NBA's Reality Show Swallowing Kyrie Irving and the Game's Biggest Stars Whole

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IMarch 17, 2019

Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

It was in a recent interview that Kyrie Irving admitted what has been obvious to everyone for a long time.

"The way I've handled things, it hasn't been perfect," Irving told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Having left Cleveland and LeBron James behind to join the Celtics via a trade he asked for in 2017, Irving's time as the face of the franchise in Boston has been…rocky. There was never any disputing Irving's ability. The thinness of his skin, and the mixed messages about what he really wants, have been more difficult to unravel.

Irving has treated his Boston teammates at times with the same disdain that ruffled him when he saw it unfold with the Cavs. After a loss to the Magic in January, Irving said, "The young guys don't know what it takes to be a championship-level team."

(These were the same young guys, mind you, who'd pushed James and the Cavs to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals last season...without an injured Irving.)

A few weeks later, Irving was unhappy again, this time because of the media's intrusion into his very public basketball life. In a heated session with reporters last month, he took issue with the national obsession with a video showing Irving and Kevin Durant having a private conversation during All-Star Weekend. The widespread interpretation, of course, was that Irving and Durant were discussing plans to team up with the Knicks as free agents this summer.

"This doesn't make the league fun," Irving said, according to Tom Westerhol of MassLive.

Irving's apparent state of misery in his role as the face and leader of the Celtics raises some compelling questions. First, is Irving really suited for all the attention and responsibility that come with being a modern NBA superstar and face of a franchise?

The broader question, though, is this: In the 24-hour news cycle and social-media hysteria that have engulfed the modern NBA, is anyone really suited for it?

From LeBron facing scrutiny for his harsh approach to leadership; to Durant lecturing the media over its obsession with his always-impending free agency; to Irving proclaiming, "What I do with my life is my business"; the NBA's supposed leaders have shown wanting that job is a lot easier than executing it.

"The NBA has become a freaking reality show," a prominent agent told B/R. "Everyone has become so enamored with Golden State and how good they are that everyone along the way is trying to look for other stories."

With free agency awaiting both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, every interaction between the two has been scrutinized by fans, media and league insiders.
With free agency awaiting both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, every interaction between the two has been scrutinized by fans, media and league insiders.Noah Graham/Getty Images

A Western Conference executive added: "Nobody is focusing on the game anymore. It's all about the sideshow."

As far as Irving is concerned, three team executives who spoke with Bleacher Report believe no team will be deterred by his often clumsy attempts at leadership when it comes time to pony up a max deal for the All-Star on July 1, when he becomes a free agent.

"Most teams don't have the luxury of deciding what type of talent they get," one of the execs said. "They just want the talent."

As for whether Irving may be better suited to the No. 2 role he had as James' sidekick in Cleveland, another executive said, "It seems like that's going to take care of itself."

Indeed, speculation that Irving and Durant will team up in New York has traveled all the way from the hallways of Charlotte's Spectrum Center to NBA front offices. Tantalizing as the pairing could be, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley recently wondered openly if the move made sense, and not for basketball reasons.

"I don't think Durant or Kyrie are tough enough to play in New York," Barkley told Jimmy Traina of SI.com  on Tuesday.  "... Those guys are complaining about the media asking questions. Maybe New York isn't for them."

Barkley's comments touch on one of the greatest challenges NBA stars now face. With the power and freedom players now exert, they have the ability to congregate in bigger markets with other big stars. But the game of free-agent musical chairs everyone plays each summer has generated a perpetual fan curiosity and media obsession so acute that the league's most prominent players want to be left alone so they can "just play basketball."

"If you want to play basketball and make millions of dollars, but you don't want to deal with all this stuff, then go play in Europe," a marketing consultant who sometimes works with NBA players told B/R. "Sorry it's bothering you so much. Sorry that you're under emotional and psychological duress, but that's not how this works."

Like Durant—who has essentially become part of the media with his writings for The Players Tribune and his 17.5 million Twitter followersit's tough for Irving to argue that the media should stay out of his business less than a year after starring in the movie Uncle Drew.

After Irving asked out of his partnership with LeBron James in Cleveland, both have struggled to connect with their new teammates in both Boston and Los Angeles.
After Irving asked out of his partnership with LeBron James in Cleveland, both have struggled to connect with their new teammates in both Boston and Los Angeles.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/Associated Press

"At some point, you made a decision to be in the public eye in a results-driven business," the marketing expert said. "Criticism is part of life.

"Millennials are built in a different way, and one of the bigger foundational components in the way they're built is their sensitivity to criticism," the marketing expert said. "Kyrie is a millennial who happens to be an NBA star, and who is confused and will continue to be confused about who he is."

Maybe it's not even a generational thing. Commissioner Adam Silver suggested earlier this month at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that social media is partly to blame for so many NBA players being unhappy, and there is research to back up his point.

That brings us back to Irving, and the difference between his proclamation that he wants to lead a team and the reality of whether he is suited to be the "face of a franchise," in New York or anywhere else. Or if that's even what he wants.

"I've made a lot of mistakes that I take full responsibility for," Irving told Yahoo Sports. "I apologize. I haven't done it perfectly. I haven't said the right things all the time. ... I think [it's] because of how fixated I was on trying to prove other people wrong. I got into a lot of habits that were bad, like reading stuff and reacting emotionally. That's just not who I am."

Kudos to Irving for admitting his flaws. It's not easy to do that when countless people are willing to dissect every word you say with a few strokes on a keyboard.

This is what every NBA superstar is up against. And in the end, the question shouldn't be whether Kyrie Irving has the wherewithal to be the face of a franchise in free agency this coming summer.

The real question is, does anybody have it? 


Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA.