We're All Pawns
We're All Pawns

On Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets, and Being a Pawn

“So stop distracting me and my team, and appreciate the Art,” was not the standout sentence from Kyrie Irving‘s recent Instagram story. But you already knew that.

Far more people had thoughts on Kyrie’s declaration that he does not “talk to pawns,” which came soon after. And I’ll get to that part of his post in a second. But to understand that, you have to consider The Art.

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One of my favorite traits about Kyrie Irving, the human, is his consistent acknowledgment of basketball as art. It’s fitting that perhaps the most stylish basketball player to grace the NBA actively considers the sport as such.

There’s no other way to describe the spectacle Irving puts on every time he steps on a court but as art. He is one of this generation’s great basketball artists. The dribble moves, the body control, the fluidity, it’s supernatural. If you appreciate the sport, you won’t forget the emotional reaction you had watching him play. Barclays Center has never been as loud as it was when he hit this step-back three over Treveon Graham. That’s just the feeling people get watching an artist at his peak.

Long from now, those of us who have had the blessing to follow his career will remember his artistic tools, before anything else. Irving’s preeminent moment is a game-winner in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. I’d argue his second is serving Brandon Knight a 4-piece meal in a “meaningless” exhibition.

The All-Star appearances, the points per game, even the ring count, that’s all in the epilogue. That’s not what we remember about players, even less cherished ones: We remember how they play. For the special ones, their play changes the sport as a whole. It pushes the art form forward. No one player is bigger than the game; players are the game.

This is how we trace the sport throughout time. Kyrie Irving, the ball-handler of this period of NBA history, is a reflection of the great ball-handlers of the past. He will reflect in the great dribblers of the future.

Steph Curry is such a phenomenon because observers collectively felt his impact on basketball as it was happening. Watching him break every rule in the book, understanding the NBA would never be the same, is and was an unforgettable experience. That’s what hall of fame artists do. They leave you in shock and awe when they pull-up from 30 with 15 seconds on the shot clock. It’s the way people felt when they heard Jimi Hendrix play guitar for the first time.

The NBA is rife with otherworldly talent these days and will continue to be. Steph Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo have each recently captured back-to-back MVPs. LaMelo Ball and Russell Westbrook play the same position. The Art is in fantastic hands right now, not to mention the fact that an era of player empowerment means we get to see new, fascinating permutations of the league’s stars each and every year.

In a just world, this is what would drive NBA discourse. It does not. Just hop on Twitter and sit through yet another debate about who the greatest really is, LeBron or Michael. I’m sure you’ll hear some new talking points this time. Or turn on First Take; listen to two talking heads “discuss” how Paul George, a 6’8″, all-defensive sharpshooter with the ball on a string, is nothing but a playoff choker. Again.

The NBA knows not but one way to sell its product. Narrative-based coverage ensures popularity, no matter how boring and cyclical it is. Everybody can, or rather, loves to have their take on something. “Join the conversation!” as Bleacher Report invites users to do. Hyping LeBron up as the next GOAT has been generating material since 2003, why stop now? Comparison may be the thief of joy, but not profits.

The promise of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, two unparalleled talents, taking the court together in merely a week should be dominating headlines. We should be seeing stories anticipating what that combination could entail, the results it could produce. But right now, that’s not the story around the Brooklyn Nets. Far from it. As Kyrie alluded to, the frenzy around his comments regarding the media is undoubtedly a distraction to the team, no matter how small.

What must be understood, though, is that the media is never, ever, not a distraction to NBA athletes. As only he could, Dennis Rodman once said “I’ll play the game for free, but you get paid for the bull**** after you leave the floor.”

On some level, Irving is merely expressing the fact the players, regular people with remarkable athletic talent, have little control over how their narrative arc plays out in the media. The NBA and its corporate partners do not sell the art; they sell the drama.

The Pelicans will play six nationally televised games from January 8th to January 21st, six of which are on the road. On the merit of their artistic potential, they surely do not deserve such spotlight. A new coach, operating with plenty of new players and a star sophomore in Zion Williamson will struggle early. Especially with a shortened training camp.

The art that the NBA is showcasing to a national audience for this stretch of games likely could’ve been better. It comes with the territory, though, for both the team and Williamson. It will certainly be a trying time for Zion, whose every move will be scrutinized and likely compared to LeBron James at his age. That’s the narrative Zion is a part of right now. The league has deemed him worthy of being next up, and every move he makes will be a referendum on that decision.

