The 28-year-old former Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics star, in his second season with the Nets, portrayed himself as having struggled to find a satisfying balance between his professional life as a basketball player and his personal desire to help others in need. He also said he had “a lot of family and personal” issues to deal with, declining to elaborate.
Referring to the fact that he grew up relatively close by in West Orange, N.J., Irving said, “I’m a hometown kid, so things hit a little different when family and personal stuff is going on, and that’s up to me to handle that as a man. But yeah, I just take full accountability for my absence with the guys. Just had a conversation with each one of them, and we move on.”
In his absence, the Nets made a personnel move that happened to cause a ripple or two in basketball circles. Of the blockbuster trade for another all-star guard, James Harden, Irving claimed he was “very excited just to have James here.”
“Obviously, letting go some of the pieces that have been here in the Nets organization for a while, even before I got here, was going to be hard regardless,” he added. “It’s just the nature of the business, we’re all brothers still, so we’re just moving on into the next phase of just developing as a team and building some camaraderie and having fun.”
The fact that Irving wasn’t with his team became publicly apparent on Jan. 7, a day after the riot at the U.S. Capitol, when he was ruled out of a game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Brooklyn Coach Steve Nash said at the time that he wasn’t sure of the reason for Irving’s absence and that they had not spoken.
On Tuesday, Nash said it was “great to have Kyrie back in the building and with the group.”
“We’ve missed him,” continued the first-year coach, a former all-star guard in his own right. “I’m excited to get him back out there on the floor. … It’s hard to build chemistry without playing, and we’re not playing in practice. So, the chemistry is going to be formed on the floor during games. It’s going to take some time, but we’re excited about the possibilities.”
Irving echoed that sentiment, telling reporters of the new-look squad to which he returned, “It’s just really exciting to be able to play with great players.”
He said that while he was away, his teammates made him “feel like they have my back.” As for how Nets fans might be feeling, Irving noted that he himself was one of them when the team was based in New Jersey.
“I’ve been invested in this organization since I was a kid,” said Irving. “So now that I’m in this role as a player, there is quite a difference. The fans out there, I want to apologize them as well. My commitment has always been to bringing something special to Brooklyn. It wasn’t just a championship, it was unity, equality, just bigger things than just the game itself. It took quite a while and quite a few valleys to get back home, initially. So for me, I’m just taking every day, just being grateful. But for the casual, or the fanatic, it’s part of our culture. And I’m back, I’m happy to be back.
“We’ve got some great pieces and we’ll just move on, and I’ll let my actions and my game speak for itself, like I planned on doing,” he continued. “Just needed a pause.”
Irving claimed that he spent his time at home, where he worked out, but as far as staycations go, it was an expensive one. After video emerged that appeared to show him maskless while attending a birthday party for his sister, he was fined $50,000 by the NBA for violating its health and safety protocols. Irving was also docked two game checks for the contests he sat out during a mandatory, five-day quarantine, which reportedly added up to a loss of over $800,000.
Irving practiced with the Nets on Tuesday and could play Wednesday in their game at the Cavaliers. Asked if his commitment to playing basketball has wavered, he replied, “There’s a separation between what’s going on here, when I’m playing professionally, and what’s going on out in the world. If you don’t create that distinction, then it’s easy to feel the weight of the world while you’re going out there and playing.
“So I’d be lying, sitting here and saying I don’t feel what’s going on in the world,” he continued. “I just have a huge responsibility, I feel, to continue to serve my community and the underserved. And when I’m out here playing, it’s continuing to leave knowledge with these guys and commit to something, like I always say, bigger than ourselves. This team environment here — or just basketball in general — it takes sacrifice and compromise. You know, we’ve got to come to an agreement to just stay balanced throughout this long journey. That’s all I am trying to do.”
Irving made it sound like he used some of his time away to gain reassurance that he could go ahead and play basketball while still feeling that important off-court work was being carried out.
“I called for help,” he said, “and now I have just so many mentors and so many people reaching out and just taking things off my plate that were never mine in the first place, and they are better suited for that position.
“So I’ll play my role on this big team of changing the world, and others can do the same.”