The modern professional athlete serves many purposes in our society. For one, they are excellent spokespeople for products ranging from homeowners insurance all the way down to your favorite local fast food chain. For years, the defining aspect of Isaiah Thomas' career for me was him stating clearly for the record that he was, in fact, a "pizza guy."
Athletes can also be engines for social change, like Colin Kaepernick's anthem protest or LeBron James speaking out about Ferguson. Athletes are icons, role models, and, in the rarefied air of true superstars, they're economic powerhouses that rival small island nations. And they're also people. I know, hard to believe.
In an appearance on ESPN's First Take on Monday, new Celtic Kyrie Irving made it clear his trade demand was for himself and himself alone. When pressed on whether LeBron James was consulted about his decision to ask to be dealt out of Cleveland, he said:
"I don't think you owe anything to another person in terms of figuring out what you want to do with your life. It's not anything personal. I'm not here to tirade anybody or to go at any particular person or the organization, because I have nothing but love for Cleveland. I have nothing but love for the times that I spent there. It's nothing about that. There comes a time where you mature as an individual, it's time to make that decision. And there is no looking back from that standpoint. There is no time to figure out how to save someone's feelings when ultimately you have to be selfish in figuring out what you want to do."
The short version is, he's a grown man and he made a decision based on what was best for him. The quirk here is that what's best for him seems borderline ridiculous to you and me, the average cranky sports fans. How could he not want to play with the best basketball player of his generation? How could he leave a team that's been to the NBA Finals three years in a row to start from scratch with a Celtics franchise that hasn't been to the Finals in the last seven seasons? Kyrie, are you out of your mind?
Saying you don't want to play with LeBron James is akin to saying your favorite flavor of LaCroix is coconut. Not even talking to him before the decision made it even more perplexing. After all they've been through, one might think they were best friends, when in reality, like most of the people you interact with at work, they're simply colleagues. There aren't many professions left where it's expected that you consult your colleagues on business decisions, but the highest strata of pro sports is one of them.
It doesn't help when someone like Irving, at the top of his chosen career field, says things on ESPN (h/t Washington Post) like "I don't really have an ego. I have a presence and aura about me that's very reality-based," or "Oh, if you're very much woke, there's no such thing as distractions, especially all this."
I don't think much about my own aura, nor do I imagine many people do. I'm more concerned with how my breath smells or whether or not you noticed that my socks don't match because I was in too much of a hurry to find the right pair.
Initially, you read Kyrie's quotes about "being woke," "not having an ego," and "remaining reality-based" and wonder how a multi-millionaire celebrity basketball player can live in anything resembling "reality." But that success allows people like Kyrie Irving to spend most of their time focusing on themselves and what's around them. Consider all the lonely days in the gym getting shots up, the hours of cardio and the interminable travel that comes with being an NBA player. That's a lot of time to ponder, and it's time you and I just don't have.
In 2017, I don't think we know what we want from superstar athletes, besides an unfettered ability to criticize them for whatever transgressions (perceived or otherwise) they have perpetrated on us or our favorite team. Entire television networks exist for the purposes of second (and third) guessing every move people like Kyrie, LeBron, Kevin Durant and others make.
Athletes are also unique in the celebrity world in that they ostensibly represent our personal interests when they do their jobs. They're not just employees; they're avatars of our happiness or sadness. They work for our city, after all. So when Kyrie leaves the Cavs, he's not just abandoning his teammates or owner Dan Gilbert. He's ditching an entire metropolitan area.
Same with KD, who walked out of Oklahoma City to go play for the Warriors. To a certain type of fan, it was a slight against the citizens of an American state, not a business decision. The fact that Durant is still defending himself to random strangers on Twitter proves how deeply hurt a lot of NBA heads were when he went to Oakland to create the T-1000 of basketball squads.
Dirk Nowitzki, in the latter stages of a surefire Hall of Fame career, recently came out and said that there's a lack of loyalty in the NBA today. Last week, he told SiriusXM NBA Radio that in today's game "it's about making money and winning and not as much about being loyal anymore." This is a curious statement, because it places the power in the organization that reaps the benefits of a player's talent, rather than in the blessed hands of the man or woman performing the miraculous athletic feats that bring people to the arena.
Questions of loyalty rarely come up with receptionists, dentists or school bus drivers. The media doesn't spend hour after breathless hour debating whether a driving school instructor respects the organization that pays his or her bills. Then again, none of the people who do those jobs are responsible for the self-esteem of their entire zip code.
Kyrie Irving will always be the guy who hit the dagger to clinch Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. At the same time, he's not the guy who blocked Andre Iguodala's layup. There's being great, and then there's being the greatest.
The idea of being The Guy on an NBA team is what initially bugged so many people about Durant's exit to the Bay Area. NBA watchers couldn't understand why Durant was shirking his perceived responsibility as a leader to join a team that already had more than one top dog. Now, Kyrie is taking flak for actively looking for a situation where he could be The Guy. Kyrie and KD are different people with different priorities, though there's some generic overlap like winning and making money—the very things Nowitzki feels are warping the values of the game.
I don't see the idea of players dictating their futures as controversial. It's light years away from the borderline indentured servitude athletes toiled under in the middle of the last century, when player movement was heavily restricted and free agency simply didn't exist. Men and women with the innate drive to be the best tend to want to decide their own fates just as much as a cheese-eating schlub like myself.
They make more money than us. They drive nicer cars than us. Whether they stand for the national anthem is front page news. Still, they put their pants on one leg at a time and various other folksy cliches. Doesn't it make the sport more fun to let these guys be themselves as much as possible? Shouldn't we encourage that?
Athletes are paid pitchpeople and avatars for civic pride, but they're also avatars for our personal hopes, dreams and aspirations. They get to risk everything and succeed or fail on their own with relative financial security, a luxury few of us are afforded in our lifetime. He can say the earth is flat on national television, which is the ultimate expression of "shoot your shot" we have right now. Cheer or boo Kyrie Irving. Understand him or not. At least he's being real.