The same thought process placed Irving as persona non grata in the media landscape, long before any mention of chess pieces. The 2019 Celtics disappointed greatly, and Kyrie Irving in particular a rough exit to the playoffs, for his standards. In addition, he appeared frustrated at times, whether with teammates or just in general.

He was perhaps too honest with reporters, which led to weeks of consternation around the team, often questioning his leadership ability and popularity within the clubhouse. Irving would post cryptic messages on social media. The case was closed, especially when he signed with Brooklyn that summer. His place as a bewildering malcontent in the NBA world was cemented.

It’s continued to this day. When Irving expressed a plethora of valid concerns about The Bubble, Kendrick Perkins, who far more NBA fans have heard of in his post-playing career than when he was lacing them up, went on ESPN to say “If you take Kyrie Irving’s brain and put it in a bird right now, guess what that bird is going to do? It’s going to fly backwards. Because Kyrie right now, he’s confused.” The world’s premier NBA reporter described Irving, in a headline nonetheless, as “the disruptor,” designating him as the central roadblock to an NBA restart.

All the while the NBA will promote Irving, as they should, this upcoming season. He’s a premier talent on a premier team in a premier media market. His dazzling ball-handling skills will make plenty of Instagram posts, tweets, and commercials.

However, he will likely continue to have his words misconstrued into brief soundbites short of any and all additional context to rake up clicks and buzz. Players make the league, and yet, Irving is clearly a pawn. Just as a story about Paul George falling apart in the playoffs will generate much buzz, a story about Kyrie being “weird” will do the same. What works, works, and organizations dealing with billions in cash flow aren’t in a rush to shift direction.

The irony is that Irving is spot on when he calls media members pawns. It’s a little dismissive, sure, and I certainly wouldn’t enjoy being referred to as one, but it’s the undeniable truth.

The quotes that get aggregated into oblivion, from flat-Earth quasi-jokes to musings on roster construction, the ones that get used as evidence for “Is Kyrie Irving a Bad Person and Teammate” segments on every major sports network, come from low-level media members.

The ones that stick microphones into players’ faces after every game or practice. But that is their job, and Kyrie certainly knows this. The problem with modern media is the problem, it seems, with every other industry. The overwhelming majority of it is owned by a few corporations, who have no legal, ethical, or moral obligation to anything but the bottom line.

The problems of modern journalism do not stem from ground-level employees asking Kyrie Irving how his ankle responded to treatment, or any other trivial matter. The unceasing goal of major news corporations, like ESPN, is to generate clicks and revenue. That is why their featured talent does not include many tried and true basketball analysts, but rather reactionaries who can string words together at high volumes.

Irving would have no problem speaking to the lower-level pawns of the media world if the quotes he delivered were promised not to turn ESPN’s Youtube page into this every other day:

There are no winners here, except the profit-bearers. But that’s hardly a new conundrum. Irving is as pawn as pawn can be, in this situation. As most NBA players are. They are tremendous artists, and Irving is one of basketball’s most dazzling ones. But this is not about basketball. It’s about the NBA as a product, as an institution.

Unfortunately for Irving, and the rest of us who have fallen in love with the game, those are two entirely separate entities. The latter uses the former as a means to an end.

Ultimately, Irving’s damnation of low-level reporters as pawns is nothing more than uncomfortable fact-checking. These reporters are tremendous individuals, many of whom do love the sport and relish interacting with the athletes on a personal level.

They do not view themselves as pawns, but rather as professionals who have busted ass to get into the media scrambles Kyrie talks to. They have free will and an intense work ethic. But when it comes to Kyrie’s place in the NBA media landscape, they are absolutely pawns. Both can be true. Ultimately, if there’s a problem with Irving’s actions, it’s that it seems he is punching down at the media members he is calling out.

Irving is a pawn here too, though, and it is where his frustration stems from. At the hands of mass capital, we are all pawns. Even if you’re getting paid $40 million a year to play a sport, you’re not above being one, even if there are countless privileges associated with that job. He knows this.

He is a smart man, who has talked at length about oppressive power structures in the country. That goes hand-in-hand with his work with a laundry list of charitable organizations, mostly focused on improving the lives of Black and indigenous people. The “fake woke” label applied to him is too disingenuous to even bother discussing.

But it exists, in large part due to the character of Kyrie the media has created in the last couple of years. And we could be here discussing Kyrie, the artist, set to enter his age-28 season on what promises to be one of the most exciting teams in basketball. But we aren’t, and really, we never could be. That’s simply not what drives the bottom line. And outside of a select few individuals, we are all worse off for it. Kyrie Irving himself, his teammates, his coaches, the fans, the media members he was referring to, everyone. And he didn’t even tell a lie.