“You know sometimes, baby I’m so carefree
Oh, with a joy that’s hard to hide
And then sometimes again it seems that all I have is worry
And then you’re bound to see my other side
But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”
Nina Simone (1964)
Transcendent talent. Incandescent performer. We could be talking about Miss Nina Simone or Brooklyn Nets’ Point Guard, Mr. Kyrie Irving. Rookie of the Year, NBA Champion, Olympic Gold Medalist, NBA All-Star–all by the age of 24. The early accolades alone should leave misunderstanding an impossibility.
But, the mercurial point guard has drawn ire throughout his career: requesting a trade away from LeBron James after winning a championship together; leaving the Boston Celtics in free agency after claiming he wanted to see his number retired in the rafters; and most recently, missing several Brooklyn Nets’ games during the middle of the season. During his leave of absence, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith went so far as to claim Irving should retire from the game of basketball, claiming that he’s “not worth the drama.”
I am not sure if the Nets would agree, however, after watching Mr. Irving return last night in a win over Minnesota and easily scoring 27 points. While the “young entitled star” is a well-used trope, there is another side to the story. Upon his initial return to the team, Mr. Irving cited personal and family reasons for his absence. “When things become overwhelming in life, you’ve just got to take a step back and realize what’s important.”
On January 6th, amidst the ongoing pandemic, the NBA made mental health a public priority and updated their mental health policies. Alluding to his departure coinciding with the Capitol riots, Irving also cited the socio-political atmosphere as a contributing factor to his leave, stating: “I would be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t affected by what’s going on in this world.”
Any sane, sensitive person, was undoubtedly affected by the tumult of 2020, but not many have backed up their words with actions. Irving has. He put himself within the fight for justice on a number of issues. Don’t take it from me, just read his bio on Instagram.
In addition, ESPN reported that Irving’s contributions over the past year include: donating $323,000 to Feeding America, committing $1.5 million to WNBA players who opted out of the 2020 season, paying the tuition for nine students at HBCU Lincoln University, and purchasing a home for the family of George Floyd. This list is not exhaustive. “I want to make changes daily,” said Mr. Irving. “There are so many oppressed communities and so many things going on that are bigger than a ball going in the rim.”
Earlier this year, during a standoff with the media, former NBA great Charles Barkley criticized Irving for characterizing himself as an “artist.” With all due respect to the Hall-of-Famer, it’s hard to watch Mr. Irving handle the ball and not appreciate the artistry.
“TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED, AND BLACK”
Kyrie Irving is far from the first “Young, Gifted, and Black” person to be focused on justice with a heart for expression, be it physical or otherwise. Creative types often have a difficult time dealing with the cold lack of compassion in the world and struggle with their mental health. This is only compounded when surrounded by white owned teams, media outlets, and apparel companies.
Here are some undeniable facts: Mr. Kyrie Irving is a magnificent basketball player, he has committed himself to justice, and the media loves to stereotype his behaviors. During this time of reckoning where we call for the humanity of Black lives, the importance of mental health, and the necessity of social justice – who is misunderstood and who is doing the misunderstanding?
CHOSEN TO SERVE
I’ll admit that I’ve had a difficult time classifying Kyrie in my head and heart. As a lifelong Boston Celtics fan, I chastised him for committing to the team one day and plotting his departure the next. That said, I’ve always had to balance that conception of Kyrie with a story I heard in a Whole Foods in the Boston suburbs.
Kyrie was a regular customer there and he had his groceries bagged by an employee with a mental disability. After having a conversation with her, making eye contact all the while and repeatedly calling her by name, Mr. Irving anonymously left her with a $100 tip. This is a story from a Whole Foods employee, not off the newswire, Twitter, or any major media outlet. When no one’s looking, Mr. Irving is genuine and compassionate. That is the person he is. Perhaps only judging him on the microphone soundbites is what has him so misunderstood.
Mr. Irving summed it up best when he said: “There’s a deeper level of emotions that I have for helping people and serving. There’s nothing normal about this life I live. Let me use this as a tool to be able to change things that I want to see in the world.”
Nathan GagnonNathan Gagnon is a writer and podcast host. His work focuses on practical philosophy and contemporary issues. Central to his work is the notion of Kairos: a propitious moment for decision or action. He holds degrees from the University of Vermont and Northeastern University. His podcast and blog can be found at MakingKairos.com.