For all the stars of the NBA this year — from defending champion Giannis Antetokounmpo to likely two-time MVP Nikola Jokic to the brilliance and forever meme-ness of Joel Embiid, Anthony Edwards, and Ja Morant, not to mention still central legends such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant — I’m not sure there’s a more riveting figure than Kyrie Irving. He’s an NBA champion, a former No. 1 overall pick, a seven-time All-Star, an Olympic gold-medal winner, and even the star of his own $46 million–grossing film, Uncle Drew (which came out in 2018 and already feels as if it’s from 45 years ago). Yet Irving still feels, and will surely always feel, like a fringe figure in the NBA, a stubbornly square peg who never will fit in anywhere and seems destined to infuriate and frustrate anyone whoever plays with him, pays him, or cheers for him. Nonetheless, Irving remains not only brilliant on the basketball court but forever compelling off it: Sometimes he’s right, more often he’s wrong, but he is, forever, definitely and defiantly himself. We absolutely cannot stop watching.
Irving is once again at the center of NBA discourse as the playoffs begin — playoffs that, for much of the season, it looked as if Irving’s unvaccinated status would keep him out of. Mayor Eric Adams ultimately allowed Irving (and a whole bunch of Yankees) to play in New York, and Irving responded Sunday with one of the best games of his career. He scored 39 points and overcame a rare off game for Durant to nearly drag the undermanned Nets to a game-one victory over the Celtics, the team Irving once played for. The Celtics ended up winning on an all-timer of a last-second shot, but after the game, all anyone wanted to talk about was Irving. As always.
The reason this time: Irving stealthily flipped off some Celtics fans:
He had more to say off the court, both in the tunnel exiting the court at halftime:
And in the postgame press conference: “I don’t want to attack every Boston fan, but when people start yelling ‘Pussy,’ ‘Bitch,’ and ‘Fuck you’ and all that, there is only so much you can take as a competitor.”
Irving has a long history with Boston, a place that he played extremely well for but also that thrived when he left (and didn’t seem all that distressed to see him go). The fans there have been after him for years. But as anyone who has ever been to a game in Boston (or really anyone who has ever met anyone from New England) knows, their fans tend to go over the top in some scary, often gross ways, and it was hard not to see where Irving was coming from when he said, “If somebody is going to call me out on my name, I’m going to look them straight in the eye and see if they are really about it. Most of the time, they are not.” If fans say something to him, why can’t he say something back about it? The NBA is likely to fine Irving for the gestures, but taking something away from him has never really enticed him to change his behavior.
Irving has been most famous this season for his stubborn insistence on not getting a COVID-19 vaccine — for reasons that still don’t make a lot of sense. Looking back, it was clear from the beginning of the season that Irving would never give in, that he would wait for the league or the city to bend before he did. You can argue that Irving shouldn’t be allowed to play, but he said he wouldn’t do what he was told to do, and he absolutely did not. It may not be admirable in every situation, but Irving is definitely a person of conviction, however misguided those convictions may be.
Not all of Irving’s core values are problematic. A member of the Standing Rock Sioux, Irving supported those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. He backed a progressive New York District Attorney candidate, Tahanie Aboushi. He contributed $1.5 million to a fund for WNBA players who opted out of playing because of COVID-19. He bought George Floyd’s family a house and famously tried (and failed) to encourage NBA players to leave the Disney bubble in 2020 in order to protest Floyd’s death and organize protests. The quixotic Irving goes against the grain, and his stances are often challenging both to the status quo and for his career itself. He once claimed the Earth is flat and that JFK was killed by the Federal Reserve. All of this is pure Kyrie.
The Nets’ playoff prospects are not great. After trading James Harden for Ben Simmons, who has yet to appear in a game for the team and seems to barely be practicing, the Nets basically have Irving, Durant, and a whole bunch of random guys named Doug. They’re facing a Celtics team that has been as good as anyone in the NBA for the past three months. And yet it required a wild last-second layin for the Celtics to beat the Nets in game one, where Durant played downright lousily (for him, anyway). Thank Irving, who, despite missing home games for most of the season and everything else that has surrounded him, hasn’t lost one step on the court. He’s arguably as great as he has ever been. That’s pure Kyrie, too. You can hate him, you can boo him, you can call him names, you can criticize him for being afraid to get a shot that your 7-year-old got. But you cannot stop him from being Kyrie Irving. And you cannot keep your eyes off him even if you want to. This Celtics-Nets series already feels like a classic in the making. For better or worse, Kyrie is the reason why.