When someone asks me what my favorite part of the NBA is, my response is usually pretty immediate.
In the NFL, players are so swaddled in equipment that it’s difficult to see the players faces and body language. In the NHL, the speed and skill are impressive but the gliding motion across the ice makes the players seem more like video game avatars than people. MLB is probably the most relatable sport, featuring people standing for 3 hours and then drinking Gatorade anyway. However, baseball is largely a solemn, repeated ceremony, where rules are important and immediately trump any display of individuality,
In the NBA, it’s more clear that the athletes you are watching are people. There are extended close-ups of their faces, it’s pretty easy to read their lips, and the on-court mics regularly pick up loud profanities. Paired with this is the small fact that basketball still regularly features superhuman feats of skill, agility, and strength. It’s one thing to see DeAndre Jordan yack a free throw and look disappointed in himself (“Hey that’s like me!”). It’s quite another to see Jordan come racing back down the floor and yam a dunk with no regard for human life (“Hey, that’s less like me!”). The NBA is a marriage of relatability and greatness. It’s seeing bits of yourself in athletes who can pull off feats that you can only dream of.
What’s more, basketball has the fewest players between the lines of any major team sport. With the responsibility of winning and losing so concentrated amongst just a few players, the stars become that much more important. One single mismatch requires hyper-vigilance by the rest of the squad to passably survive. Two mismatches is a death sentence. It’s unforgiving, and gives individual players in the NBA a unique level of power not otherwise found in major North American sports.
These reasons have fundamentally changed how the NBA is covered. In the windup to free agency, more internet ink was spilled on what LeBron James thought of Dan Gilbert than was spent on entire players. Zach Lowe’s Finals recap came in the form of a profile that traced the drives and motivations of Kevin Durant. Even the return of Paul George to Oklahoma City served as a meaty dish for thousands of Twitter’s armchair psychoanalysts.
We are exiting a league of reaction and entering a league of analysis. The NBA has become less about what a player has done on the floor and maybe more about what a player is based on our preconceptions and misconceptions about their personality.
When Kyrie Irving was just coming off of his rookie year in the NBA, he partnered with Pepsi to make Uncle Drew, an ad gimmick which featured what appeared to be a senior citizen who could ‘get buckets’. The concept was simple: Irving would don an outrageous amount of prosthetic makeup that made him appear as though he was in his 70’s, and promptly destroy whoever he was playing in pickup basketball. Last week, the film adaptation of the shorts, Uncle Drew, premiered with a $15.5M opening weekend. It is the first NBA-player led film since 2012’s Thunderstuck, which, by comparison, grossed $587,211 at the box office. It’s hardly the first time an NBA star has taken his talents to the silver screen. The NBA and Hollywood have a long history of entwining, from He Got Game to Space Jam; from Blue Chips to Kazaam. Uncle Drew has stabilized on Rotten Tomatoes at just a point under 69% and continues to outperform box office projections.
On top of modest success, the movie has a special role in the saga of the Celtics’ acquisition of Irving, as Kyrie was reportedly on set shooting the film when the news of the trade broke. It was an interesting set of circumstances for Irving to arrive to Boston in, as the city has a reputation for it’s zealous embrace of Bill Belichick’s “do your job” mantra.
The Celtic’s departing star, Isaiah Thomas, had ‘done his job’ so well in the 2017 playoffs, playing with a hip injury (that would not only derail his following season, but his free agency as well) and through the grief of losing a sibling, that it is unlikely he will ever be the same. In contrast, Irving was literally walking off of a glitzy movie set and onto the Celtics at the behest of a trade that he had demanded. Irving wasn’t exactly the blue collar model of “do your job.”
It was a loaded shakeup for the Cavaliers and Celtics franchises, whose fans had spent the better part of the last year lobbing insults at the opposing point guard and now had to quickly re-calibrate on the fly. Many of the Celtics faithful would quickly lean into Irving’s fun habit of arcane pontifications and Irving quickly developed a rabid following within Gang Green. One year’s worth of Dr. Manhattan-style quotations later, I am leaving my apartment to go watch the Uncle Drew movie, not quite sure what to expect.
As someone who works odd hours, I was able to catch the Friday matinee of Uncle Drew on opening weekend and was immediately struck by how full the theater was. The movie was an obvious vehicle for product placement, as nearly every shot in the film seems to have the red and blue of the Pepsi logo ominously hovering (albeit slightly out of focus) in the distance. Yet in spite of that, it was clear that there were higher expectations for the film. I sat behind two children who frequently affected Drew’s gravelly voice to say “young blood” to each other before dissolving into laughter. I had forgotten that Uncle Drew was born on the internet, and in turn had forgotten the increasingly adept power with which kids had learned to expertly navigate the internet.
