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In defense of Kyrie Irving

Kyrie’s departure from Boston is just as much on us as it is him.

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics - Game Four Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

More times than not, I agree with Kyrie. He’s polarizing for sure, but I think largely misunderstood in his two-year stint with the Celtics. While his press conferences were often stream-of-consciousness soliloquies that were transcription nightmares, they were always impulsively honest and I appreciated that. In this world of social media, brand maintenance, and self-styled expression, Kyrie Irving is a refreshing voice, not just as a sports superstar, but simply as a person.

After the Celtics’ 121-110 win over the Nets on Friday night, Irving took to Instagram to address the jeers and boos that rained down in his absence. Kyrie has sat out homecoming games in Cleveland and Boston nursing a right shoulder injury.

But here’s the thing. For many of us, including myself, this isn’t just about “a damn ball going through a hoop.” Kyrie knows that. For him, it’s an expression of self. Basketball is an art. That’s what I love about Irving. There are players like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan that are ultra-competitive and who just have to win at any cost. There are others who are seemingly just in it for a paycheck and/or celebrity.

And there are others who recognize the symbiotic relationship with the fans. It’s less about the sport and more about the sense of community. Boston has a unique connection with its teams. Every banner embraces the blue collar spirit of Boston and its best players recognize that bond. Marcus Smart knows this. He loves Boston and Boston loves him.

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

When Irving announced in the pre-season last year that he intended to re-sign with the Celtics, that promise struck a positive chord with the Garden faithful. In an NBA becoming more and more transitory with superstars teaming up on the coasts and super-teams being built on a whim, Kyrie’s public declaration didn’t just represent stability on the cap sheet and long term contention in the league; it was a vow to be a part of history, to have his legacy stitched into the banners above the parquet.

For all of Irving’s virtuous pursuit of truth and joy in the game, he doesn’t seem to value the name on the front of his jersey as much as his on the back. We might disagree with his priorities, but he’s well aware of the who, what, and why. But “where” matters. In his Instagram post and in previous comments, Irving has been open about the death of his grandfather sucking the joy out of the game at the start of 2018-2019. He’s talked about how he insulated himself with his friends and family and how it affected him as a team leader.

Frankly, that’s what made these posters from yesterday unforgivable. They were inconsiderate and insincere and that’s on us. In a perfect world, we should be more understanding of Kyrie and more so, we could have collectively comforted him last year in his time of loss. That’s what families do.

Especially today on Thanksgiving, I can’t help but think about the death of Isaiah Thomas’ sister on the eve of the 2017 NBA Playoffs and how Boston rallied around him that spring. Of course, IT and Kyrie are very different people. Thomas wears his heart on his sleeve. Irving is more private and insulated. That’s something that we should have acknowledged.

To a man, his former teammates and coaches, from Smart to Jaylen Brown to Brad Stevens, have publicly supported Irving and his decision to leave, but many fans are so quick to tear down Irving and label him a liar and “coward.” Maybe he doesn’t embody what we think is the Celtics’ Way. However, maybe we should do a better job embodying it, too.

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