The Neverending Disappointment of Kyrie Irving

A Sherrod BlakelyContributor IApril 20, 2022

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 17: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets looks on during Round 1 Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs on April 17, 2022 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE  (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

For all the high-level drama and intrigue Boston's Game 1 win over Brooklyn on Sunday brought us, none of that matters now.

That has all taken a backseat to the continued standoff between former Celtic Kyrie Irving and the Boston fanbase, which has shown no mercy in its verbal assault on Irving each time he has returned to the TD Garden.

But the way Irving has clapped back—giving Celtics fans the middle finger repeatedly, responding with a misogynist rebuttal after being told "you suck!" by fans—has been met with predictable fan and media criticism, in addition to the NBA's disciplinary committee, which on Tuesday levied a $50,000 fine for his behavior.

It would be understandable to empathize with Irving's defense. "I don't want to attack every fan—every Boston fan—but when people start yelling, 'p---y, b---h and f--k you' and all this stuff, there's (only) so much you can take as a competitor," Irving told reporters after the loss. "We're the ones expected to be docile and be humble and take a humble approach. Nah, f--k that, it's the playoffs. This is what it is. I know what to expect here and it's the same energy I'm giving back to them."

Will the fine be a deterrent and make Irving think twice before engaging fans who heckle him?

Of course not.

So what should give him reason to pause next time? He may find out in tonight's Game 2 first-round playoff game against Boston's new sixth man, the fans, who clearly own some of Irving's focus.

The entire situation has opened up a Pandora's Box of questions and concerns that the NBA would rather avoid. At the heart of the issue: When should players be forgiven for responding to heckling fans, especially those of Irving's stature, a seven-time All-Star revered by millions?

For Irving to be at the epicenter of controversy should come as no surprise. Yet still, there seems to be a baffling void of self-awareness of his own reputation, whose brand centers around peace, love and faith.

Remember these signature moments:

  • Proclaiming the Earth is flat, only to later say it was all an "exploitation tactic" to have a broader, thought-provoking conversation. But in a separate interview with UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma, Irving said that he had done his own research and concluded there was no "real" picture of Earth.
  • Demanding a trade from Cleveland in 2017 after coming up short in the NBA Finals to Golden State, a decision that reportedly caught LeBron James—someone Irving had said he was close to shortly before asking to be traded—off guard.
  • Irving's refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19, which led to him missing games this season because of the then-New York City vaccination mandate for local professional athletes and performers. His absence was a factor in Brooklyn's struggles and played at least a small part in perennial All-Star James Harden demanding a trade.
  • And more recently, Irving's very public exchanges—yes, plural not singular—with Celtics fans during Boston's Game 1 win over the Nets on Sunday. Those engagements included both verbal (Warning: strong language) and non-verbal exchanges that will prove costly in some form, for Irving.

Sunday's antics and comments were another reputation and credibility hit for Irving, who is already dealing with a noticeable dip in popularity. (It's particularly noticeable when it comes to jersey sales. Irving has been in the top 10 among NBA jersey sales every year since 2014, peaking at No. 4 in 2016. In January, the NBA along with the NBPA released the top jersey sales for the first half of the season, and Irving didn't even crack the top 15.)

Just as surprising is the fact that Irving seems taken aback by the level of trash talk that has come his way in Boston, a city that has a well-earned reputation for being tough on opponents—especially those that left the city under less-than-ideal circumstances, which is indeed the case with Irving.

This of course has the potential to make the knucklehead fan looking for 15 minutes of fame even more emboldened to verbally attack him knowing he'll likely respond. Only a fool would expect escalation leading to de-escalation in Game 2. As NBA coaches are quick to point out, it's a copy-cat league. The same holds true for boorish behavior by fans.

We have seen several examples in the past couple of years where fans have taken their disdain for an opponent too far, and the cycle never stops. Portland center Jusuf Nurkic confronted a fan who allegedly shouted, "your mom is trash" and that his "grandma's a b---h!" league sources told Yahoo Sports. Nurkic's grandmother died of COVID-19 in 2020. The NBA, sticking strictly to policy, still fined Nurkic.

It's sad to see to hear about those types of stories; even sadder to know that the nasty vitriol that Nurkic endured is happening at other NBA arenas, too. But does that mean players should respond the way Irving did?

The Ringer's Culture/NBA writer Wosney Lambre said it best: "I think it's a bad look for the players to be wilding on the fans like this. Fair or not, the players are held to a higher standard of decorum than the loser fans. It is what it is."

There's a lot more at stake for players to lose by reacting the way Irving did, than there is to gain. Washington's Kyle Kuzma was fined $15,000 for giving the middle finger to a fan earlier this season. Irving was hit with a $25,000 fine when he directed obscene language toward a fan at his old stomping ground, in Cleveland.

One of the strengths of the NBA for so many years has been its ability to keep fans close to the action; certainly closer than you would be at a football, baseball or hockey game. That high level of intimacy is at the very core of premium NBA ticket sales.

Yet the kind of engagement we saw in Game 1 in Boston between Irving and the fans, is exactly what the league does not want to see. The conversation becomes toxic, and bad ideas reach the masses.

NFL Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe expressed his thoughts on Irving's kerfuffle with fans, and how he would handle it if it were him in Irving's shoes.

"I'm gonna tell someone (a teammate), 'Aye, throw the ball over my head. I'm going into the stands,'" Sharpe said. "I'm gonna make like I'm trying to receive the ball ... I'mma catch somebody with an elbow, right on the chin."

As someone who was on press row at the Malice at the Palace in 2004, Sharpe's take is really bad. The domino effect of doing what he suggests would essentially create the potential for Malice at the Palace 2.0, a time that the NBA and its players have no interest in revisiting.

Irving raises a number of good points asking why athletes have to be the bigger person in these engagements. We're all just people, with dignity. Fans should get that. Inevitably, some don't.

Words of wisdom from NBA players who have fought this battle—and won—need to be heard right now. Bill Russell walked in Irving's shoes well before Irving, under much different circumstances.

(Warning: Uncensored racist terms of abuse follow.)

"The Boston Celtics proved to be an organization of good people—from (then-owner) Walter Brown to (General manager/head coach) Red Auerbach, to most of my teammates," Russell told Slam magazine in 2020. "I cannot say the same about the fans or the city. During games people yelled hateful, indecent things: 'Go back to Africa,' 'Baboon,' 'Coon,' 'Nigger.' I used their unkindness as energy to fuel me, to work myself into a rage, a rage I used to win."

A generation later, Russell's words breathe necessary perspective into a messy topic. Russell won in more ways than just winning games. He took the high road, and the NBA helped push the culture forward. He still represents the center of the league's soul. His strength became permanent.

Now, with fans wielding camera phones ready to capture their own 15 seconds of fame, the stakes are ever higher. Fans can become viral hits in a heartbeat. Nobody remembers the names or faces of Russell's jeering fans. With one middle finger, Irving can turn a nobody into a somebody, and inspire a sea of fans eager to see their own infamy.

That's the sad reality.