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Kyrie Irving returns to Nets as suspension ends after eight games

Kyrie Irving returned to the Nets on Sunday following an eight-game suspension. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP)

Kyrie Irving returned to the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday following an eight-game team suspension for linking to an antisemitic film on his social media accounts and for initially refusing to disavow the film’s content.

The seven-time all-star guard, who was cleared by the Nets after fulfilling a list of conditions mandated by the team, reentered the starting lineup and posted 14 points and five rebounds in a 127-115 win over the Memphis Grizzlies in New York. A group of Black Hebrew Israelites demonstrated outside Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in conjunction with Irving’s return, which was his first game action since Nov. 1.

Though Irving declined to answer non-basketball questions during his postgame media availability, he held a news conference earlier Sunday in which he said he was not antisemitic and apologized multiple times.

“I just want to offer my deep apologies to all those who were impacted over these last few weeks, specifically my Jewish relatives and Black relatives, all races and cultures,” Irving said. “I feel like we all felt an impact. I don’t stand for anything close to hate speech or antisemitism or anything that’s going against the human race.”

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Irving, who last month had gotten into contentious exchanges with reporters who questioned why he had linked to the antisemitic film, acknowledged regrets Sunday about how he had handled the situation.

“I feel it was necessary for me to stand in this place and take accountability for my actions,” Irving said. “There was a way I should have handled all this. When I look back and reflect, when I had the opportunity to offer my deep regrets to anyone who felt threatened or hurt by what I posted, that wasn’t my intent at all. I meant no harm to any person or group of people.

“This is a big moment for me because I’m able to learn that the power of my voice is very strong and the influence I have within my community is very strong. I want to be responsible for that, and in order to do that, you have to admit when you’re wrong in instances where you hurt people.”

Irving also taped an extended interview with SNY on Saturday in which he said he had met with members of the Jewish community.

“It was a learning journey,” Irving said. “It was a lot of hurt that needed to be healed and a lot of conversations that needed to be had. I’m a man who stands for peace. I don’t condone any hate speech or prejudice. … I’m not antisemitic. I never have been. I don’t have hate in my heart for the Jewish people.”

Following a week of controversy and evasive answers about his social media posts, Irving was suspended Nov. 3 by the Nets, who deemed him “currently unfit to be associated” with the organization and stipulated a list of conditions that he must meet to rejoin the team. After Irving initially refused to apologize for linking to the film, Brooklyn mandated he undergo sensitivity training, donate $500,000 to anti-hate causes and meet with Nets owner Joe Tsai to talk through the situation.

Irving, 30, issued a public apology shortly after he was suspended, and he met with Tsai as well as with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Though Irving agreed to donate $500,000 in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League before his apology, the nonprofit organization’s CEO said he wouldn’t accept the money because “Kyrie feels no accountability for his actions.”

The Nets’ initial suspension stated Irving would miss “no less than five games,” raising the possibility that he could remain away from the team for an extended period and fueling speculation that he might not return at all. Several prominent players, including Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, argued that the conditions of Irving’s return were too stringent.

The National Basketball Players Association, which participated in conversations with the NBA and Irving, said in a statement Sunday that Irving “has been on a journey of reflection, learning and open dialogue” and “he remains committed to using his platform to bring people together through love and understanding.”

The union added, “We’re excited to see him back with his teammates doing what he loves.”

Irving, who maintained a low profile during his suspension, worked his way through the stipulated return process, leading Nets Coach Jacque Vaughn to tell reporters this past week that Irving could play Sunday.

Tsai said Nov. 11 that he and his wife had met with Irving the day before and left convinced that “Kyrie does not have any beliefs of hate towards Jewish people or any group.” He added that all parties were “working constructively toward a process of forgiveness, healing and education.”

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After meeting with Irving on Nov. 8, Silver also concluded that he had “no doubt” that Irving was not antisemitic, according to the New York Times. Silver, however, said a league investigation concluded the film Irving linked to constituted “hate speech” and Irving’s suspension had been the “right outcome.”

In a statement posted to Instagram on Nov. 3, Irving apologized “to all Jewish families and communities that are hurt and affected from my post,” acknowledging that he had linked to a film that “contained some false antisemitic statements, narratives and language that were untrue and offensive.”

Irving continued: “I initially reacted out of emotion to being unjustly labeled antisemitic, instead of focusing on the healing process of my Jewish Brothers and Sisters that were hurt from the hateful remarks made in the documentary. I want to clarify any confusion on where I stand fighting against antisemitism by apologizing for posting the documentary without context and a factual explanation outlining the specific beliefs in the documentary I agreed with.”

The Nets, who named Vaughn their coach Nov. 9 after parting ways with Steve Nash, are 8-9 following Sunday’s win. They went 5-3 during Irving’s suspension.

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