Kyrie Irving returned to the Brooklyn Nets after two weeks away from the team and addressed the media for the first time since taking a leave of absence.
Irving missed seven games total, including five for personal reasons and two for conditioning. He lost nearly $817,000 in salary while in quarantine for two games, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted. The NBA also fined Irving $50,000 for violating the league’s health and safety protocols after videos surfaced of him attending a family birthday party.
What caused Brooklyn’s star to leave the team?
“Had a lot of family and personal stuff going on,” Irving said without divulging more details. “So, just want to leave it at that.”
While his answer left more to be desired by reporters and the public, Irving addressed his absence privately with the Nets organization and his teammates, according to coach Steve Nash.
“I think Ky is working really hard mentally to put himself in a great position to perform,” Nash said. “I’m proud of him for the effort he’s making there.”
Following Tuesday’s practice, Irving and Nash both called the return “exciting.” The six-time All-Star wasn’t listed on the injury report for Wednesday’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers and will make his return then.
Ahead of his anticipated return, Irving acknowledged some personal struggles during his time away from the team and reached out for guidance.
“I’m just being honest here,” Irving said. “It’s been a lot to balance, and now I called for help, and now I have just so many mentors and so many people reaching out and just taking things off my plate that were never mine in the first place.”
Following his media availability, Irving posted a photo on Instagram with the caption, “I am human. No different than you. I am healing.”
While Nets general manager expressed disappointment surrounding Irving’s absence, he said the organization would support its star player, and they did, according to Irving.
“It’s been great,” said Irving. “It’s been enough support for me to feel like they have my back, and that’s all I can ask, for not only supporting me but my family. I’m a hometown kid, so things hit a little different when family and personal stuff is going on, and that’s up to me to handle that as a man. I just take full accountability for my actions with the guys and just had a conversation with each one of them, and we move on.”
As Irving integrates himself back into the fold in Brooklyn, he’ll do so with a new teammate, James Harden. Thus far, Harden and his former teammate Kevin Durant have meshed well together. The jury remains out on whether Irving and Harden can co-exist together in the backcourt since both players are used to being primary playmakers.
“It’s just really exciting just to be able to play with great players that have just been here in the league for a while and have been through ups and downs, peaks and valleys,” said Irving. “James is aligned with us in terms of experience. Adding that to our locker room is going to be great for us.”
Irving’s return is an opportunity to show he can adapt his game as a scorer off the ball and dispel any questions about his commitment to his teammates and basketball from outside the organization.
“The thing that is pretty interesting in watching when you take a break from everything is there are just so many assumptions about what’s going on, and so many people feel like they know me best,” Irving said. “They have no idea who I am, or what I’m about, or what I stand for, or even attempt to take the time, or even for me to invite them to take the time, so it’s a two-way street. When things become overwhelming in life, you’ve just got to take a step back and realize what’s important. I love to play. It’s never been a question. I’ve committed myself when this wasn’t even a thing for me. I didn’t really care about media. I didn’t really care about the fandom. All I cared about was just the ethics of the game and being taught the fundamentals.”
Irving, who grew up rooting for the Nets in New Jersey, apologized to fans for his absence and emphasized to fans his commitment to winning a title and improving the community.
“I started off as a fanatic,” Irving explained. “I started off as a fan. I’ve been invested in this organization since I was a kid. Now that I’m in this role as a player, there’s quite a difference. The fans out there, I want to apologize to them as well. My commitment has always been to bringing something special to Brooklyn. It wasn’t just a championship. It was unity. It was equality. It’s just bigger things than just the game itself. It took quite a while and quite a few valleys to get back home, initially. So for me, I’m just taking every day, just being grateful. But for the casual or the fanatic, it’s part of our culture. I’m back. I’m happy to be back. We’ve got some great pieces, and we just move on, and I let my actions and my game speak for itself like I planned on doing. Just needed a pause.”
Some speculated part of the “pause” Irving needed was over concerns regarding social justice and politics.
“With everything going on in the world politically, socially, it’s hard to ignore,” Irving admitted. “I want to make changes daily. There are so many oppressed communities and so many things going on that are bigger than just a ball going in the rim.”
During his career, Irving has given back to the community in various ways, including purchasing a home for George Floyd’s family, committing $1.5 million of WNBA salaries to supplement the income of players who opted out of the bubble over coronavirus concerns or social justice reasons, and donating to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and over $300,000 and 250,000 meals to Feeding America.
“For me, it’s just the balance of it, of knowing I can delegate my responsibilities off the court to people that I’m surrounded around that are for the fight and are fighting behind the scenes and in front in the lines,” Irving said. “I’m not the only one that’s fighting. I’m grateful to unify with others. That’s all I try to do. On the court, the same way. Play with a smile, leave something that I’ve felt very dear to my heart with this game. Whatever my legacy is after that as a person, that’s all I really care about.”
You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto