We’re less than a month into what is already one of the more tumultuous NBA seasons on record, and the attention of the basketball world is riveted upon a player who is, once again, not playing. Kyrie Irving hasn’t appeared in a game for the Brooklyn Nets since Jan. 5, a 34-point shellacking of the Utah Jazz in which he led the team with 29 points. Irving’s absence, vaguely attributed to “personal reasons,” has now stretched to five games. Earlier this week, footage surfaced of a maskless Irving attending his sister’s 30th birthday party, an event that allegedly took place during his unexplained basketball hiatus. And on Tuesday night, as Kevin Durant and the rest of his Nets teammates prepared to take on the Nuggets, Irving was on a Zoom call for supporters of progressive Manhattan district attorney candidate Tahanie Aboushi.
When the Nets put together a championship contender in the summer of 2019, they surely weren’t envisioning a star trio of Kyrie Irving, Cynthia Nixon, and Linda Sarsour. In fairness, they probably didn’t imagine they’d be able to swing a blockbuster trade for James Harden either. But here we are: After Wednesday’s four-team deal, the Nets now boast the most potent offensive threesome in NBA history—that is, if Irving decides to suit up. And nobody, including Irving’s coach, Steve Nash, seems to have any idea about his status. On Wednesday, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith called on Irving to retire.
This is just the latest and arguably most extreme impasse in the career of Kyrie Irving, the most flummoxing and inscrutable NBA superstar of his generation. Irving is a player blessed with enormous basketball talents who’s also cursed with a temperament that’s existentially incompatible with the life of a pro athlete. Just a few years ago—hell, maybe even a few weeks ago—Irving seemed bound for the Hall of Fame. Today, it’s unclear when and where he will put on an NBA uniform again. He is a fascinating and complicated person who’s also a living reminder that professional sports are an inhospitable place for fascinating and complicated people.
Irving, still just 28, is in the tenth season of a career in which he has already experienced every desirable situation an NBA player could dream of. In 2011, he was drafted first overall by a Cleveland Cavaliers team intent on making him their franchise centerpiece. After three abysmal seasons (hardly Kyrie’s fault, as the organization whiffed on high draft picks like Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett) and a series of spectacular soda commercials, the Cavs lucked into the greatest free-agency gift in history when LeBron James chose to return to Cleveland. Suddenly, Kyrie was playing alongside one of the greatest players of all time, making three straight Finals runs and playing a huge role in the Cavs’ 2016 championship, hitting the decisive shot in one of the most memorable series in NBA history.
Irving demanded a trade one year after that charmed 2016 season, having grown tired of playing in James’ shadow and wanting an opportunity to lead his own team. He landed with the Boston Celtics, a storied franchise with a potent mix of versatile, team-first veterans and up-and-coming blue-chip talent. It seemed like the perfect landing spot: Kyrie was looking for a team to lead, and the Celtics were looking for a superstar to lead them. And yet within two years it had all come apart, his Boston tenure undone by sniping with teammates, coaches, management, and media members. He decamped to Brooklyn in the summer of 2019, getting his wish of playing with Durant, his good friend. After a 2019-20 season lost to injury, the Nets won their first two games this year by a combined 54 points. Not long after that, Kyrie Irving disappeared, for reasons he hasn’t explained. In the meantime, the franchise has reshaped itself—and perhaps made him expendable.
It’s impossible, going back through that list of transactions, to come up with a coherent explanation of what Irving is looking for on the court. His off-the-court ambitions seem clearer. Irving has been an outspoken supporter of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe dating back to the Keystone Pipeline protests of 2016, and has publicly embraced his own Standing Rock Sioux heritage, even releasing a Nike signature shoe featuring a tribal seal. Last summer, he co-produced a documentary about the killing of Breonna Taylor, and he publicly pledged $1.5 million to WNBA players who opted to sit out the 2020 season. That Zoom call with a DA candidate this week wasn’t some lark. It’s a demonstration of his consistent willingness to put his time and money towards the causes he cares about.
