Kyrie Irving’s journey to activism and conspiracies
By Jonathan Abrams and Sopan Deb
Before Kyrie Irving linked to an antisemitic film on Twitter, before he suggested that the Earth was flat or refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine, he had the weight of a city’s NBA championship dreams tied to the flick of his wrist.
The moment made him a superstar: With less than a minute left in a winner-takes-all matchup with Stephen Curry’s Golden State in June 2016, Irving hit the title-winning shot for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He is regarded as one of the sport’s most skillful artists, a virtuoso with a basketball in his hands.
Now, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, who played with Irving on that championship Cleveland team, is lobbying for Irving to be allowed to play again, after the Brooklyn Nets suspended Irving indefinitely when he would not say that he did not have antisemitic beliefs.
He has apologized for linking to the film, but a simple resolution is not assured in the uproar — his greatest controversy yet. It could seriously hurt his basketball career. The Nets hope it will lead to personal growth. But based on Irving’s track record — of social justice activism, of spiritual exploration, of stubbornness and amplification of dangerous conspiracy theories — it could go any number of ways.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told The New York Times last Thursday that he did not believe Irving was antisemitic, though he said that did not excuse the post. And on Friday, Nets owner Joe Tsai, the NBA players’ union and the Anti-Defamation League, which had been critical of Irving, signaled that they may be ready to move forward.
But the uncertainty, as it often has in recent years, centers squarely on Irving himself.
His college career at Duke University lasted just 11 games because of a foot injury. But in that short span, he wowed scouts and became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft. He joined a struggling Cavaliers team: James, who had played for the team since 2003 and led it to the NBA Finals, left in the summer of 2010 to play for the Miami Heat.
Irving, who won the Rookie of the Year Award, spent his first few seasons scoring lots of points, but it wasn’t until James returned in the summer of 2014 that the Cavaliers started winning games. Yet Irving’s rise wasn’t entirely dependent on James.
His jersey ranked among the league’s top sellers. He signed an endorsement deal with Pepsi in 2012.
Ricardo Fort, a former marketing executive for The Coca-Cola Co., said that by investing in Irving early in his career, Pepsi helped morph him into a star. “It’s different than when you sign a big star,” Fort said. “You are taking more equity than you are building equity for the player.”
Around that time, PepsiCo, Pepsi’s parent company, was trying to reverse declining sales by making more inroads in pop culture, such as by sponsoring the NFL’s Super Bowl halftime show. Irving helped conceive of “Uncle Drew,” a series of commercials in which he portrayed a gray-bearded basketball player who dazzled in pickup games. The first commercial aired in 2012 and received more than 50 million views on YouTube. In 2018, the bit turned into a feature film that grossed more than $42 million domestically, according to Box Office Mojo.
But before that, Irving signed a signature shoe deal with Nike. The Kyrie 1 shoe was released in December 2014, and the line became one of the brand’s top sellers, worn by men and women across all basketball levels. One version was inspired by the Nickelodeon show “SpongeBob SquarePants.” (Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after his film post.)
While Irving was cultivating a reputation as a playful pitchman, he was also finding his voice about more important issues.
‘They lie to us’
Irving has played coy during the backlash to his post about the antisemitic film, saying both that he was “in a unique position to have a level of influence” and that he was “no different than the next human being.”
But his record of activism shows he is aware of the power of his voice.
In 2014, Irving was one of many NBA players who wore T-shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe” to honor Eric Garner, a Black man who was killed by a New York police officer who held him in a chokehold.
Two years later, Irving was at the height of his stardom because of the championship-winning shot over Curry. In November 2016, he tweeted support for demonstrators protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota, which protesters said would harm nearby sacred sites and the local water supply. Irving’s mother was a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, one of the groups protesting.
Three months later, Irving said the Earth was flat.
“I’m telling you, it’s right in front of our faces,” Irving said on a podcast in February 2017. “They lie to us.”
Despite a wave of jokes and criticism from fans and teachers, Irving doubled down in an interview with the Times more than a year later.
“Can you openly admit that you know the Earth is constitutionally round?” he said. “Like, you know that for sure? Like, I don’t know.”
He said he understood his “responsibility” as an influential figure.
But by then, he had forced a trade to the Boston Celtics from Cleveland and had floated conspiracy theories about the death of Bob Marley and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He has also supported the anti-government New World Order conspiracy theory backed by Infowars host Alex Jones.
Irving finally apologized for his flat-Earth comments in October 2018, but they loomed over him even after he left the Celtics in July 2019 to form a so-called superteam with Kevin Durant and the Nets.
Before now, none of Irving’s public stances had received as much attention as his decision not to be vaccinated against the coronavirus during the 2021-22 NBA season, making him ineligible to play in home games because of a city mandate. He became an avatar for people on the right wing, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who were skeptical of the vaccine, angry about government requirements or both. Irving has called vaccine mandates “one the biggest violations of HUMAN RIGHTS in history.”
Irving’s stance put the NBA in an uncomfortable position, since the league had been vocally supportive of the vaccine, including by running public service announcements.
“Obviously, athletes are people and they can make their own decisions,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean and public health professor at Johns Hopkins University, who said the NBA had a major role in getting Americans to take the coronavirus seriously. “It’s just unfortunate when they use their platforms to undermine the steps that people can take to save their own lives and the lives of people in their family.”
‘A process of forgiveness’
The contentious fallout from Irving’s film post puts him at a new inflection point.
The next few weeks could determine his future, as a basketball player and voice of influence, and affect the sport more widely.
Silver, the NBA’s commissioner since 2014, said that Irving’s post and response to the backlash had been “damaging” to Irving and could be so for the Nets and the league.
“This isn’t just about antisemitism,” Silver said. “This is about hate speech directed against any group. The league, going back many decades — even before I entered it — has a very strong record of responding.”
Sports fans have long been willing to overlook bad behavior for stars — if wins follow. Irving, through ticket sales and merchandise, generates money for both the Nets and the NBA at large. He has top-level stars in his corner, like James, and a dedicated fan base. But disciplining him in a manner seen as too light could alienate some Nets fans in New York City, which has an estimated Jewish population of at least 1 million. It could also further undermine the NBA’s public stance that “hate speech of any kind is unacceptable,” as the league said in a statement without naming Irving on Oct. 29.
Silver and the Nets faced harsh criticism when the team did not suspend Irving until a week after his post. The league is walking a tightrope.
And now, as always, it goes back to Irving.