Kyrie Irving is the NBA’s biggest contrarian 

In the mid-20th century, we finally launched satellites into space and confirmed a reality we’ve known as a species for thousands of years. You can go back as far as Pythagoras and his students studying an eclipse circa 500 B.C. Or Eratosthenes, the mathematician and head of the library of Alexandria, who planted a stick in the ground and used its shadow to calculate the circumference of the earth circa 240 B.C. In 77 A.D., the philosopher, naval commander, and future beer, Pliny the Elder, realized as ships pass into the distance, the mast slowly sinks below the horizon, suggesting a curve.

The first, and most important quality you need to understand, if you’re at all interested in understanding the Dallas Mavericks’ great combo guard Kyrie Irving, is that he has never been swung by this type of widely agreed upon institutional wisdom, and perhaps because it is an obvious fact, one of the very last ideas left almost everyone can agree on, he instinctually mistrusts it.

Across 13 seasons in the league, Kyrie Irving has done things, both on and off the court, that no NBA player has before, or possibly ever will again. He is a beguiling, prodigal talent with a brain that doesn’t seem to process high-leverage situations — or really anything — in the ways most people do, and evidence of this is that he hit — give or take a Ray Allen three — the biggest shot, so far, this century in the NBA.

He is one of the great contrarians in American culture, but not the nefarious presence Alex Jones-types have become in the bleak and frightening corners of the internet. He’s one of the free-thinking, stoned philosopher goofball, “just asking questions,” types that live for any debate to staple dumbass whataboutisms to (I know, I know, with one major exception. I assure you, we’ll get there). He’s an underminer of coaches, an alienator of teammates, a torturer of fanbases, a stonewaller of journalists. His Instagram handle is his Lakota name, Hélà, and he regularly posts bumper sticker poems, t-shirt wisdom and Reddit-grade memes to his nearly 20 million followers that would make a homemade gravity-bong-smoking sophomore at a state school cringe. But Kyrie is not all reply guy, he has just as often gone against conventional wisdom to do and say courageous things, generous things, genuinely important things that have made a tremendous impact in the lives of the underprivileged and oppressed. He is the NBA’s all-time league leader in maddening contradictions.

Let’s briefly review the record. Kyrie was born in Australia in 1992, where his father Drederick Irving was playing pro ball. There are conflicting accounts, from Kyrie himself, as to where he actually grew up, between Elizabeth and West Orange, New Jersey, and the Bronx where it sounds like he had some family he’d occasionally stay with. But appropriately, Kyrie is one of those annoying North Jersey guys with family in the five boroughs who claim the city. This tenuous connection to New York does matter, because crucially, his “Uncle”/”Godfather” was New York City legend Rod Strickland, probably the closest thing he has to an NBA forefather, another wildly talented small guard who was often at loggerheads with the league that employed him, and made a huge impression, with his game and personality, on a young Irving.

Since middle school, Kyrie was looked at as exactly what he was, a polished blue chip prospect, a dead-eyed shooter who makes trick shots look routine, an offensive machine at every level of the court, and a fucking freak ball handler. This led him to Duke, where he enjoyed an injury-abbreviated 11-game career, and still was drafted an uncontroversial first, by the Cleveland Cavaliers, who at the time were a rebuilding heap of smoking rubble after LeBron left for Miami.

LeBron James, a player who doubles as one of the most intelligent and canny evaluators of basketball situations the league has ever seen, identified Kyrie as the ideal Joey to his Chandler while his nucleus in Miami aged and fell apart, a slow degrading that is what many believe is the real reason the kid from Akron decided to “Come home.” And as usual, he was right. Kyrie, on the court, is the perfect offensive complementary player.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers-Championship Celebration

Kyrie Irving was the perfect sidekick for LeBron James as the duo brought Cleveland its first NBA championship ever after becoming the first team in league history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Kyrie is an evolutionary link, there’s never been an offensive guard quite like him. But within the pantheon of players even kind of like him, what sets him apart is he is not ball-dependent. He can, and perhaps finds his perfect form, off the ball with point forwards controlling the offense for long stretches. He can sit in cryo-freeze, watching and patiently waiting, never calling for the ball or whining about usage, serving as a distraction for the defense you have to stay close to, ready to catch and shoot, or drive off a kick as needed. But then, when your 1A star is tired, or needs to sit, or the situation calls for it, he can immediately come to life, and take over a game for minutes, or entire quarters. There’s no rust to shake off, no warm-up necessary, in any situation. It’s yet another contradiction: He’s a ball-dominant, shoot-first point guard, and one of the NBA’s all-time greatest Robins.

