The Baffling, Years-Long Beef Between Kyrie Irving and NBA Media, Explained

Illustration for article titled The Baffling, Years-Long Beef Between Kyrie Irving and NBA Media, Explained
Photo: Mike Lawrie (Getty Images)

When it’s a sport’s offseason and an athlete’s name trends as often as Kyrie Irving’s does—well, an athlete not named LeBron James—it’s usually because of an injury, a trade, or perhaps even some legal issue. Kyrie, however, seems to always be in the news because of...a podcast and a couple of creatively punctuated pre-written statements to the media. But after reading some of the (very negative) stories about him, you’d think he’d raided an animal shelter and went on a kitten stabbing spree. Can you explain what’s happening here, because I’m clueless?

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So, what you’ve observed—a puzzling but legitimately adversarial relationship between Kyrie Irving and much of the media that covers him—is accurate. There are professional athletes who’ve done actual bad things to people—committing crimes, physically threatening teammates and coaches, playing for the Dallas Cowboys, etc.—who receive more favorable media coverage than he does. But despite not being one of the NBA’s five best players, he’s also arguably one of the five most popular, and this same adversarial media has assisted with that. So yeah, this is weird and complex. And definitely very real.

Making it weirder is some of the counter-intuitiveness that exists with both his playing style and his presentation. For instance, when basketball players are considered as unhinged as Kyrie is generally regarded by NBA media and (some) fans, this can usually be traced, basketball-wise, in two ways: turnovers and technical fouls. If you look at the NBA’s usual leaders in both of those categories, the players most associated with a certain emotional volatility (Draymond Green, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard, etc) are always near the top. Kyrie, however, turns the ball over a shockingly low rate for someone as creative as he is and rarely gets techs.

Wow. That’s actually surprising. I assumed, from how he’s talked about, that his game and his personality were much more reckless.  

Well, what’s considered “reckless” in this context is just his preternatural ability to put his foot in his mouth. He doesn’t say or do terrible or violent things; just shit that makes you ask: “Fam, why the hell would you say that aloud?”

I see, but that still doesn’t explain things, because he’s far from the only professional athlete who says and does weird shit sometimes. But those other guys don’t have national media members calling them idiots and cowards and even questioning whether their injuries are legitimate. What’s the difference with Kyrie?

There are two things happening here, converging at once. But first, um, did you go to college?

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I did. Why?

Do you remember how insufferable you were the summer after your freshman year when you came back home and acted like you were Stephen Hawking just because you read a physics textbook and a Bukowski poem?

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Regrettably.

Of course, you remember, because we all were that person. Unfortunately, the fresh-out-of-freshman-year steez is Kyrie’s general steez. Which matters here because, well, a Black guy from Duke who possesses an aggressively Duke affectation—basically, someone who carries himself like he’s smarter than they are—seems to irritate the mostly white NBA media, and they’re elated for opportunities to prove him wrong. I’m convinced that if Kyrie had either a more hood presentation or tried harder to perform humility, the media coverage for what he’s said and done would be much less antagonistic.

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Even the flat Earth thing?

I’m glad you brought that up! That was an indefensible thing that he eventually apologized for. But did you also know that Steph Curry said that he thought the moon landing was fake? And that Dame Lillard shares and promotes COVID-denying conspiracy theories?

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I did not.

Of course, you didn’t, because it doesn’t surface in basketball-related conversations about them the way the flat Earth thing does with Kyrie.

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I see. So you said there were two things happening here. What’s the other one?

Kyrie has also had the misfortune of being in the crosshairs of two of the most passionate (and powerful) groups of NBA media—those with connections to Boston and those invested in LeBron’s legacy.

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The Boston thing is annoying as fuck, but makes sense. His stint with the Celtics did not end well, and perhaps the most popular and powerful person in sports media today (Bill Simmons) is also a die-hard Celtics fan. So naturally, Simmons and sports media people with connections to him (Zach Lowe, Ryen Russillo, etc) would take shots at him. It’s impetuous and petty and it should be embarrassing to them, but it’s on-brand.

Makes sense. The LeBron thing feels like more of a stretch, though. How can you even prove this?

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Because I’m one of them.

Oh.

LeBron James’s greatest competition today ain’t Steph or Kawhi or KD. It’s Michael Jordan. As LeBron himself even said a few years ago, he’s chasing a ghost. But since there’s no way to compete against Mike himself, the “battle” becomes a nebulous competition between LeBron’s on-court impact versus Mike’s. And people who believe LeBron is better (I like do) have to make compelling and convincing arguments why. So Kyrie becomes a convenient foil and collateral damage.

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If Kyrie’s branded “an unstable loser” who was “suffocated by LeBron’s shadow” and “dumb enough to fight his way off of LeBron’s team” and “hasn’t experienced success since,” LeBron looks better for getting a guy like that a ring. But if Kyrie’s a supernova who dominated the MVP (Steph) in the Finals, hit the game-winning shot, and only asked to be traded from Cleveland because 1. he knew LeBron was leaving soon and 2. felt a way because LeBron tried to get him traded first, the impact on LeBron’s legacy is less sunny.

Anyway, I know how stuff like this works because I’ve done it before. For instance, even though Dwyane Wade was arguably the second-best player in the league when LeBron got to Miami, I found ways to downplay how great he was because the worse he was the better it would make LeBron look if they won. It’s not a conscious thing at first. But after these repeated mental gymnastics, you find yourself becoming an associate member of LeBron’s PR team.

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Kyrie’s not blameless here, though. I mean, what about the podcast thing where he said he never trusted LeBron in the clutch?

This is another perfect example of the power of the media narrative. Below is Kyrie’s quote from the two-hour-long podcast with Kevin Durant.

One thing I’ve always been comfortable with is, I felt like I was the best option on every team I’ve played for down the stretch. This is the first time in my career where I can look down be like, ‘That motherfucker can make that shot, too.”

It’s not so much deferring, because in past situations where I didn’t take the last shot, I felt guilty. I want this game-winning shot, but also, you want to trust your teammates. Not that I didn’t trust my teammates, but I felt like I was the best option.

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Podcasts can be sprawling and amorphous beasts where half-baked, stream-of-consciousness thoughts find ways to leak out. Context matters here. But someone searching for an entry to position Kyrie against LeBron—a battle Kyrie will always lose—will read that quote and see a blatant diss of the world’s best basketball player. I see a guy trying to compliment his friend and new teammate, but doing it in a loose and aggressively unsavvy manner. It reminds me in a way of a guy who gets a new girlfriend, is enamored with her, and calls her “the smartest and most beautiful woman I’ve ever been with” in an IG caption about her.

But if that guy’s ex is Beyoncé, when people read that, they’ll see “This nigga called Beyoncé dumb and ugly!!!” and it would become a thing. And Kyrie’s basketball ex just happens to be Basketball Beyoncé.

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If this seems too far-fetched, imagine the level of LeBron-induced psychosis necessary for a grown-ass media professional to ask Kyrie how he feels about LeBron being a father figure to him.

Wait. That actually happened?

Yes.

Wow.

Another example of this juxtapositioning happened when the NBA was preparing to restart the season in the Orlando bubble. Kyrie voiced that returning might draw attention away from the uprisings and protests happening in the country then—a feeling echoed by many of his colleagues. LeBron, however, disagreed and wanted to play. This is fine. Two people with different opinions on an unprecedented labor conundrum during an unprecedented time of social and political upheaval.

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But when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted the article he’d written about this disagreement, he framed it in a way that positioned Kyrie as a problem.

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Essentially, he’s been branded the anti-LeBron.

That’s a crude encapsulation, but I’ll allow it. LeBron is a politician. Which makes sense for someone who’s been the center of media frenzies since he was 14. He knows how to play the game, and most importantly, knows how to bend the rules in his favor. Kyrie is either uninterested in or fundamentally unable to do that. He seems to be fine with just being a stoner loner who says what he feels, is genuinely curious about how the world works, and happens to be great at playing basketball. He’s not a cancer. He’s Darius from Atlanta.

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This might be your longest explainer, ever. Can you explain why?

Because it’s an assembly of many of my favorite things. Basketball is my favorite sport. I know it like how I know my face. NBA basketball is my favorite thing to watch on TV. Kyrie Irving and LeBron James are my two favorite basketball players, perhaps ever. (Only other contenders are pre-baseball Mike and pre-ACL tear Tim Hardaway.) And I know how words work. I know how to spin facts. How to construct subjective titles with a veneer of objectivity. How to ignore the context that might negate a point I wish to make. How to create or continue or subvert a narrative. And I’ve witnessed this happening in the framing of stories about Kyrie.

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Can you give me a concrete example of a context-ignoring narrative?

Sure. It’s not too hard to find a professional sportsperson repeating the “facts” that 1. Kyrie’s only been successful with LeBron on his team and that 2. he’s a toxic teammate whose teams perform better when he’s not playing. But if you add context, the reality becomes a bit less clear.

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Below is a rough timeline of his career.

2011-2012: He’s drafted to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the worst team in the league, and wins Rookie of the Year. He’s 19 years old.

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2012-2013: The Cavs make slight improvements, but they’re still young and still tanking. Kyrie, however, makes his first all-star team. Also, the front office wastes a high lottery pick on Dion Waiters, who is bad but believes he’s good, and the friction between him and Kyrie is immediate. Still, despite how bad the Cavs are, Kyrie gains a reputation as one of the NBA’s most clutch players. Austin Carr coins him “Mr. 4th Quarter.”

2013-2014: The Cavs fire Byron Scott (who was bad) and hire Mike Brown (who was worse). They still suck, and now the team employs people like Andrew Bynum, who did shit like this:

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Despite this toxic environment, Kyrie makes another all-star game and wins MVP in it. He’s 21.

2014-2015: LeBron returns and brings the entire world back with him. Before the season begins, however, Kyrie plays in the FIBA World Cup and wins MVP there on a team that Steph Curry, James Harden, and Anthony Davis are also on.

(Please skip to the eight-minute mark, to the clips from the championship game against Serbia. Team USA is actually losing by seven. And then, Kyrie happens.)

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Led by LeBron and helmed by David Blatt (Kyrie’s third head coach in four seasons), the Cavs reach the Finals and lose to the Golden State Warriors. Kyrie breaks his kneecap in game one. If he stays healthy, I think they win.

2015-2016: Kyrie returns mid-season after recovering from surgery. The Cavs fire Blatt and hire Tyronn Lue (Kyrie’s fourth head coach in five seasons). They reach the Finals again and win. Steph Curry has the best season a small (6'4 or under) guard has ever had, and is the NBA’s first unanimous MVP. Kyrie dominates him.

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2016-2017: The Cavs reach the Finals again, but lose to the best NBA team ever. Despite rumbling that LeBron is attempting to get him traded, Kyrie has his best regular season and averages 30 points in the Finals.

2017-2018: Kyrie gets traded to Boston, and the Celtics, through the first 60 games, are the best team in the league. At one point, they win 18 straight. Kyrie is in the MVP conversation. (He wouldn’t have won it, but he was in the conversation.) And then he gets a season-ending injury.

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The Celtics continue playing well. And leaning on the home-court advantage they earned while Kyrie was still playing, they advance to the conference finals and lose to the Cavs.

2018-2019: With Kyrie and Gordon Heyward back, the expectations for the Celtics are high. But they have an underwhelming season, they finish fourth in the East, they face the Bucks in the second round, Kyrie has a bad series, and they lose to a team that was much better than them.

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Kyrie (who makes second team all NBA) is largely blamed for the team’s disappointing season. Other factors contributing to the team’s failures—Heyward getting shoehorned back into the starting lineup when he clearly wasn’t ready for it, Terry Rozier doing a full-season pout about playing time, Marcus Morris doing Marcus Morris shit, etc.—are ignored.

2019-2020: Kyrie leaves for Brooklyn, and has his best statistical season. Drops 50 twice—including a game where he just decided not to miss any shots.

But injuries limited him to 20 games. Twenty games are not enough time to accurately determine a player’s impact on a new team. There’s just too much inherent wonk there. But since they were slightly below 500 when he played, and slightly above it when he didn’t, the narrative of Kyrie being a team cancer continues. Also, there’s a ridiculous rumor—a rumor repeated by people employed by ESPN—that he faked an injury that 1. kept him out most of the season and 2. led to surgery, just to avoid playing against the Celtics. Please reread that sentence.

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Shit. When you consider all of that, I understand why he’d be deeply skeptical about the NBA media. Fuck. I am now, too.

That’s all I’m saying! He does not help himself, but he also ain’t making this shit up. And I feel like everything here can be summarized by a thing published on one of our sister sites last year.

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One of the few bright spots in the Celtics 2018-2019 season was a January win over the conference-leading Toronto Raptors. Kyrie was particularly incandescent that game, with 27 points, 18 assists, and a clutch and game-clinching 30-footer with Kawhi in his grill.

The next morning, I was looking forward to reading a write-up of the game and Kyrie’s performance on Deadspin. But this also happened to be the same night Kyrie revealed to the media that he’d recently called LeBron to apologize to him for being immature while he was in Cleveland. And so Tom Ley’s piece essentially ignored the game and spent 200 words calling Kyrie a disingenuous fraud who owes everything to LeBron.

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Now, Deadspin is gonna Deadspin, and that “go fuck yourself” general ethos is why it grew to be my favorite blog. And I get it. A snarky piece about Kyrie with LeBron in the title will be more compelling to more readers than a wonky basketball blog about some cool shit Kyrie did. But they do write about cool basketball shit, too. Some of the coolest basketball shit I’ve ever read. (And I have no doubt that if Steph Curry played this exact same game, the cool basketball shit angle would have been the angle.) But instead of that, Ley chose the angle that gave Kyrie the absolute least benefit of the doubt.

This is just one example. But after nine years of it, I think I’d rather get fined than talk to these motherfuckers, too.

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An irony here is that Kyrie’s actual basketball game exists in the sweet spot where old school basketball purists and contemporary fans should find community. He’s roundly considered the best ball handler ever, the best below-the-rim finisher ever, and is also one of the best shooting point guards ever—skills that only develop if you’re a gym rat who’s obsessive about your craft. He still shoots (and makes!) the mid-range shots purists lament have disappeared from the game. You hate how players like James Harden and Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry and even Dame Lillard sometimes flop themselves to the foul line? Well, Kyrie never, ever, ever flops. I’m not sure he’s even aware that flopping exists. You’re upset that superstars are linking up and ruining competitive balance? Well, Kyrie forced his way off a team with LeBron Motherfucking James on it. Sure, the Celtics stint wasn’t as successful as it could have been for him, but he literally did the thing that everyone says they want star basketball players to do.

So, is there anything Kyrie can do now to reverse this narrative?

Yes. Stay on the court. The biggest issue in Kyrie’s career—the only issue worth giving a shit about, really—is that he can’t seem to stay healthy. He injures parts of his body that I didn’t even know existed. But, if he’s healthy and playing well, there just isn’t as much room for “guess what weird/dumb/silly/crazy thing Kyrie said today” discourse. Instead of “shut up and dribble,” he needs to dribble to shut them the fuck up.

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That was clever.

Thanks! I’m done writing now. Goodbye!

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

DISCUSSION

theresnocheekslikemocheeks
TheresNoCheeksLikeMoCheeks

Honestly, a lot of times I believe things like media coverage come down to “do people enjoy your presence”. If they do? You get the Popovich treatment; dude blows off interviews and/or is short and snippy in them, but he receives glowing media coverage because everyone likes Pop (both from afar, and those closer to him as far as I have seen).

Then you’ve got players like Draymond who speak their minds to the media and dont always come off as pleasant, but his general demeanor is still welcoming generally and I think the media is drawn to two things- his ability to provide newsworthy quotes, and his likability.

If you have both of those things you’re golden, and I honestly believe that applies regardless of race for the most part. If you have only one of the two, and the one you have is the ability to provide newsworthy quotes, the media will just salivate at the opportunity to both highlight those quotes and weave it in to a larger narrative about who you are as a person. Kyrie is firmly in that position and being as though wounds are self-inflicted I won’t waste any time feeling sorry for the curmudgeon millionaire.