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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Kyrie Irving deserves understanding and support, not scorn

Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets reacts during

Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets reacts during the third quarter against the Atlanta Hawks at Barclays Center on Dec. 30, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The world is falling apart. How can I write about basketball?

There are days I turn on the television and think this. I worry about my parents getting sick. I worry about my kids learning online. Lately, I worry irrationally that the scary guy with face paint and horns is hiding in my closet.

These are difficult times for all of us emotionally and mentally, and I can only imagine how much more difficult they would be if I were a person of color. It’s only human for all of us to look at the world and wonder if we are doing the right thing.

This is why I think we should cheer for Kyrie Irving rather than chastise him for rejoining the Nets on Wednesday night after taking a seven-game "pause" from playing basketball.

Irving scored 37 points in the Nets’ 147-135 double-overtime loss to the Cavaliers in the first game he, Kevin Durant and James Harden played together.

The game was Irving’s first since riots in the nation's capital on Jan. 6. In his first public comments since taking a leave of absence, Irving, 28, explained his time away as "a lot of family and personal stuff" without going into details. He acknowledged that he had reached out for help and was getting it. And he made it clear that he had been deeply impacted by what is going on outside of the basketball arena.

"I would be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t affected by what’s going on in this world," Irving said in an emotional 12-minute news conference after practice on Tuesday. "I want to make changes daily. There are so many oppressed communities and so many things going on that are bigger than a ball going in a rim."

Some people just seem to feel things super-deeply, and Irving seems to be one of them. Yet because he makes an obscene amount of money — he has a four-year contract worth up to $141 million — and is playing at such an elite level, we expect him to be able to compartmentalize and just play basketball.

It is true that Irving did not handle his absence in the most graceful of ways. Most egregiously, he violated the NBA’s coronavirus health and safety protocols by attending a family birthday party at a crowded club without wearing a mask. Irving potentially put his teammates and opponents in danger by doing this, and he deserved the $50,000 fine and the docking of $816,898 in salary for doing so.

What he did not deserve was the outpouring of vitriol and casual cruelty he has received on Twitter and other places these past two weeks. I don’t know if it’s because it’s just incredibly hard for fans to see someone with an incredible talent choose not to use it. Or if there is something deeper operating here. Whatever the case, Irving has been a lightning rod for nastiness, with his personal life, intelligence, integrity and love of basketball all being questioned.

One thing that can’t be questioned is that Irving has put his money where his mind is. In his news conference Tuesday, he confirmed a recent report that he had bought a house for the family of George Floyd, the Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis after a police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes.

Irving has donated more than $2 million in the past year to COVID-related causes, including protective gear for essential workers of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, meals for New Yorkers in need and $1.5 million for WNBA players who were forced to opt out of last season because of health issues.

Irving probably can help the world a lot more by doing what he does best, playing basketball and using the money and platform that comes with it to support the cause he believes in. While it’s clear he understands that, it’s also clear that it is a struggle for him. Irving has admitted that he reached out for mental health counseling, which is a good thing.

"This world is a wacky place at times," he said. " . . . It’s been a lot to balance."

Irving is a person going through a difficult time. Like any other person going through a tough time, he deserves a little space and encouragement.

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