A smiling Kyrie Irving, a luxuriant summer afro atop his dome and frayed rope bracelets dangling from his wrist, plopped into a chair in front of a large throng of reporters at Celtics Media Day in late September and gushed with an obvious excitement about the season to come.
"I’m just appreciative of the opportunity to finally be comfortable. That’s the biggest thing. I’m happy. It’s peaceful,” said Irving, noting how the constant questions about the reasons behind his trade request from Cleveland a year earlier had worn on him.
"I used to be nervous to come up here and talk to you guys because I would wonder what you guys would ask me. But, at this point, it’s like I really don’t care. So it’s about the team, how successful we can be and the potential of it. I’m excited about that. So I’m just kind of comfortable and happy to be here now, and present.”
Ahh, those were simpler times.
Five months and plenty of bumps in the road later, Irving slumped in a chair on the campus of Marquette University Wednesday afternoon and bristled when a reporter asked his thoughts on a video of Irving and Kevin Durant at All-Star weekend that went viral, with social media sleuths (rather recklessly) suggesting the two were plotting a future together in New York.
Irving, already worn down from the incessant speculation about his future ever since his name got dragged into the Anthony Davis trade request drama, could have laughed off the video. He could have tried to shift the focus to Thursday night’s Eastern Conference showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks. Instead, Irving pushed back at the notion that he should have to respond to a random clip of him talking with a close acquaintance and the story snowballed.
“So it’s a video of me and one of my best friends talking, and then it turns out to be a dissection of a free-agency meeting? Do you get that? Like, do you get that?” said Irving. "And then I’m questioned about it? That’s what disconnects me from all this s—.”
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Irving is well within his right to be frustrated by the questions about a random cell phone video snapped in the hallway at the All-Star game. Given the amount of attention and speculation the video created, however, it’s also fair for reporters to ask him about it.
Much like Irving could have squashed the speculation about his future earlier this month by simply stating that he still plans to re-sign in Boston, he allowed the video drama to mushroom by ranting about it.
Irving is still figuring this leadership thing out. He’s had notable missteps, including repeatedly assigning blame for Boston’s struggles on the team's younger players (and he hinted at it again at All-Star weekend in a sitdown with ESPN that aired Wednesday morning). As much as he obviously desires to be a great leader, he’s seemingly found it’s more difficult than he envisioned. Heck, that’s why he called LeBron James (but even revealing that call turned into a headache when it got spun by the national media).
It’s all worn on Irving, maybe more than Boston’s roller-coaster season (which, truth be told, has largely been on the upswing since mid-November, though the few bumps have been pronounced). On the eve of one of the team’s biggest matchups of the 2018-19 season, at a time when the focus should be on the Celtics trying to build off a strong pre-All-Star finish, Irving finds himself atop NBA headlines for grumping about a video that didn’t deserve as much acknowledgment as it got.
“This is the stuff that just doesn’t make the league fun,” said Irving. “Like, it doesn’t make the league fun. Nobody helps promote the league even more by doing bulls— like that.”
We’re not sure Irving is right here. The drama is at least putting more eyes on the NBA. The Davis trade request dominated the sports news cycle during Super Bowl week because of the soap opera-like nature of the situation, replete with the twists and turns that dragged Irving’s name into the mix (Does he want to play with LeBron again?! Is he planning to sign somewhere other than Boston this summer?!)
Irving must realize that, if he laughed off these reports or politely tried to steer the conversation to actual basketball, they’d pass quietly. Instead, his loquacious — and sometimes confrontational — responses end up extending the drama shelf life and only create more noise.
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It would be contradictory of this reporter to suggest that Irving should bottle up his opinions up when we plead for our athletes to be more open and honest. It’s actually refreshing to see someone be so honest. But there has to be a balance to it all, and Irving would be well served to look at the way other high-profile stars (yes, even LeBron) handle the daily inquiries about hot-button topics and (typically) defuse them.
Irving is wired differently than most. He doesn’t want to give you the perfunctory answer. It’s much like Irving on the court, when you expect him to zig, he zags. He always keeps you guessing.
We’ve said it before but it’s a fascinating dichotomy watching Irving try to figure out how to be a leader. As easy as he makes everything look on the court, he’s clearly hit a few potholes off of it. Maybe that shouldn’t be unexpected for a 26-year-old tasked with guiding a young roster with absurd expectations.
So much of this team’s success this season could hinge on Irving’s growth as a leader. Can he get the most out of his teammates, and get the young core he’s often criticized to buy into the big-picture goals? Can he navigate the constant speculation about his future and keep the focus on Boston’s title aspirations?
To do such, Irving might have to alter his approach to the topics he so clearly does not yearn to engage in. He cannot allow them to sour his mood. When basketball starts back up on Thursday night, that task should become a bit easier, as the focus will slowly shift from the Days of Our Lives All-Star break to what should be an exhilarating stretch run in the Eastern Conference.
Irving needs to get back to the frame of mind he had in September. He needs to find an inner peace, even if the questions that gnaw at him linger. If Irving can stiff arm those queries a bit and keep the focus on basketball, the team’s success will diminish the noise.
Irving must heed what he said in September: “It’s about the team, how successful we can be, and the potential of it.” The noise isn’t going away but Irving can spin move around it and change the storylines with Boston’s success on the court.
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