making millions to play a game. So rub some dirt on it and step to the podium.

How I wish, in the year of our lord 2020, this was a strawman.

But it isn’t even the first time Irving has elicited a similar reaction to pointing out that life inside the fishbowl is in fact strange and difficult. Almost a year ago to the date, he posted this on Instagram.

Kyrie Irving's Instagram post.
Kyrie Irving's Instagram post from Nov. 2019.

This is what I wrote at the time: "The underlying message, despite all the hubbub about caring about players’ mental health, proves Irving’s point: A good deal of an athlete’s monetary value lies in how well he or she handles mass bullying.”

The truth is, Irving is not the first athlete to shirk media responsibilities. Players groan and try to sneak away from cameras every night in the NBA. They take backdoor exits and spend egregious amounts of time in the shower while PR staffers diligently try to wrangle them.

Irving is just the first to express it so publicly, which is ironically a much more interesting form of communication than 90 percent of what you hear in a news conference, raising questions that have heretofore been left unexamined, like why it is that professional athletes are more highly scrutinized and more regularly questioned than most Congresspeople.

Irving’s silence speaks volumes. It holds a mirror up to our own faces. Most people don’t like that. Ridicule is easier than self-examination, which is where the projection starts. Pretty much every time Irving finds himself making news, rumors start seeping out of the floorboards. The most recent example was when he got skewered for raising fair questions about the veracity of the NBA restarting its season amid global upheaval. At this point, it’s like clockwork, and you can’t help but wonder where the stories are coming from, and why despite the fact that there’s always so much smoke, a fire never quite erupts. A whisper network of concern trolling about his intentions and his mental health emerges as a weapon designed to discredit him, to remind the viewer that he is not a reliable narrator. This despite the fact that his own peers elected him in February as vice president of the players union.

Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets wipes his face against the Philadelphia 76ers in the fourth quarter at the Wells Fargo Center on January 15, 2020.
Kyrie Irving had nothing to say to the media on Friday. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

I’m not here to say Irving is perfect. It’s fair to wonder why he’s so publicly announcing that he wants to be left alone. Maybe he doesn’t hate attention as much as he hates his perception. Maybe he wants to be seen as a visionary, a “free thinker” and his frustration stems from the fact that his attempts always seem to backfire. Or maybe it stems from the fact that his words always seem to take precedent over his actions. I don’t think of Kyrie as a hero or a heel or a martyr or a villain. On Friday, he was just a guy opting out of a situation that clearly stresses him out.

The extent to which this will affect the Nets’ chemistry is far more tied to what happens next than what happened before. Take Kawhi Leonard, who has never loved speaking to the media. In Toronto, players like Fred VanVleet and Danny Green — vocal leaders far more suited to the team spokesman role — picked up the slack. With the Los Angeles Clippers, that didn’t happen, and it became a source of contention. Ultimately, good teams play to their strengths and try to balance out each other’s weaknesses. Responsibilities, especially the annoying ones, are rarely distributed fairly on teams with superstars, and it’s on everyone to strike the right balance. We’ll see if anyone on the Nets can step into the communication void that Irving has seemingly created. At this point, we still don’t know how long he’s going to stay away from the podium.

Until he’s back, we’re going to be the ones facing questions we don’t like.

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