Kyrie Irving’s return to basketball won’t end the controversy he sparked

NEW YORK — There were two microphones on Sunday night, and each told a story of its own.

The one on the platform between Atlantic Ave. and Flatbush, between the tube station and a bullring, belonged to a man as he spoke to dozens of men in purple and yellow sweatshirts lined up in unison to listen, as well as passers-by on their way to this night NetsGrizzlies gambling or just minding their own business. The voice from that microphone was relentless, talking about biblical passages, about his people, about the Holocaust in Germany, comparing it to the one they faced and remarking that it wasn’t as bad. He said they were the real Jews, “not you the nominal ones”. He was, if not the leader of the group of some 300 Israelites United in Christ that sat outside the Barclays Center for hours on Sunday, at least his voice. He spoke for hours on a freezing night as the others distributed pamphlets proselytizing for their cause, giving their distorted truth of anti-Semitismthe genre that led the band to be reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Inside the arena, a few hours later, Kyrie Irving took over the microphone, a routine but difficult event for the Nets star. The group that had occupied so much space and noise around Barclays, lining the streets, recognizable and unmistakable, had come not because of him, but in response to him. Irving had tweeted a link to the Amazon page for an anti-Semitic film, refused to apologize and showed no remorse. Four days later, caught in the middle of a storm, he played at home, and this band appeared too. He didn’t play again until Sunday night, having been suspended by the Nets in the interim. Just as he returned from a 19-day absence from the Nets, so did they.

Of all the criticisms leveled at Irving after the tweet that started it all, the most poignant and real was not that he was actually anti-Semitic or full of hate. It was that he shared a piece of propaganda, breathing new life into the kind of tropes and lies that Jews have faced for centuries, and refused to condemn it hard and fast, choosing elliptical contention instead until he was finally suspended and couldn’t ignore the critic anymore. Irving may be talking about love and peace, as he insists, but those are the consequences many feared. A reduction in the pain, in the death, in the horrors that have ruined the lives of so many men, women and families for generations. Right there on Atlantic Ave. and Flatbush.

Video via Mike Vorkunov/The Athletic

From Sunday evening, Irving had already apologized. He had made one in an Instagram post two weeks ago, but after being rejected by the Nets organization. He had made another that afternoon when he returned to the Nets after, he said, speaking with Jewish leaders. Irving still bristled at times, indicating he felt misunderstood and mislabeled, but he was sorry and meant no harm, he said.

Now Irving only wanted to focus on the game, a 127-112 win over the Grizzlies in which he played 26 minutes and scored 14 points. He had been missed by his teammates and coaches, he said, and they welcomed him with ease. Jacque Vaughn, newly hired as head coach during Irving’s absence, said he laid out the ground rules for Irving in a conversation that day.

“It’s all about hoop, and I’m using that word here that from this day forward, that’s what we’re going to do,” Vaughn said. “Basketball is factual. You get the rebound, that’s a fact. You box, it’s a fact. You do it, that’s a fact. We’re going to make this thing factual. It will be about basketball and we will live in this space.

As if Irving’s slipperiness with the facts wasn’t the reason it metastasized into the situation he and the Nets found themselves in this month. It was hard to say the Nets were back to normal just yet. The scene inside the Barclays press conference room on Sunday showed just how spotty it all was. As Irving spoke, Shetellia Riley Irving, his agent and mother-in-law, and Tamika Tremaglio, the NBPA’s chief executive, listened a few feet away, as did other union officials.

When a reporter exposed the scene above, among the protesters who had come out in support, Irving hesitated. That conversation would be for another day, he said. This press conference about the game.

Hours earlier, Irving had proclaimed he had realized the voice he carries, the one with 4.7 million Twitter followers and the pedestal attached to international fame, and now he hoped to harness it.

“It’s a great moment for me, because I can learn through this process that the power of my voice is very strong,” Irving said that afternoon. “The influence I have within my community is very strong and I want to be responsible for it. To do this, you must admit that you are wrong in cases where you hurt people, and it affects them.

But when another reporter asked if the protesters had come out as a result of what he had done, he again hesitated.

“Again,” he said. “I’m just here to focus on the game.”

The time for mea culpas may be over, at least for Irving. Basketball questions will soon fill the void left by the chaos of the past few weeks. A daily trance will take over after the malaise that destabilized a franchise.

Irving missed eight games in a most unusual way, punished not for what he said, but for what he then refused to say despite opportunity after opportunity to do so. He said he could still pursue legal options to rectify the eight salary games he lost, although there is no timeline in place for that process. PANB OfficersAs union vice president Jaylen Browncan I have CONTESTATION with his suspension and terms of his return, but the NBPA will not grieve the league against the Nets, Tremaglio said Athleticism.


Israelites United in Christ protesters line up at the Barclays Center in support of Kyrie Irving. (Mike Vorkunov / The Athletic)

Now Irving has found his voice. Others have already heard it and found it an opportunity to amplify theirs. It was hard not to hear him in Brooklyn on Sunday night.

But he will use it on his own terms, he reminded everyone on Sunday night. Ultimately, he chooses when to get the most out of the platform he has built. Irving asked for atonement, he asked for forgiveness and clarity, and after nearly a month of controversy he was asked when he would use that microphone to discuss what he was saying on his behalf.

“I would like to be on a platform where I could openly share how I feel without being harshly criticized or labeled or dealing with outside perceptions that have nothing to do with me,” he said. “Again, I said this morning, I just want to elaborate on everyone learning who Kai is, what AI is, and what I represent in my tribe. That’s it .”

(Photo by Kyrie Irving: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)


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