Kyrie Irving’s return to basketball won’t put an end to the controversy he started

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NEW YORK — There were two microphones Sunday night, and each one told a story all its own.

The one on the platform between Atlantic Ave. and Flatbush, between the subway station and an arena, belonged to one man as he spoke to scores of men in purple and yellow sweatshirts lined up in unison to listen, as well as to passersby going to that night’s NetsGrizzlies game or just minding their own business. The voice coming from that microphone was unceasing, speaking of biblical passages, of his people, of the Holocaust in Germany, comparing it to the one they have faced and remarking it was not quite as bad. He said they were the real Jews, “not you nominals.” He was, if not the leader of the group of some 300 members of Israelites United In Christ who settled outside the Barclays Center for hours Sunday, at least its voice. He talked for hours on a blisteringly cold night as the rest gave out pamphlets proselytizing for their cause, giving their warped truth of antisemitism, the kind that caused the group to be flagged by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Inside the arena, a few hours later, Kyrie Irving took to a microphone again, a routine but fraught occurrence by now for the Nets star. The group that had taken up so much space and noise around Barclays, lining the streets, unmistakable and unavoidable, had come not because of him, but in response to him. Irving had tweeted out a link to the Amazon page for an antisemitic movie, refused to apologize for it and showed no remorse. Four days later, caught in the middle of a storm, he played at home, and this group appeared, too. He did not play again until Sunday night, having been suspended by the Nets in the interim. Just as he returned from a 19-day absence from the Nets, they did, too.

Of all the criticism lobbed at Irving after the tweet that started it all, the most poignant and real was not that he was actually antisemitic or full of hate. It was that he had shared a piece of propaganda, giving oxygen to the kind of tropes and lies that Jews have faced for centuries, and refused to condemn it forcefully and quickly, choosing elliptical restraint instead until he was finally suspended and could not ignore the criticism anymore. Irving may be about love and peace, as he insists, but these were the consequences that many feared. A diminishment of pain, of death, of the horrors that ruined the lives of so many men and women and families, for generations. Right there, on Atlantic Ave. and Flatbush.

Video via Mike Vorkunov / The Athletic

By Sunday night, Irving had already submitted his apologies. He had made one in an Instagram post two weeks ago, but after he had been cast away by the Nets’ organization. He had made another one that afternoon, in his return to the Nets, after, he said, speaking with Jewish leaders. Irving still bristled at times, indicating he felt misunderstood and mislabeled, but he was regretful and meant no harm, he said.

Now, Irving wanted only to focus on the game, a 127-112 win over the Grizzlies in which he had played 26 minutes and scored 14 points. He had missed his teammates and his coaches, he said, and they welcomed him back with ease. Jacque Vaughn, newly hired as head coach while Irving was away, said he laid out the ground rules to Irving in a chat that day.

“It’s about hooping, and I use that word right there that from this day on, that’s what we’re going to be about,” Vaughn said. “Basketball is factual. You get the rebound, that’s a fact. You box out, that’s a fact. You make the shot, that’s a fact. We’re going to make this thing factual. It’s going to be about basketball and we’ll live in that space.”

As if Irving’s slipperiness with facts was not the reason this had metastasized into the situation he and the Nets found themselves in this month. It was hard to say the Nets had returned to normal just yet. The scene inside the press conference room at Barclays on Sunday indicated how irregular this all was. As Irving spoke, Shetellia Riley Irving, his agent and stepmother, and Tamika Tremaglio, the NBPA executive director, listened along just feet away, as did other union officials.

When a reporter laid out the scene above, of the demonstrators who had come out in support, Irving demurred. That conversation would be for another day, he said. This press conference just about the game.

Just hours earlier, Irving had proclaimed he had come to realize the voice he carries, the one with 4.7 million Twitter followers and the pedestal that comes attached to international fame, and now he hoped to harness it.

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

But when another reporter asked if the demonstrators had come out as a consequence of what he had done, he demurred once more.

“Again,” he said. “I’m just here to focus on the game.”

The time for mea culpas may be over, at least for Irving. Basketball questions will soon fill the vacuum left behind by the chaos of the last few weeks. A quotidian trance will take over after the uneasiness that unsettled a franchise.

Irving missed eight games in a most unusual way, punished not for what he said, but what he then refused to say despite chance after chance to do so. He said that he may still seek legal options to rectify the eight games of pay he lost, though there is no timetable in place for that process. NBPA leaders, like union vice president Jaylen Brown, may have taken issue with his suspension and the terms for his comeback, but the NBPA will not file a grievance with the league against the Nets, Tremaglio told The Athletic.

Israelites United In Christ protesters line up at Barclays Center

Protesters from the Israelites United In Christ line up at Barclays Center in support of Kyrie Irving. (Mike Vorkunov / The Athletic)

Now, Irving has his voice back. Others have already heard it and found it as an opportunity to amplify their own. It was hard not to hear it in Brooklyn Sunday night.

But he will use it on his own terms, he reminded everyone Sunday night. He, ultimately, picks when to make the most of the platform he has built. Irving has sought atonement, he has sought forgiveness and clarity, and after nearly a month of controversy, he was asked when he will use that microphone to discuss what is his said in his name.

“I would like to be on a platform where I could openly share how I feel without being harshly criticized or being labeled or dealing with outside perceptions that have nothing to do with me,” he said. “Again, I said this morning, I just want to elaborate on just everyone getting to know who Kai is, what AI is, and what I represent in my tribe. That’s it.”

(Photo of Kyrie Irving: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)




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