After a difficult ending to a strange season, Kyrie Irving returned to Boardroom’s “The ETCs” podcast to reflect on what’s next in his NBA journey.
Dribbling the basketball is perhaps the most basic of the core skills on the court. The earliest drills in development are sharpening that skill, bouncing the ball on the ground, with control. Cones are laid out on any given blacktop as kids tap the ball onto the ground with repetition, slowly beginning to discern the requisite force to continue the action.
But even dribbling has an unmatched complexity to it. The artistry of basketball lies within dribbling, the way a player takes the ball from one place to another on the court, combats any defender, and finds the position needed to complete whatever task in front of them.
So there’s a certain irony that Kyrie Irving is widely regarded as the best-ever dribbler of the basketball — a man with a fascinating complexity beneath the surface, and a simple foundation that frames all of it.
“I try to find a healthy balance with being authentically me,” Kyrie said on the latest episode of Boardroom’s “The ETCs” podcast. “Speaking honestly, but also just being conscientious of other people’s feelings.”
Kyrie had just wrapped up what may eventually be seen as his lost season. Fresh off joining the 50/40/90 club in 2021, and off an ankle turn that many felt cost him his second NBA championship, Kyrie seemed primed for another leap into historic territory as a player and championship contention as a team.
But the world had other plans.
A local vaccine mandate halted his 11th NBA season before it started, and his odyssey back onto the court clouded the Brooklyn Nets’ season instantly.
“Did I feel like I was letting the world down or letting Nets fans down, letting my teammates down?” the seven-time All-Star asked aloud. “Yeah, part of that letdown feeling definitely seeped in.”
Kyrie remained steadfast in his belief: Not anti-vaccination or anti-medicine, just against an ultimatum that would force him to be vaccinated.
“It completely caught me off guard,” Kyrie said. “I didn’t expect to come into the season with all of this being put on my plate.”
But on his plate it was, and Kyrie quickly became the face of a political battle raging across the country. When he finally did return to the court as a part-time player only allowed to play on certain Nets road games, he held on to hope he would eventually be a full-time player again.
“I was approaching the team almost every day or every week. Like, ‘Hey, is there any progress?’” he said. “Trying to get in touch with the mayor’s office, trying to get in touch with our political figures, our political leaders, to figure out how do we work around this? I talked to scientists, I talked to health professionals. I went down the checklist of, ‘Hey, is there any way that I can work around this?’”
In digging into the conundrum, Kyrie discovered entire communities of people being affected by vaccine mandates, losing jobs after their refusal to vaccinate. He doubled down, saying he wanted to stand up for those people. He eventually returned to the court full time in March when the vaccine mandate was amended to account for entertainers and athletes in New York City, coincidentally on the eve of the New York Yankees’ and Mets’ returns to the field.
But even when he was back, Kyrie never felt back this season. The ankle injury that knocked him out of the 2021 Eastern Conference Semifinals had lingered all summer, so he was robbed of a full off-season of conditioning and training to further sharpen his already Ginsu sharp set of tools.
“I didn’t start walking normal probably until like mid-September, so training camp was like my first time going up and down,” Kyrie said. “I knew it was gonna be a process for me to play again, but it would’ve been accelerated being around the guys and playing game speed.”
“I’m usually sustaining a level of growth throughout the year, instead of trying to catch up with everybody that’s been playing for four or five months,” he added. Even late in the year, with astounding 50- and 60-point performances a week apart, he still wasn’t where he wanted to be. “There was nothing to lose there. It was only the journey to enjoy at that point.”
The Nets’ 2021-22 journey ended to the tune of a gut-wrenching sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, but there is light at the end of the tunnel for Kyrie. At 30 years old, he enters a stage of his career he calls “slowly crawling into” his prime.
“I represent the mastery of basketball,” Kyrie said when asked if he’s mastered the sport. “Because I represent that, I’m always gonna be a student. You can call me a master, but I, myself, would probably just call myself a teacher of the game at this point.”
For now, even representing the mastery of the sport, his focus is team success — and being a key cog in that machine.
“Adding to my game now is really adding to my own personal resumé of being successfully dominant as a team and being one of the best players on that team,” Kyrie said. “If that means getting a few more assists, if that means taking a few less shots and being efficient with those shots, if it means taking more shots and being more efficient with that, if it means switching up my role, going from the one to the two or the two to the one, or being flexible for my coach to throw me in there to guard bigs at times, you know, even though it’s uncomfortable for me, I just really wanna be complete.”
Now, it seems, with that goal in mind Kyrie realizes that dominance must happen off the court as well. And with Kevin Durant next to him, in an organization motivated to win from the very top-down, in a destination city, with the world in his hands it seems more possible than ever that those goals are possible.
“Having fun building relationships that don’t just extend on the court,” Kyrie said “It’s the trust off the court that helps us win games and helps us win championships.”
Heading into an offseason full of questions and opportunities with a palette full of possibilities and free of a mandate, Kyrie Irving now has his chance to shape his world.
“I have so much time on my hands to think about it and plan and envision,” he said.