How we got here with Kyrie Irving, explained

(Photo illustration: Marissa Vonesh; original image: Dustin Satloff/Getty Images; illustration: Monique Wray)

As I’m writing this, Kyrie Irving just returned from an eight-game suspension from the Brooklyn Nets for being “unfit to be associated” with the team. By the time you read this, he might be suspended again. Or he might have just scored 58 points against the Denver Nuggets. Or he might have just retired from the NBA, to question the legitimacy of snow (Is it really true that no two snowflakes are alike?) while walking the flat Earth like Caine in “Kung Fu.” Anything is possible.

One of the fallacies about Irving’s predicament is that he was suspended for sharing an antisemitic documentary in his Instagram stories. The reality is that he was suspended for what he did the following week, when he refused to apologize, had two belligerent and tone deaf news conferences and ignored texts from the team owner while the crisis he sparked spun out of control. It wasn’t solely the antisemitism that got him banned. It was him just being a jerk — a status he’s earned during a five-year span where he’s made increasingly dangerous decisions that have led to, among many other things, support from Sen. Ted Cruz.

When I think about how we got here, I keep coming back to the same word: unanchored. The internet has effectively democratized information. We have access to so much of it, with so much of it hurled at us, that the spiritual, emotional and intellectual principles that dictate how we process, assess and synthesize it have never been more paramount. Irving is a genuinely curious man, and I believe he has a good heart, but he’s navigating this journey without an intellectual anchor.

He’s on the right side of many progressive causes — helping to build a solar water center in Pakistan, buying a house for George Floyd’s family, donating food and N95 masks to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the Dakotas, giving $1.5 million to help supplement the incomes of WNBA players. And he does this without being a self-conscious NBA politician like his former teammate LeBron James or a rebranded phony like his idol, the late Kobe Bryant. But Irving is also wildly susceptible to the sort of unhinged conspiracy theories found in the internet’s hairiest rabbit holes. This is how a grown man, in the 21st century, comes to believe that the Earth is flat. And what leads him to go on Instagram, and “like” a post stating that secret societies are implanting vaccines “to connect Black people to a master computer for a plan of Satan.” And what compels him to share, on his own feed, a decade-old video from Alex Jones (yes, that Alex Jones), where the world’s worst and soon-to-be brokest conspiracy theorist rants about secret societies.

I’ve written before that Irving sometimes reminds me of a young man who just finished his first semester of college, comes back home, and thinks he’s Neil deGrasse Einstein Tesla. Smart enough to do some memorizing and superficial analysis, but not yet seasoned or wise enough to realize that just because you don’t know something doesn’t mean it’s unknown by everyone. (I’ve been that person, and I apologize to anyone who had a conversation with me in the summer of 1998.)

There’s no shame in not knowing things. Both the universe and our lack of knowledge about it is infinite. The problem is the refusal to do something that the smartest people always do, and that’s humble yourself when receiving new information. Maybe you haven’t finished that book, but someone else has. Maybe you don’t get why that one thing is a problem, but somebody else does. Maybe the Earth’s curvature is a difficult concept for you to grasp, but it has been studied for hundreds of years and there are scientists who can explain it to you, if you allow them to.

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The arrogance Irving has shown, when questioned about some of these beliefs, is magnified by his basketball prowess. Compared with other NBA players, he’s not a freak-of-nature athlete, and at 6-foot-2 he’s a relatively normal-sized human. His otherworldliness is mostly due to his work ethic and his brain just processing information, angles and body calculus … differently. I’m tempted to say that he hoops in cursive. But my handwriting has always been bad, so that’s not much of a compliment from me. Instead, the way he plays reminds me of what Kiese Laymon once said about revisiting and revising your writing: “Revision required witnessing and testifying. Witnessing and testifying required rigorous attempts at remembering and imagining. If revision was not God, revision was everything every God ever asked of believers.”

Irving is known as the best ball handler the NBA has ever seen — a status bestowed on him by the best ball handlers the NBA has ever seen. Each counter, each hesi, each sleight of hand, each act of basketball alchemy, is a revision of a culmination of revisions. Which means it’s an act of love. Not in a romantic sense, but a love of craft that finds limitless time and space in the ephemeral. You watch him and you wonder how he managed to do seven different moves in a two-second span, but then you remember that the universe was once the size of a Pepsi can, and you stop questioning God. His game is less about bending the rules to see what he can get away with than subverting them to pursue the basketball equivalent of the most beautiful death.

But this basketball-specific genius — honed through tens of thousands of hours perfecting his craft and assisted by his God-given spatial intelligence — is untransferable. And so now you have a man without an intellectual anchor, armed with the confidence of decades of positive reinforcement of one particular type of unrelated genius, and backed by thousands who see him as an unusually principled martyr instead of an intellectually immature man lost at sea.

I doubt he even watched the bloated, sloppy and dangerous “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America” before he shared it on Instagram. If he would’ve just said that, or that he didn’t realize it was antisemitic, or even that he was just looking for outfit tips for the “Wakanda Forever” premiere, I doubt this saga would’ve stretched as long as it has. But instead of apologizing for his recklessness, he doubled down, got suspended, and has become a sentient Rorschach test for so many things.

An irony with Irving — one in an ecosystem of ironies; there are enough ironies to fill the Itaimbezinho Canyon in Brazil; the known universe is a mastodonic abyss of Kyrie-related ironies, cold, callous, cruel, and we are mere clumps of space dust staving off an external swallow from the walloping void — is that it wasn’t too long ago when a path was clear for him to become one of the most beloved athletes ever. Along with his crowd-pleasing game, he’d already amassed a hall-of-fame-worthy level of accolades and accomplishments by 24. Rookie of the year. All-Star Game MVP. FIBA World Championships MVP. NBA champion. Olympic medalist.

