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Playoffs show Nets' Kyrie Irving has come into his own, on court and off

The star point guard has discovered his truth through racial justice work and a recent conversion to Islam. The spiritual odyssey has led him and his team to victory.
Image: Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings in Sacramento, Calif., on Feb. 15, 2021.
Nets guard Kyrie Irving, shown in February, led Brooklyn to a first-round series victory over the Boston Celtics.Kyle Terada / USA TODAY Sports

The Brooklyn Nets are a wrecking ball. Their on-court success is built on the enormous talents of a wondrous trio — Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. After demolishing the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs, they’re now favored to beat the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, which begin Saturday, and are likely hurtling toward their first NBA championship in franchise history.

When Kyrie Irving tells us that “basketball is just not the most important thing to me right now,” there should be little eye-rolling.

Yet the most interesting storyline in Brooklyn’s quest may well be the curious case of Kyrie Irving.

Though a mesmeric basketball talent, Irving is the NBA’s foremost enigma. He has been called a distraction and had his transcendence questioned for boldly challenging conventions. As if on cue, he once again roiled the NBA universe by stomping on the logo of the Celtics — his former team — after game four on Sunday, and later had a water bottle hurled at him by an incensed fan as he exited the floor of Boston’s TD Garden.

But the Nets’ point guard, who has long struggled with his identity as a NBA superstar and has been knocked for occasionally failing to achieve the level of on-court success expected of his considerable abilities, may have finally found a personal and professional contentment. He has discovered his own truth, through racial justice work and a recent conversion to Islam, and this spiritual odyssey has made him the fulcrum of a team that’s vying for the NBA title.

There is no questioning Irving’s galactic talents. He is a bankable NBA star whose jerseys and sneakers sell in abundance. His game is a dazzling amalgam of speed, timing, angles and elite dribbling that defies physics. “He has a center of gravity somewhere just above his knees and the coördination of a jazz drummer,” Thomas Beller wrote in The New Yorker. “He is an expert low dribbler, and in the middle of his moves, especially when he puts the ball behind his back, he sometimes seems to sit for an infinitesimal moment on an invisible chair.”

The former Duke University standout’s skills hold more than just aesthetic value. Irving’s clutch 3-pointer over Steph Curry in the waning seconds of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals won the Cleveland Cavaliers their first championship and forever etched his name in basketball lore. This year, the seven-time league All-Star became the ninth NBA player to gain entry into the remarkable 50-40-90 club, whose members have shot at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line over an entire season.

But despite the NBA title he helped bring to Cleveland in 2016, Irving’s tenure with the Cavaliers was marred by an uneasy coexistence with teammate LeBron James. Irving felt stifled by the towering presence of James, one of the game’s pre-eminent talents, and wanted to lead his own team. As Jonathan Blitzer described the James-Irving relationship in a different New Yorker piece, “it’s a configuration that, for a soloing star like Irving, must feel like a constant apprenticeship.”

Irving’s wish was granted in the form of a trade to the Boston Celtics before the 2017 season. But after just two seasons there, it became obvious that he could not capably marshal this team either: The Celtics advanced the furthest in the playoffs the year their star point guard was injured and off the court. This was wholly unsurprising given his self-professed leadership failures and strained relationships with teammates, the Celtics’ organization and the city. And so in the summer of 2019, Irving departed Boston to begin anew as a member of the Brooklyn Nets.

It is in this time period that Irving finally came to define NBA superstardom and set its expectations for himself. While the world’s suffering was palpable to him long before the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, his thoughts on social justice fully matured in its wake.

“There’s a deeper level of emotions that I have for helping and serving people around the world. And I’ve done it since I was a kid. I’ll continue on way after basketball,” Irving told the Daily News this year. “There’s nothing normal about this life that I live. It’s just something I’ve come to accept and embrace as, let me use this as a tool to be able to change things that I want to see in the world, and I have to be honest with myself about how much energy I give that, and how many others I’m impacting.”

The early signs of this metamorphosis into a crusader against racism and oppression have been on offer ever since Irving was a freshman at Duke. Even then, the 18-year-old spoke profoundly about life beyond the basketball court. “Kyrie was always different,” former teammate Nolan Smith told the New York Post. “He always thought different, and moved different.”

Irving’s “different” has confoundingly manifested as an unexplained seven-game absence this year, flat-earth comments, calling reporters “pawns” and flouting Covid-19 protocols. But none of this can sully his capacious activism — buying Floyd’s family a home, financially helping WNBA players who opted out of playing for pandemic or social justice reasons, supporting the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and making food donations and other charitable contributions.

Soon after a recent announcement of his observation of Ramadan and conversion to Islam, Irving connected the many dots of injustice at home and abroad and became the most prominent American athlete to give voice to the plight of the Palestinian people.

Irving’s convictions and work are all a backdrop for the water bottle that was lobbed at him only days ago by a white man in a Celtics jersey. Postgame, he spoke of the episode’s “underlying racism” and the challenges of being “a Black man playing in the NBA.” Rachael Rollins, the Suffolk County district attorney who charged the fan with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, also acknowledged the dangers of this happening “in a sport that is overwhelmingly Black men.”

None of this transpired in a vacuum, as similar incidents were also reported recently during playoff games in New York City, Philadelphia and Utah. Though unneeded, these are harrowing reminders of why the blight of racism is ever present and easily larger than any basketball game, and why Irving will continue to broach the issue.

And so when Kyrie Irving tells us that “basketball is just not the most important thing to me right now,” there should be little eye-rolling. With Irving’s individuality finally unshackled, he has unapologetically dedicated himself to a cause much greater than building his own personal brand or entertaining legions of NBA fans. While the Brooklyn Nets will need his talents on the court in their playoff campaign, the world will stand to benefit more from his humanity and charity off it.