A Cautionary Tale
2023. An early January evening in Salt Lake City. A professional basketball savant puts on a dazzling display, the capacity crowd’s anticipation growing every time he touches the ball. His bag of tricks contains a seemingly inexhaustible supply of lightning quick crossover dribbles, hesitations, and step back jump shots. Add in pretty reverse layups, crafty finishes around the rim, the ability to find a sliver of separation from an opponent where none exists.
He is a force of nature. He is unstoppable. He is Kyrie Irving.
Alas, for all his natural talent, there is a far darker side.
Alarm bells ring, first in Cleveland, then in Boston. Two cities, two NBA franchises, two ownership groups desperate to sign him, then placate him, hopeful to bring him to heel. Mesmerized by his physical gifts, blinded by his outrageous skill. Both franchises fail, unable to pacify his whims as, all the while, Irving alienates passionate fan bases.
Some four years ago, the Brooklyn Nets take their turn. Various circumstances allow them to assemble a super team. Irving, as of July 1, 2019, links first with fellow superstar Kevin Durant and later James Harden. Yet, while the latter two of these empowered prima donnas go on to bring their own considerable dramas, it is Irving who makes a toxic situation decidedly worse.
The off-court litany of disasters quickly pile up. Year after year, Irving is continually in the news for all the wrong reasons. If at times sidelined by injury, he also misses games for “personal reasons”, for just not wanting to play. For unexplained family matters, for violating health and safety protocols. Goes on to miss half of the 2021-22 season for refusing to get vaccinated vs Covid-19.
Then comes a $50,000 fine for a middle finger salute to Boston fans as the Nets are unceremoniously swept out of the 2022 playoffs in the first round. An eight-game suspension follows five months later, as he repeatedly fails to apologize for posting a twitter link in support of anti-semitic conspiracies. After a massive public fallout, this stunt also costs him the loss of a lucrative Nike sponsorship.
In the end, after multiple reshapes of the team roster, of parting ways with not one but two head coaches in attempts to mollify him, the Nets finally draw a line in the sand. Unsurprisingly, Irving balks, demands a trade, threatens to hold out, seemingly irked by the team’s insistence on behaviour stipulations in any new $200 million contract.
Of course, when actually on court, Irving does produce plenty of memorable moments. All-star level play. Routinely spectacular, a nightly highlight reel, he averages over 27 points 5 assists and 5 rebounds per game.
And, at one point this current season, the Nets win 12 in a row, part of an 18 of 20 run of games. In the eyes of many, they again become a legitimate Eastern conference power. Yet, it proves only an illusion.
And now it is over, after four bumpy, troubled years. Irving gone, sent packing to Dallas. In the end, he and Durant manage only 74 games together for the Nets. What begins as an exciting, positive, upbeat story dissolves into spite and bitterness. Hope submarined by drama and relatively few actual basketball achievements. Seven post season victories in total, one measly playoff series success.
No doubt the Nets’ initial pursuit of Irving is done with the best of intentions. Yet, even from the start, knowing as they did his entitled, narcissistic, checkered past, it smacks of a Faustian bargain. This term refers to the legend of Faust, a character in German folklore who surrenders his soul to an evil spirit in exchange for knowledge, power, and potential success. By nature, this arrangement inevitably turns tragic, as what is surrendered is ultimately much more valuable than what is obtained.
Indeed, an age-old debate rages. Talent and Performance vs Character and Trust. Talent and Performance, at every level of sport, can point to an endless, lopsided series of specific metrics. Points, assists, rebounds, catches, touchdowns, balls and strikes ratio, goals, save percentage. And on and on and on. With elite performers such as Irving figuring prominently.
In stark contrast, it is impossible to judge or predict reactions with any degree of certainty when a person is under duress or facing adversity. Difficult to know who will always place the team above him or herself, who will provide steady, consistent leadership, who will go the proverbial extra mile. Ultimately, there never has been or will be a metric or machine to measure conclusively trust and character.
Now Dallas takes its turn. Not surprisingly, in the NBA, there will always be organizations willing to chase premium talent, willing to gamble, willing to push all their chips to the middle of the table.
I hope throughout the process this particular organization can retain its balance and its sanity. As the high-risk Irving acquisition absolutely screams for caution.
Beware. Because talent is only ever temporary, while character is permanent.