What was more important was how much they enjoyed what was clearly Irving’s most personal contribution to the film in the portrayal of Uncle Drew himself. The character is clearly a loving satire of the elders and patriarchs that Irving had been surrounded by for his entire life as an outstanding young basketball player, and it’s evident that he is having a lot of fun when he inhabits the character.
While Pepsi is footing the bill and splashing their tricolor on every available surface, this heart-felt caricature is the part that Irving himself has built. He clearly enjoys repeating the complaints about “the new generation” that he had heard countless times himself growing up and the love behind the impression is unmistakable.
I won’t spoil the details of the film, which features a bizarre three-headed villain core of Tiffany Haddish, Aaron Gordon, and Nick Kroll, but it hit many of the same beats as a traditional, three-act Hollywood film. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, but the movie allows charismatic NBA stars to lean into their own force of presence which is more than enough to make the film worth watching.
Or at least it was to me, because I got to see Kyrie Irving present himself outside of basketball court. Judging someone based on what they show on the silver screen is akin to building a castle on quicksand. However, what someone chooses to add or omit to their own work is extremely telling. While Uncle Drew is first and foremost a film to make money, the character itself has an echo of Kyrie Irving himself in it. After all, he was the one who conjured Drew in the first place.
What ended up striking me most about the movie was that there was a clear takeaway from the film as to who Kyrie Irving was. In something that easily could have an abomination of product placement and capitalism, Irving found a way to show us a part of his life growing up. Older generations carrying on about how much better things were before is hardly something new, but Uncle Drew showed what they looked like to an upcoming star who went to his father’s adult league games as a child. The fact that Drew’s back-handedly loving satire resonated so clearly with children who are 19 years Irving’s junior is the real success of the film to me.
But unlike Space Jam or Kazaam, Kyrie isn’t portraying a clear vision of his current self or a fictional avatar that someone else created. Instead, Uncle Drew is an echo of what Kyrie has seen in the past and reverberating against the speculation of what he might one day become. Uncle Drew is crotchety, stuck in his ways, and does what he wants, but he’s also revered in a way that he earned. He’s funny and the audience can laugh at him, but at the end of the day, it’s built on a house of unimpeachable respect. Drew may have started out as a prank played on an unsuspecting pick up game, but there is a self reflexive aspect to the character that’s potentially a peek into how Kyrie sees the world and what he wants his place in it to be.
While Irving himself can grasp his basketball mortality and his potential place in history at just 26-years-old, he also understands the importance of time as the one truly irreplaceable resource. I think it’s that insight that played a part in his trade request and could potentially influence his free agency next summer.
The public narrative of Kyrie Irving
In the days following LeBron James’ decision to leave Cleveland for a second time and head to Los Angeles, there has been a discharge of information from Cleveland. When the top two players from a championship team are gone two years later, that wound will undoubtedly be probed to try to diagnose the infection.
The NBA has become a league that is interested in who their stars are, and the relationship between two champion teammates is too juicy of an analysis to pass up. Why didn’t they like each other? What are they like? Who is correct? Among these questions, however, one seems to have a more implicit point than the others: why does Cleveland still not have their other superstar?
That line of questioning seems to be following Irving to the Northeast as suddenly the news cycles are filled with speculation about what will come of Irving’s impending free agency in 2019.
Irving has a player option for 2019-2020, which he will certainly opt out of. Irving’s max salary was previously calculated on a substantially lower cap and a lower experience bucket, so by simply opting out, Irving can likely secure $10M more dollars in earning for himself next year. This pending opt out has the league buzzing because it will be Irving’s first foray into free agency, and rumors have swirled about a possible move to what is effectively Kyrie’s hometown team, the New York Knicks.
Kyrie Irving will consider hometown Knicks in 2019, according to report https://t.co/T2yAEhB8Bd— WEEI (@WEEI) July 5, 2018
Celtics fans are scrambling to figure out how much credibility these rumors have, as those who believe Irving will leave would point to his trade demand from Cleveland and a blossoming movie career as a clear telegraph that he hungers for the bright lights of the city. Basketball-wise, it’s inherently ridiculous to think he would swap Boston for New York, as the Celtics were a game away from the Finals without Irving last year, have multiple high draft picks as currency to augment their talent, and give Irving a much more reliable platform to play deep in the playoffs for the foreseeable future.
However, decisions aren’t simply made for basketball reasons, as LeBron James just showed with his own free agency. Different things are important to different players, and at the end of the day, the player has the complete freedom to choose the destination that fits them the most as a person, as they should. With all that in mind, Celtics fans trying to project how much anxiety they should have about the summer of 2019 are left with two questions: Who is Kyrie Irving and what does he want?
