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

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

The one on the platform between Atlantic Ave. and Flatbush, between the subway station and an arena, belonged to a man who spoke to dozens of men in purple and yellow sweatshirts who lined up to listen, and to passers-by who walked towards him Nets-Grizzlies- Game that night or just mind their own business. The voice that came out of that microphone spoke incessantly of scriptures, of his people, of the Holocaust in Germany, comparing it to what they had encountered and remarking that it wasn’t quite so bad. He said they were the real Jews, “not their nominal ones.” He was, if not the leader of the group of about 300 members of Israelites United In Christ who huddled outside the Barclays Center for hours on Sunday, at least their voice. He talked for hours on a freezing cold night while the rest passed out fliers proselytizing and giving for his cause their distorted truth of anti-Semitismthe kind that caused the group to be flagged by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

A few hours later, Kyrie Irving took up a mic again in the arena, a routine but tense event for the Nets star. The group that had taken up so much space and noise around Barclays, lining the streets, unmistakably and inevitably, had come not for him but in response to him. Irving had tweeted a link to the Amazon page for an anti-Semitic film without apologizing or showing any remorse. Four days later, in the middle of a storm, he was playing at home, and this group showed up too. He didn’t play again until Sunday night after being suspended by the Nets in the meantime. Just as he returned from a 19-day absence from the Nets, so did they.

Of all the criticism Irving threw out after the tweet that started it all, the most poignant and real was not that he was actually anti-Semitic or filled with hatred. It was that he had shared a piece of propaganda that gave oxygen to the kind of tropes and lies that Jews had faced for centuries and had refused to condemn them vigorously and quickly, opting instead for elliptical restraint until he was eventually suspended and couldn’t ignore the criticism anymore. Irving may be about love and peace, he points out, but those were the consequences many feared. A reduction in the pain, the death, the horrors that have ruined the lives of so many men and women and families for generations. Right there, on Atlantic Ave. and Flatbush.

Video about Mike Vorkunov / The Athletic

Irving had already submitted his apology on Sunday evening. He’d made one in an Instagram post two weeks ago, but after being disowned by the Nets’ organization. He’d made another that afternoon on his return to the Nets, after what he said spoke to Jewish leaders. Irving was still pissed at times, suggesting he felt misunderstood and mislabeled, but he had regrets and meant no harm, he said.

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

“It’s about tires, and I use that word right where it’s about from this day forward,” Vaughn said. “Basketball is businesslike. You get the rebound, that’s a fact. They box out, that’s a fact. You take the shot, that’s a fact. We’re going to make this matter factual. It’s going to be about basketball and we’re going to live in that space.”

As if Irving’s slippery handling of facts wasn’t the reason that spilled over into the situation he and the Nets found themselves in that month. It was hard to tell that the networks were already back to normal. The scene in Barclays’ press conference room on Sunday showed how irregular it all was. As Irving spoke, Shetellia Riley Irving, his agent and stepmother, and Tamika Tremaglio, the NBPA executive, listened a few yards away, as did other union officials.

When a reporter laid out the scene above with the protesters coming out in support, Irving hesitated. That conversation would last for another day, he said. This press conference is all about the game.

Just hours earlier, Irving had announced he recognized the voice he carries, the one with 4.7 million Twitter followers and the pedestal associated with international fame, and now he hoped to capitalize on it.

“This is a big moment for me because during this process I can learn that the power of my voice is very strong,” Irving said that afternoon. “The influence I have in my community is very powerful and I want to be responsible for that. To do that, you have to admit when you’re wrong, when you hurt people, and it affects them.”

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

“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 vacuum left by the chaos of the past few weeks. An everyday trance will set in after the turmoil unsettling a franchise.

Irving missed eight games in a most unusual manner and was punished not for what he said but for what he then refused to say, despite chance after chance. He said he may still be looking for legal ways to fix the eight games he lost, although there is no timeline for that process. NBPA leaders, like union vice president Jaylen Brown, may have questioned his suspension and the terms of his comeback, but the NBPA will not file a grievance with the league against the Nets, Tremaglio said the athlete.

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

Now Irving has his voice back. Others have heard it before and found it an opportunity to amplify their own. It was hard not to hear it Sunday night in Brooklyn.

But he will use it on his own terms, he reminded every Sunday night. Ultimately, he decides when to make the most of the platform he’s built. Irving has asked for reconciliation, he has asked for forgiveness and clarity, and after nearly a month of controversy he has been asked when he will use this mic to discuss what he said on his behalf.

“I want to be on a platform where I can openly say how I feel without being harshly criticized or labeled or confronted with external perceptions that have nothing to do with me,” he said. “Again, I said this morning, I just want to get everyone to know 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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