Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving is highly respected on and off the court, for good reason. There’s his title with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he hit “the shot” in Game 7, and the almost unanimous opinion that he is the greatest NBA in-game dribbler to ever pick up a ball. His off-court respect comes from the players in the league, if not the fans. The fans tend to roll their eyes at Irving, recalling when he said that he believed the earth was flat. His teammates, on the other hand, know Irving as a serious person—someone who argued that the league should not go into “the bubble” to play after the police murder of George Floyd, that the season should in effect be canceled. It was even revealed that he secretly bought the Floyd family a home. Irving celebrates his Native American heritage, is paying close attention to the NYC DA’s race, and also recently converted to Islam, fasting—while playing—during Ramadan. He’s an iconoclast, for sure, secure in himself and caring less about what people think than any athlete in memory. Even though he sometimes plays his sport with a look of barely concealed tolerance, as if there are numerous things he’d rather be doing, Irving joined one of the most exclusive clubs in league history this past season by shooting 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range, and 90 percent from the line.
This is why it probably wasn’t surprising that, of all NBA players who could be speaking publicly about Israel’s bombardment of Palestine, it was Kyrie Irving who was. Several players have posted messages of solidarity with the Palestinian people, but none have taken the time, as Irving did, to put basketball in its proper place. None have planted themselves out there as an internationalist against oppression and a humanist who wants the violence to stop. In the same way that he wore an “”I Can’t Breathe” shirt years ago during warm-ups after the police killing of Eric Garner, Irving made it clear that his breath was also taken by the horrors in Gaza.
At this presser, Irving said, “I’m not gonna lie to you guys, a lot of stuff is going on in this world, and basketball is just not the most important thing to me right now. There’s a lot of stuff going on overseas, all my people, they’re still in bondage all across the world. And there’s a lot of dehumanization going on. So, I apologize if I’m not going to be focused on your questions. It’s just too much going on in the world for me just be talking about basketball.”
He also stated that “it’s not just in Palestine. It’s not just in Israel. It’s all over the world, man. And I feel it. I’m very compassionate to all races, all cultures, and to see a lot of different people being discriminated upon or against based on their religion, color their skin, what they believe in…. we all say ‘we’re human beings, and we care and we’re compassionate.’ But what are you doing to help?”
He then spoke at length about why he believes that we need to build “a community that stands with unity and liberation.”
Irving ended his presser by challenging people to do just that; challenging people to “stand on the good word of treating everyone with respect, compassion, and love.”
It was an emotionally stirring event. You could hear a pin drop and the cameras click as he was making his remarks. It also produced some wry smiles among the basketball cognoscenti. All season, Irving has been periodically fined by the NBA for not speaking to the press. Well, the sports world wanted him to speak… you wanted it, you got it.
Irving is only the most prominent of a number of US athletes who have been posting to social media in solidarity with the Palestinian people. In years past, this has been absolutely the third rail of sports and politics, with silence being the response to war and occupation. That is shifting. Influenced by connections between the Black Lives Matter movement, with its deep roots among NBA players, and the Palestinian struggle, we are seeing a new internationalist consciousness against racism and oppression. That this is finding expression in the world of sports is a very dynamic development. But that Kyrie Irving is on the front lines of this shift is truly no surprise at all.