The first thing that comes up amongst ball knowers when we talk about Kyrie Irving is his “bag.” He is thought of as one of the most fast-twitched and fine-motor-skilled basketball players of all time. But when we say this, what do we mean? The first and most obvious tool in the bag is handle. He is one of the greatest dribblers who ever lived, with a connection to the ball that seemingly defies gravity and physics. It’s an extension of his body. The obvious, yet incredibly complicated quality that unlocks his game is his movement is nearly free, almost completely unencumbered from the natural impediment of having to control a ball as you move. This may sound either obvious, or like no big deal (Jaylen Brown would beg to differ), but it is pure dark wizardry.

As someone who writes about music occasionally, I am well aware that there is no cliche more boring and lazy, more eye roll and groan-inducing than saying an artist in a medium that is not jazz performs their art “like jazz”. But if you’ll grant me a few sentences to dust off this old sturdy warhorse, let me explain why I am a shitty drummer. I played the drums for several years, from elementary school through whenever I discovered drugs and women in high school, and I knew right away I’d never be good at it because the most essential requirement is you need to be able to operate both halves of your body independently, often to keep discordant rhythms with each hand, and then again with each foot. It’s a compartmentalization, the subdivision of limbs and extremities. My weak hand (and feet) always wanted to do whatever my dominant hand was doing. To follow my body’s natural rhythm.

Kyrie Irving is allegedly left-handed. He went to Catholic School as a child, where the right hand is associated with God and righteousness. His canon event, according to him, was the nuns at this Catholic school forced him to switch from lefty to righty. This is perhaps a piece of his story, but you have to factor in natural ability, because millions of athletes have attempted to develop their off hand, but only Kyrie is probably the most ambidextrous athlete who I have ever seen perform. It goes beyond being capable, equally able to dribble and shoot, with both hands. Imagine Voltron — a unity of five giant robot lions, piloted by five individual annoying cartoon teenagers, controlled by a head — if there was no head, yet their interests all occasionally intersected.

At his best, Kyrie Irving is Buddy Rich. He swings a beat, keeping a quarter note pulse on the ride cymbal with one hand, maintaining a breezy but metronomic consistency, while able to improvise wildly with the other. Because of his control of the ball, he can do things on the court that don’t make sense. He will spin, abruptly change direction, contort himself in ways defenders are trained not to expect because it goes against momentum and the limits of the body, of human tendencies. It’s as if his every movement and decision made on the floor is a manifestation of his contrarianism, he’s an irritant, trolling the laws of physics.

When we talk about spatial understanding on the court, we often discuss the playmaker, the point guard with a gift for passing, with eyes in the back of his head, who sees every angle and has a mastery of hand-eye coordination (I repeated this cliche just last week). Kyrie’s mastery of space is what makes players like him, and prime Derrick Rose, and very, very few others, the league’s all-time greatest finishers. Kyrie uses his understanding of every inch of space, he uses other players, the baseline, backboard, and rim as teammates aiding him in getting buckets. He has the ability to adjust angles in mid-flight because of his aforementioned comfort with both sides of his body. As an athlete, he shares more qualities with Rafael Nadal than, say, RJ Barrett. He hits spots with a surgical precision, a master of English, a Ph.D. in geometry who makes it all look fluid and easy, but ask RJ after smoking another straight ahead, barely obstructed layup high off the glass, if that sort of touch can be practiced, or found with years and years practicing on a court.

Before we get into his most infamous controversy, I want to attempt to launch a brief defense of Kyrie, and many annoying guys like him, because I think it’s important to explain to a certain stripe of bad-faith Kyrie critic. There is logic and reason for any American citizen, but particularly any Black American, to embrace contrarianism as a quasi-religious philosophy, as Kyrie Irving has. If you live in a country that has historically oppressed you — stripped you of your humanity, and lied to you for 400 years, through its institutions; through its media, through its laws and the cop army trained to enforce those laws, through its schools and historical narratives, through its religion, through its government, its housing, its medicine — you may be disinclined to believe anything this country has to say, or be resistant to anything this country insists you have to do.

Kyrie is far from the first of these contrarians. Other Black leaders Kyrie clearly views himself in league with, that were seen by large swaths of society, at different moments in their careers as nutty, fringe radical, annoying guys, include Huey P. Newton, Kwame Ture, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Colin Kaepernick, Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among many others proven absolutely right by history. So I understand and sympathize with an ingrained mistrust of the state: their collectively bargained contracts, their books, their laws, the food they say you should eat, the shape they claim the Earth is, their vaccines, everything is up for debate. It goes beyond race, and speaks to a universal American problem as our institutions fail and the mask falls off our blood-soaked capitalist system. In 2016, tens of millions of downtrodden, mostly white contrarians pushed back against logic, reason, and conventional wisdom, motivated by many of the same mistrusts and grievances that power Kyrie’s politics. In 2020, many of these same people joined him in their fear and mistrust of vaccines.

