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The individual choice of Kyrie Irving

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How should Celtics fans feel about Irving’s impending free agency?

NBA: Boston Celtics-Media Day Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

(I enter stage right in a neat suit to thunderous applause from the studio audience. The crowd screams and hoots while I do several bizarre vamps, smooth my eyebrows, and wait for the noise to die off so I can start the show. The in-house band finishes playing the intro music as I jump to land perfectly in time to land with the final cymbal crash.

Finally, slowly, the tittering subsides and I begin my monologue.)

Kyrie Irving is going to be a free agent this summer.

Folks, have you heard this? Now, Mr. Irving has said multiple times that Boston is where he plans to stay long term, which seemingly would put this thing to bed.

(pause)

When reached for comment, the Cleveland child who was told by Mr. Irving that he’d stay in Cleveland forever said, “Make sure to read the fine print.”

(Audience roars with laughter that continues without pause. Seven minutes go by…. 18 minutes…. One hour…. Still laughing… A week…. The spectres from the Ark of The Covenant are swirling around the rafters. My face dissolves into a grinning skull as the studio burns to the ground.)


Welcome to the hell of having an impending All-Star free agent on your roster.

The sports news carousels will spin back to the same topic once a week, taking a fresh swing at this rigor mortis stricken horse hanging nearby, before careening back off into the cycle of screeching about JJ Watt quotes or why gambling is good.

It only stands to reason that Kyrie Irving would be a primary topic for these sports shows. After all, Irving was at the center of a high-profile divorce from one of the best three players in NBA history just last year. His trade demand was exactly the mix of intrigue, identity, championship stakes, and LeBron-adjacentness that this format thrives on.

Which team Irving plays for is almost a moot point. The context isn’t what matters to those who have their sights locked in on this subject. This is about Kyrie’s history as someone with the audacity to exercise his agency. Players like that are considered a risk by ownership, management teams, and fan bases. The benefits of the doubt is only extended to franchise soldiers; players who play out the length of the contract, take pay cuts, and whose only conveyed emotion is ‘gratitude for the opportunity’ to say nothing of their own talent or work. Players with a history of standing up for themselves are wild cards that can’t be quantified to an NBA public with a fascination for collective consensus and “correct” answers.

NBA: Boston Celtics-Media Day Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

It may not shock anyone reading my thinly veiled contempt for this particular news cycle that I find the Irving talk tiresome. I’ll even go so far as to admit that part of it comes from the on-its-face absurdity that Irving would take a pay cut and depart a contender to go to a situation that is anything but exactly what he wants. All due apologies to the idea of him joining an oft-injured Kristaps Porzingis, (checks notes) Trey Burke, Mario Hezonja, and Tim Hardaway in New York on a 46-win team, but that isn’t a basketball situation that has me chewing my nails.

All this said, the characterization of an Irving departure as laughable is something that I’m going to continue to be wary of. Just as I consider “he’s from New Jersey” to be an extremely silly reason to consider Irving a New York flight risk, thinking “it’s what I would do” is a similarly irrelevant reason to consider him a lock to remain in Boston. What I (or anyone else who’s not Kyrie Irving) thinks or decides is entirely irrelevant. Thus, whenever someone wants to make a prediction on what Irving’s choice in the off season will be, they are effectively declaring that they know how Irving thinks, or worse, Irving thinks like they do.

For this reason, any reading of Irving’s off season plans requires the observer to make a personal judgement on what’s important to Kyrie Irving as a person. Anyone touting the Knicks as an Irving destination believe that he hungers for the bright lights of the city and/or the comfort of being close to his childhood home. Those pairing him with Butler are sure he wants to play with other elite players of his choosing. However, all of this prognostication is inherently flawed because Irving alone is the one who will know what he wants.

To be clear, that’s “will know” in the future tense, because there’s still a season of basketball to be played. A whole year of events, soundbites, wins, and losses will inform everyone and the choices that they make. Ask the Minnesota Timberwolves what kind of difference a year makes. It’s hard for me to conceive of a scenario Irving likes millions of dollars more than a conference favorite, but perhaps it will be revealed that Brad Stevens is a Coca-Cola loyalist and benches Irving after seeing “the repulsive Pepsi ad placement” in Uncle Drew. Maybe Irving has a deep seated hatred of dabbing and is one Yabusele made three away from demanding a trade. Maybe Irving saw how Danny Ainge traded his All-Star point guard for a younger, more talented player that better aligned with the timeline of his young Celtics core and will see something this year that makes him consider what his own place will be in the organization in a half decade.

Basketball: USA Men’s Basketball National Team Minicamp Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Celtics fans may scoff at that plausibility of that last scenario, but we also can’t have it both ways. The cost of enjoying having Kyrie Irving in the first place is a rudimentary understanding that it came at the direct expense of Isaiah Thomas and his playoff heroics playing through both the tragic passing of his sister and a debilitating hip injury that would in effect force Thomas to lose a season in his contract year. Most Celtics fans can square that Danny Ainge made the “right business decision” while also understanding that it actively harmed Isaiah Thomas’s career. One can do so by having empathy for Thomas while understanding the Celtics’ need to look out for themselves.

