At the beginning of this Brooklyn Nets season, there was a brief window during which optimistic fans could convince themselves that Kyrie Irving might have a semi-normal year. Vaccine mandates are over in New York, giving the anti-vaxx star an opportunity to appear in more than the paltry seven home games he played last season. And his request to be traded to a more functional team fell through over the summer, leaving him, for better or worse, as an anchor of a talented but discombobulated Barclays Center squad.
That wishful thinking lasted just over two weeks from opening day. On Thursday night, the Brooklyn Nets suspended Kyrie Irving for “no less than five games” after he refused to apologize for a tweet promoting an antisemitic movie called Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America. (It alleges that the Holocaust never occurred, among other offenses.) “I’m just here to continue to expose things that our world continues to put in darkness,” he said on Thursday morning in expansive comments to reporters. “I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from,” he said, when asked a yes-or-no question on the matter. Irving attempted to cool things down (without actually apologizing) by donating $500,000 to the Anti-Defamation League. But the group, which had welcomed that step in a joint statement it had issued with Irving, refused the money after Thursday’s press conference.
The suspension announced on Thursday was surprising only in that it took so long to go down. The league reacted more swiftly in 2021, when Miami Heat journeyman Meyers Leonard used an antisemitic slur while streaming a video game; he was cut from the NBA and hasn’t played a game since. Irving is a different caliber of player, and the Nets were clearly hoping, unreasonably, that he would quickly back down. What’s actually unexpected is that Irving ended up apologizing at all. Hours after his suspension was announced, the star posted a black square to Instagram with the caption: “To All Jewish families and Communities that are hurt and affected from my post, I am deeply sorry to have caused you pain, and I apologize.”
Irving’s note of contrition is a new approach for the seven-time all-star. Last year, he was willing to forgo 35 home games and a $100 million contract extension for his stance not to get vaccinated — becoming a minor, but unlikely, figure on Fox News in the process. Perhaps his decision to yield is a sign of growth, even if it took too long. More likely, the arch-contrarian just isn’t willing to eat an indefinite suspension without pay for a single social media post. And while Kyrie finally gave way, it was by no means an unqualified apology. “I want to clarify any confusion on where I stand fighting against Anti- semticism [sic] by apologizing for posting the documentary without context and a factual explanation outlining the specific beliefs in the Documentary I agreed with and disagreed with,” he wrote. In other words, if he promotes a conspiracist documentary that denies the existence of the Holocaust again, he’ll make sure to include an addendum on which parts of the movie he aligns with.
So what’s next for the Nets? A trade for Irving — who hasn’t exactly worked well with others on any of his past teams — seems unlikely, considering the high price any organization would have to pay for his volatile presence. Cutting him altogether would only happen if things really deteriorate from here; without Irving, the Nets would be averaging 86 points per game. Which is not to say that’s an impossible scenario. But most likely, Irving’s apology and a few undefined “remedial measures” called for by the Nets will result in his return before the holidays. After all, this franchise seems to have a sizable appetite for controversy. The day before Irving’s suspension, the Nets fired coach Steve Nash. Now they’re reportedly looking to bring in Ime Udoka from the Boston Celtics. Udoka is a great coach, but he reportedlymade unwanted comments toward a female staffer last year. In September, he was suspended for the season by the Celtics after the team found that he had an affair with a subordinate.
As Irving sits out his games, Kayne West continues to spout antisemitic conspiracies, and the FBI warned on Thursday of credible threats to synagogues in Irving’s home state of New Jersey (a suspect has been identified) antisemitism crisis isn’t going away — and neither is the NBA’s acute one. Kevin Durant had to tweet out a clarification that he opposed antisemitism after suggesting that the “chaos” of this controversy was actually coming from media attention, not his teammate’s action. But Washington Wizards small forward Kyle Kuzma went a different route:
Kuzma later said “this is not about any current events lol.”
This post has been updated.