If Cleveland sources are to be believed, Irving is a player who never wanted to play with LeBron James. He didn’t feel that his team needed LeBron and was annoyed by the way that LeBron conducted his business in Cleveland, including taking shots at Irving’s toughness in the media. If you run with this interpretation, you probably end up with the conclusion that Irving is a prima donna, unwilling to “fit in” instead of “fit out” as James had publicly told their teammate Kevin Love. This line of thinking also requires a relative absolution of LeBron James for his own role in the clashes, and to see him as a benevolent actor trying to motivate a teammate. After all, James chose to come back to Cleveland to make the championship run. Surely Irving’s rejection of that talent infusion is indicative of a value structure that doesn’t totally align with a fan base’s, right?
I can understand that read of Irving, because it’s the easiest to fit into the double dichotomy of sports. Selfish and losing or selfless and winning. Those are the two options.
On the one hand, LeBron James, enduring his own scorn for a disliked owner, returned home in an attempt to bring a championship. On the other, there’s Irving, the alpha of a Cavaliers team that had never made the playoffs was resistant to turn that title over to a player who could place them in contention. It’s such a neat narrative that it could have been scripted directly into the Uncle Drew movie. The trade demand only further plays into that.
Nevermind that James’ departure leaves the Cavaliers with payroll groaning under the weight of Klutch Sports client deals and out a future pick. It’s irrelevant that Irving’s trade demand yielded Collin Sexton, Ante Zizic, and indirectly Larry Nance Jr. and the free agent rights of Rodney Hood. Though James’ actions were more damaging to the franchise in the long run, it’s irrelevant because it was his team and his actions that were bringing home the championship. Irving leaving, although less damaging to the Cavalier franchise, was more egregious because it happened first, and you aren’t supposed to want to leave a team that has a chance to win.
That’s the Boogeyman that keeps the Celtics fans awake at night. The idea that Irving has demanded to leave a winning situation before is the touchstone to his character. If he’s temperamental enough to walk away from a championship team, what’s to say he wouldn’t do it again.
But I think it’s all nonsense.
The Kyrie (I think) I know
This read of Kyrie Irving is over simplified and doesn’t take into consideration what Irving might value himself. Irving was drafted the year after James broke the city’s heart, and narratives were often presented that contrasted the two. Irving was built up to be the franchise’s true savior, the force that would revitalize basketball in Cleveland. Kyrie Irving’s role for his first three years in the league was to replace LeBron James and it was something that he seemingly embraced.
Then, LeBron decided that he was returning, and suddenly the other young talent that Irving was supposed to headline was out the door. Veterans were suddenly in place to make a run at the title and the guy that you were supposed to replace has suddenly replaced you. Irving dealt with it, and the team won a title as a result.
Then, Kevin Durant joined the Warriors, and the Cavs roster continued to age while more picks were sent out to augment the immediate chance for a title. On the 2016-2017 roster, only Kay Felder was younger than Kyrie Irving, and after they lost the Finals in a convincing five games, it was clear that the team could no longer win a title.
I’m not sure what Irving was supposed to do in that situation beyond what he did. He was unhappy, but made it work as long as there was a reasonable chance for them to win the title. Even as his “team of the future” was torn apart to make a sacrificial offering to LeBron, Irving made few waves publicly. The return of LeBron James required that the Cavaliers trade the future for now, and it was the right choice for them to do so. By that same token, it’s a pretty unreasonable demand to require that Kyrie Irving sacrifice years in his prime to save the team and LeBron James some optics. The Cavaliers clearly weren’t winning the title, and to ask Irving to stay put while James waited for the Lakers’ books to open enough to allow his exit is a silly expectation.
Irving saw the writing on the wall, and asked to get out when the Cavaliers could still get some value for him. Had he waited until this year, well, one only needs to look at the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George situations to see how the negotiations for a star on an expiring contract goes. If he stayed in Cleveland and left Cleveland next year as an unrestricted free agent, he’d hurt the team much more than he alread had. Instead, he did what was probably best for both him and the team.
It’s going to be an interesting year for the Celtics, and rumors will continue to swirl about Irving’s impending off season. There will be pieces that try to explore who Irving is and what he wants in an effort to glean what he will do in 2019. Sitting in that dark theater and watching Uncle Drew chastise the “young bloods,” I can’t pretend that I wasn’t trying to figure that out as well.
Perhaps, it was the children in front of me who came the closest to understanding Kyrie. Maybe it’s just as simple as appreciating someone who’s willing to show us a bit themselves, even when they are supposed to be someone else.