Why this context? I am a basketball junkie — the cliche oldhead who can tell a 30-year-old that I’ve forgotten more about the game than they currently know. And the person I’ve most enjoyed watching play basketball, in all my years of consuming the sport, is Kyrie Irving. So, please imagine for a moment, my frustration while seeing the road that was once clear for him to become as loved and revered as any contemporary athlete. And then watching that road close. And then the highway that road sat on collapse into the sea. And then that sea catch on fire.

And now, today, he mostly exists as an entry point to larger conversations about antisemitism, social media, vaccine mandates, Black athletes and white supremacy. I don’t mind talking about those things. But when someone as polarizing as Irving is the subject, the conversations are mostly reductive, split into easy binaries, when the reality is a bit messier.

The arrogance Irving has shown is magnified by his basketball prowess.

For instance, one of the more popular criticisms of the Irving backlash is that an Instagram share isn’t an endorsement — an argument that reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of social media. I have just under 25,000 followers on Instagram. If I share something on my decent-sized platform, without any caption providing context or criticism, it would be considered an endorsement. That’s just how that works. Brands have even offered me money, for just a share. Kyrie Irving has almost 18 million followers. A share from him is a mega-endorsement as effective as a billboard in Times Square. (This is why someone like Kim Kardashian can charge up to $1 million for one post.)

Another argument is that if the documentary was so bad, Amazon shouldn’t be carrying it. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) There’s a lot of whataboutism happening here, sure. But it is also not wrong. A platform should be accountable for what they carry. How should it look here? I don’t know. I just know that more accountability is rarely wrong.

Many supporters of Irving, particularly some of the more opportunistic bad-faith purveyors of anti-Blackness and anti-wokeness (essentially the same thing), cite everything from “free speech” and “body autonomy” to “cancel culture” and “Jewish hypocrisy” in his defense . If you go to Twitter and search for #IStandWithKyrie, you will find binders full of deplorables.

But then there are people who just feel queasy about his suspension and some of the media coverage — a well-earned skepticism grounded in the reality that nothing in this country is unaffected by race. Was Irving suspended because he’s Black? No. But is he covered with more disdain and vehemence than someone like Brett Favre, who is accused of committing crimes against vulnerable people? Yes. Of course, it’s important to distinguish here that Favre is a retired athlete, while Irving is in his prime. The analogy is imperfect, because the expectation of coverage and consequence are different. But still, does race matter here? Yes.

I have not yet addressed antisemitism, because I’m not quite sure where to start. So, let’s just go somewhere easy and safe and a little weird: my vertical leap. My freshman year of college, I had the highest vertical leap on the team: 36 inches. (The mark was surpassed a year later, by a teammate who recorded 40. I still hate him.) Jumping is something that’s considered natural for Black athletes, based on the theory that we have inherent bone structure and quick twitch advantages allowing us, on aggregate, to jump higher than non-Black athletes. Of course, the truth is a bit more complicated than that, but this widely held belief is an example of what’s believed to be a positive stereotype. Because who wouldn’t want to be known for jumping high? What’s the downside in embracing that?

The problem is that any conversation about athletic advantages possessed by Black people is threaded to the idea that we are naturally bigger and stronger and tougher than White people, which is threaded to the idea that we’re specifically built for physical labor, which is threaded to the idea that we are brutes, which is threaded to the idea that we have inherent intellectual defects, which is threaded to the idea that we are inferior and meant to be colonized and subjugated by the people with the bigger brains.

I think there is a vast lack of literacy on what constitutes antisemitism. Many non-Jewish folks consider it to just be overt hatred of Jewish people. That’s not very dissimilar to thinking that possessing anti-Blackness means you must be in the Klan. Some people who’ve been oppressed, like Black people have, might consider it a good stereotype that Jewish people are known to have influential positions in law, banking and entertainment. Many of us don’t realize that seemingly positive stereotype was one of the Nazis’ justifications for genocide.

I don’t think Kyrie Irving has any personal animus against Jewish people. I think, at the moment, there is a heightened sensitivity to antisemitism because of the words and actions of people like Kanye West and Donald Trump, and the response to Irving is connected to that. But you can say or do something antisemitic without being hateful. I’ve probably been guilty of that myself. Intent matters, but not as much as action. Not as much as how your actions made someone feel.

There is also a legitimate sensitivity among some Black people about how anti-Blackness seems to be culturally permissible in a way that antisemitism just isn’t. I think this interpretation is myopic, but the hurt expressed there is real. More education is always better. More understanding is always better. And Irving’s actions and the reaction to them are an opportunity for radical and equilibrium-shifting empathy.

I hope that he is working toward an intellectual anchor. I’m disheartened by the reality that so many of us seem to believe that true equality is just the freedom to be the worst possible person. And given how popular and influential Irving is, maybe a sincere, contrite and transparent response to this very public accountability could help shift us the other way. His extensive apology, with SNY’s Ian Begley, and his reinstatement to the Nets, suggest that he is moving in that direction.

It has always been absurd to me that apologizing is seen, by some people, as weak and cowardly, which are synonyms for “unmanly” — in itself is an indictment of how we define gender and what we expect from it — when learning new information, acknowledging wrongdoing and apologizing for it is much harder than standing firm in a puddle of wrong. Maybe he’ll help change that for us too. It’s Kyrie Irving, so anything is possible.

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