There’s so much to admire about Irving, and yet, for every admirable deed, he’s seemed to compulsively undo those good feelings with graceless and tone-deaf actions. The trollish promotion of flat-earth conspiracy theories, the passive-aggressive shots at teammates and former teammates, the fickle treatment of the press. When he was trying to force his way out of Cleveland, Irving reportedly threatened to have knee surgery if the team didn’t assent to trade him. In 2019, ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan reported that Irving was notorious for “mood swings,” in which he “shuts down, unwilling to communicate with the coaching staff, front office and, sometimes, even his teammates.” In a photo shoot for the Nets, MacMullan wrote, “Irving refused to remove his hat and instructed them to photoshop it out.”
The footage of Irving at his sister’s birthday party, if it in fact was filmed recently, is all the more baffling given Irving’s outspoken concern about the NBA’s commitment to player safety. Irving has sometimes expressed contrition about his more inexplicable behavior, but more often he’s partaken in modern celebrity’s favorite pastime: claiming he’s a victim of the media. The truth is, many of Irving’s critiques of NBA hegemony are well-founded, and at times he has been vilified unfairly. In July, as preparations ramped up for the NBA’s Orlando bubble, Irving was the subject of an ESPN report that depicted him as a two-faced “disruptor,” a reckless gadfly sowing dissent among pro basketball’s rank-and-file. The story came off as a smear job delivered at the behest of league higher-ups seeking to discredit Irving’s misgivings about returning to play. Those misgivings, which Irving articulated on a call with his fellow players, were rooted in totally reasonable concerns about both player health and the dubious political message of a predominantly Black league returning to play at a time of widespread protest and social crisis.
“I look at Kyrie as somebody who is an artist,” Kevin Durant told Jackie MacMullan in that 2019 ESPN piece. “You have to leave him alone.” There is a lot of truth to that—like many unusually creative people, Irving seems to be an introspective loner by temperament. But that personality type often feels antithetical to the duties of an NBA point guard, a position that puts a premium on attributes like leadership, extroversion, and unselfishness. Great athletes often talk about their sport as a “refuge,” particularly when reflecting on their formative years, before they were massively famous. Irving appears trapped in the contradictions of the life he’s made for himself, a superstar athlete, pitchman, and movie star who wants nothing more than solitude.
Irving is one of the most exciting players of his era, an offensive virtuoso who transforms the court into a personal playground of impossible angles and invisible driving lanes. Watch Irving play with any regularity, and you’ll see him do things with the basketball that defy belief. He has rightly gained a reputation as one of the greatest ballhandlers in NBA history, an on-ball wizard capable of making the best defenders on earth look like guys on two-way contracts for the Washington Generals (or the Washington Wizards, take your pick).
It’s that handle that most defines Kyrie, in a number of senses. Dribbling is arguably the sport’s most solitary skill—all you need is a ball and you can practice it obsessively, at any time and virtually any place. You can’t really become a great dribbler in collaboration with other people; it’s a skill that depends entirely on your own dogged sense of discipline, craft, and creativity. In a sense Kyrie is a playground archetype extrapolated into a global superstar, the wildly gifted but mercurial talent who’s always been just a little too quick to pick up his ball and go home.
Irving’s recent absence may be due in part to his anger at the Capitol riots and the decision by the Kenosha County, Wisconsin, district attorney not to charge the officers involved in the shooting of Jacob Blake. (It was Blake’s shooting that led NBA players to strike en masse back in August.) It also could be that he’s upset that the Nets hired Nash as their head coach without soliciting his input. According to one journalist, Irving “is willing to sit out the year if need be.”
On Thursday, Nets general manager Sean Marks said that Irving is “excited” to return to the team. But Marks added that the organization is disappointed by his absence, and that it’s up to Kyrie to explain what he’s been up to. Until that explanation comes, rumors are all we have to go on. For now, the basketball world waits on his next move, and wonders if Kyrie Irving is dribbling out the clock on his thrilling, maddening career.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.