Reverse engineer this line of thinking and it stands to reason that Irving should be afforded the same understanding, should he choose to leave. After all, it would be a “business decision” in the standard application of “doing what he feels is best for himself.” However, anyone reading those two sentences have already had the gears of their mind begin to churn with the explanations of why this would be different, because, of course, it would be. Some would paint Irving as a coward, stories would leak about the difficulties he brought, and one underlying message would throb throughout this continued news blitz.

“Kyrie Irving has decided he’s not one of us.”

NBA: Boston Celtics-Media Day Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Domination of the “first person plural” form is the big psychological advantage that teams have in the way that fans view the sport and decision-making. The Boston Celtics are an “us” or a “we” to thousands upon thousands of people in the world. Whether it’s geographical proximity, family allegiances, personal decisions, or simply liking the color green, all of these people us have come to see themselves ourselves as supporters of the Celtics.

Adopting this fanhood requires flexing the concept of the Celtics into first an idea and then later an identity. The problem with that is that the literal Boston Celtics are not an idea. They are a business organization whose operation is handled by a staff of professionals making decisions. What people are fans of is the results of that organization, such as experiences, memories, and a giant projection of a man dancing in a GINO t-shirt. The concept of what actually consists of the “Celtics identity” is personalized; informed by each individual and their experiences adjacent to this organization.

The Boston Celtics are a collective in every sense of the word. As fans we are part of a community built around a corporation. Cynics would describe this as tribalism, but I would outline it as an elective population, a fun bit of identity that someone actually gets to choose. Much of the point of being the fan of a specific team is feeling an investment in something that is bigger than yourself. It’s a willful, (hopefully) temporary erasure of individuality to melt into comfortable plurality. The free agency of a player is an almost violent contradiction to that ethos, so it’s no wonder that fans would react poorly to a player choosing to leave a team.

This is where things become skewed, as a player making a business decision for themselves is interpreted as a personal rejection of a fan’s allegiances. Sure, Mike Sullivan of Braintree, MA knows logically that Kyrie Irving is not personally spiting him if he agrees to sign with the Nets. That said, there still exists the psychological fallout that comes from knowing that someone made a decision that goes against the choice that you would have made. It distances you from them and erases empathy, particularly within the framework for professional sports teams and the community-building that is fandom.

The problem with this is that players are making business decisions with organizations, but they are interpreted as an audit of the community in question. It makes a free agency choice feel much more personal to fans than it actually is. If Kyrie Irving were to leave the Boston Celtics next year, stamping feet about lost Nets pick or the investment that the team placed in him should be greeted with an eye roll. The Boston Celtics are the same organization that traded for Kyrie Irving knowing all of these risks. Irving doesn’t have a responsibility to give the Celtics the outcome that they hoped for. Instead, they must make it as appealing as they can for Irving to choose to stay in Boston. (Something, by the way, I think that they’ve done a very good job of).

I’m not trying to imply that that Celtics fans should feel agnostic toward an Irving departure or that him leaving would change little for the team. A Celtics squad without Kyrie would still be very good, but would likely lack the high-end upside needed to win a championship without extreme good fortune. The Celtics would be better off with Irving on the roster and even with his injury history he is a no-brainer to receive a full five-year maximum offer. That said, if Irving did leave, the Celtics are better equipped than most championship contenders for a pivot to a new title path.

People continue to add Terry Rozier into mock trade discussions, but many Celtics fans are already discussing the merits of accepting losing Rozier in restricted free agency nothing as a price for having a stronger bench for a spring championship push. More hushed is the convenient fact that Rozier’s match rights would be a handy hedge against Irving’s departure. The Celtics could also have as many as three picks in the top fifteen of the 2019 NBA draft. The Celtics will have team control over Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum for much of the early 2020s.

Dallas Mavericks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I’ve maligned the heartless logic of the Celtics’ front office as an direct reminder of the business side of the NBA, but the fact remains that their resistance to sentimentality has ushered in a very successful decade for the Celtics. Irving leaving would be a set back, but at this point the Celtics FO has earned the benefit of doubt even if the worst should happen. The Celtics will still have a young core, top coach, and a trove of draft picks that would still have them ahead of many teams.

However, this is all rooted in the same speculation that I spent half this space lambasting. This is more about who Kyrie Irving is as a person and accepting who he is and what choice that will lead him to make.

For my fellow Celtics fans, I’d encourage you to see Irving’s upcoming season as an appreciation of a really fun, electric, good individual. I’ve really enjoyed having Irving on the Celtics in his short time here and done a complete 180 on how I view him as a player. Although we may want to demand he stay a Celtic forever, or distance ourselves from him to buffer against a possible divorce, all those outcomes have very little, if anything, to do with how we view Kyrie Irving as a fellow person and central figure of the community.

In addition to the countless fun highlights, he’s enriched the fun of the Celtics off-the-floor with his reality-bending quotes. He’s done fun bench celebrations with Yabu and made me stand up out of my chair with impressive crossovers. No matter what happens in July 2019, I’ve really come to appreciate Kyrie Irving as an individual within this community and I have the peace of knowing that the choice he makes will be one made by one of the most fun Celtics of my lifetime.

I anticipate this being a great year for the Boston Celtics community, at least until I see Brad Stevens with a Coca-Cola.