Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets and a Basketball Cold War
When you hear the term ‘Cold War,’ what do you think of? Is it images of nuclear missiles being transported on ships and trucks, or is it images of doomsday bunkers and large surpluses of canned foods with drinkable water? For those who may not be familiar or just need a refresher, the Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union following World War II spurred on by a nuclear arms dash, a race to space and almost resulted in nuclear warfare between the two greatest nations at the time.
For the past few weeks, Nets fans have experienced their own version of a Cold War from a basketball perspective. Two sides threatened an apocalypse, fans mistrusted and were at odds with each other, all over a feared result that could send them back to the proverbial stone age, much like with the United States and the Soviets. And even though Kyrie Irving did reportedly opt-in to his player option, thus bringing a sense of relief to all involved, the Doomsday clock got dangerously close to midnight for some.
It is understandable why Brooklyn would be hesitant to give Irving a max deal with no questions asked. Even the staunchest Irving stans will agree his attendance these last few years has been spotty for multiple reasons.
In his three seasons in Brooklyn, Irving has played in 103 of the team’s 226 regular-season games. During the 2019-20 season, Irving played just 20 games due in large part to a shoulder injury. During the 2020-21 season, Kyrie played 54 games, more than both James Harden and Kevin Durant en route to a historic 50/40/90 season. However, his season was marred by a brief hiatus taken during the middle of the season, which included him being on a Zoom call during a Nets game as well as a leaked video of him in attendance at a family member’s birthday party.
Then comes this past season, one in which Irving’s vaccination status was the topic of conversation in both the sports and political worlds. Due to New York City’s mandate, Irving was unable to play at Barclays Center, which led the Nets to take the stance that Irving would not be a part-time player. However, a little over two months into the season and following a COVID outbreak that ravaged the roster, Nets management reversed course and allowed Irving to play as a part-time member. Even with Irving becoming a full-time player towards the end of the season, he only suited up 29 times for Brooklyn.
Irving is one of the most unique athletes today. A very much against-the-grain free thinker who occasionally has rubbed his fair share of people the wrong way. There is no denying he is also one of the best humanitarians in sports as well. His charitable contributions toward social justice, the WNBA and his Native American tribe are extremely commendable. He has also made it known that basketball is not the most important thing in life.
The problem, however, is that professional sports are not just a game, they are also a business. Being an athlete is a job, and when you are paid the amount of money someone like Irving is paid, many people do not want to hear excuses of why a job cannot get done. Fans can somewhat excuse injuries, but when it comes to things like “unexcused” absences and not getting vaccinated, a player’s commitment to the team and job gets put into question.
There were dozens of other unvaccinated players in the league who were still able to enjoy full-time playing status because there were no mandates in their home cities; Irving just so happened to play in a city without an exemption for athletes. He made his choice and stuck to his guns, and the result is an organization cannot put its full faith in him.
The Cold War Begins
With the Nets on the short end of a sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics and many people to blame, the big question narrowed in on the future of Irving. Following the Game 4 loss, Irving made his intentions known that he sees a future in Brooklyn co-managing the franchise with Kevin Durant, Sean Marks and Joe Tsai, which raised eyebrows. Even more eyebrows were raised about a week later during an end-of-season press conference, when Marks was asked if the team was committed to Irving long-term, to which he replied, “He has some decisions to make on his own” while adding, “We’re looking for guys that want something bigger than themselves,” which many saw as a shot at Irving. This was the first domino to fall, and what ensued is a tumultuous few weeks.
In this era of social media, we have seen an increase in public negotiations between players, agents, teams and even leagues with the use of plugged-in reporters and insiders to deliver messages and rally the public to their respective sides. Imagine two kids in middle school that like each other but are using their friends as mouthpieces to convey what they want to tell the other. In this Cold War, Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania were the two biggest mouthpieces with some spattering of info coming from others, such as Scoop B and Brian Windhorst.
The unfortunate part about this new reality of negotiations is that fans get caught in the middle. I liken it almost to a child caught between their parents going through a nasty divorce. And even if the two parents, in this case, Irving and Nets management/ownership, reconcile their differences and hash everything out, the trauma and scars from being caught in the middle will still linger.
Over the course of a few weeks, fans were hanging on every tweet and article from reporters trying to get the latest info on what was happening, much like how U.S. citizens eagerly sat by their radios and televisions desperate for the latest developments in what could be a nuclear holocaust.
Doomsday Clock Begins to Tick
Things really became tense when sign-and-trade reports started dropping and a list of Irving’s possible trade targets was released. Things got even weirder when Tsai was caught liking a tweet from someone who has a history of anti-Irving tweets. Even though the tweet was technically complimenting Tsai, the verbiage made it clear it was a slight toward Irving, and with the two sides going back and forth with negotiations, it is not the greatest look for a governor to be liking tweets with the main premise being team over player. Especially when it became a topic on national sports talk shows. Set the clock to 11:57 pm.
Then insert Kevin Durant into the mix. Durant’s ties with Irving were seen as a leverage play and one that was used almost shamelessly. Everyone knows of Durant and Irving’s friendship and how they agreed to come to Brooklyn as a package deal. The thought that Durant could demand a trade if Irving walked or was traded away unsurprisingly sent Nets World into a tizzy. Although logic said all signs pointed to it being a bluff and the fact Durant had already signed his extension, just the mere idea of it happening was a jolt.
The Doomsday clock reached 11:59 pm when reports came out that the Nets had granted Irving permission to seek out a trade and that the team “would rather lose them both than go through what they went through last season, which was a miserable season under the situation that Kyrie Irving contributed to creating.”
The team reportedly was seemingly willing to tank its best chances at a title-contending roster since the Byron Scott era all due to egos on both sides. The Dwight-mare and botched Celtics trade would look like wet dreams compared to this nightmare of a situation that could potentially end in the 7/11 era being done before it ever had a chance to get started. Legitimate questions were being asked, too. Even in the event Durant stayed and Kyrie walked, how do you remain a title contender without the services of a guy who is a year removed from a 50/40/90 season and your cap situation in flux? And if you trade him, what pieces can be acquired that would be worth it?
The buzz words of culture and taking back the franchise started popping up like unwanted zits the night before prom. For some, the “acceptance” tweets started rolling in and for others the “idc what happens as long as Kyrie is gone” tweets followed suit. It was not a pretty sight if your Twitter timeline was Nets-related. It kind of looked like the scene in ‘Mean Girls,’ when the contents of the Burn Book got released and every girl in the school was at each other’s necks. Thankfully, the fire alarm was pulled, and the flames of turmoil and peril were doused by the sprinkler, system which was a Charania tweet stating that Irving was opting into his contract and running it back at least one more time in Brooklyn.
Whether it was truly due to a scarcity of teams wanting him or a separate reason, Nets brass called Irving’s bluff and came out on top. This result could be beneficial for all involved. The Nets and their fans get at least one more season with Irving, who more than likely will ball out on a contract year. And for Irving, if he does indeed ball out, that max money will be waiting for him at the end of the season, whether it is from the Nets or someone else.
With the Doomsday clock reset to 11:55 pm (for now), the focus can now be shifted to making this a championship roster. Brooklyn has some decisions to make regarding personnel surrounding their two stars who, for the time being, will be donning the black and white at Barclays next season. The Cold War of 2022 will be remembered for a long time by Nets fans. If 7/11 can deliver this franchise’s first-ever NBA title, however, this whole ordeal will be looked at as a funny memory of unnecessary worry and chest pains.