But ok fine, let’s get into it. One of the most profoundly disappointing days of my life — as both a basketball fan and a Jewish contrarian who enjoys a good debate — was when Kyrie shared a link to Ronald Dalton Jr.’s 2018, straight-to-home release “documentary” Hebrews to Negroes: Wake up Black America. As a kid who grew up worshiping Public Enemy, and rap as a whole, ill-informed and not terribly considered anti-Semitism is something I more or less expect at this point, and from experience, am personally willing to take with a grain of salt in certain objectively dumb cases like these, even if I understand others do not.

Back when Kyrie posted that link, when I still thought he was an occasionally intriguing thinker and NBA persona, at the height of Kanye West’s dissociative, career and empire-harming break, my disappointment was actually that I paid several dollars to rent the film on Amazon, and watched it, eager to see a shred of something provocative, or at least mildly interesting. Instead what I got was the same pablum Black Israelites have been preaching from folding tables on Court Street to marks and rubes for decades, either intentionally or accidentally misinterpreting bible passages with narrow lenses, selectively eliding history, and insulting the intelligence of their audience.

The danger of the aforementioned, sadly understandable mistrust of institutional wisdom is it’s easy to end up in thrall of hucksters who exploit said mistrust, and bend it to benefit themselves. Generations of hustlers came before Ronald Dalton Jr., and many will follow, because America laid the foundations for them to do so. They take the basic truth, that Black lives, or any oppressed and downtrodden, perpetually lied to American, has value and is entitled to the basic rights and dignities as everyone else, and then wrap it in pseudo-science and erroneous historical narratives and phony religions and books and films and snake oil supplements they profit from, weaponizing the generational pain of institutional racism and/or classicism. Kyrie, for all his claims of being a skeptical free thinker and independent researcher, is susceptible to seemingly every dumb argument on Court Street. Or Instagram, for that matter. That was the last day I took him seriously.

And really it was a blessing, because this is the best way to enjoy his wild gifts, untainted by the off-court antics. Sometimes he’s the class clown who isn’t as clever as he thinks. Sometimes he’s Sideshow Bob walking through concentric circles of rakes, smacking himself in the face over and over again, costing himself business relationships, and fans, and friends, and millions of dollars. And sometimes, he’s Chauncey the Gardner, or Forrest Gump. He stumbles onto profound contrarian truth, and does something special, and extraordinary. This was the case in 2020 when Kyrie laid out 1.5 million dollars to cover the salaries of the woefully underpaid WNBA players who sat out for health or political reasons. He fought against the NBA returning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, correctly positing some things are more important than basketball. He’s openly opposed the Dakota Access oil pipeline, citing his Native American heritage. He joined his then-teammate LeBron James in 2014, after the tragic murder of Eric Garner, and wore an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt on an NBA floor. He’s made a multitude of charitable donations to poor and oppressed communities around the world over the years that often go unpublicized. These are all acts of foresight and bravery he should be commended for.

And then, of course, there’s the hypocrisy that makes Kyrie so divisive, why so many readers will likely hate dedicating this much time, space and thought to him. Kyrie often cites Kobe Bryant as an important influence, a mentor that helped him find the meaning of basketball and life. But he appears to have misunderstood the essence of Kobe’s being beyond his similarly supreme skill, why he was worthy of that respect in the first place. For instance, it’s hard to imagine Kobe half-assing a tenure in Boston with a team that could’ve been a legitimate contender, wasting years of his prime, seemingly at times out of pure spite. Kyrie didn’t want to play basketball after George Floyd was murdered, and yet has continued to over the course of this NBA season, during the horror in Gaza that some experts have described as “an ethnic cleansing” backed by American support. Over 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, a cause Kyrie has historically been out in front of, well before October 7th. But besides showing up for a postgame press conference in a keffiyeh, there’s been little to nothing from him on the subject. No principled stands, no boycotts.

And if you had to levy one big criticism against Kyrie, at least for me, it would probably be that. At the bottom of all his rhetoric, he’s a pretty craven capitalist who knows where his bread is buttered. He regurgitates inflammatory shit he seemingly gleans from half-read books and podcasts he listens to on 2x, then signs the fucking extension. When Nike severed their relationship with Kyrie in response to sharing the link for the Dalton Jr. film, he switched to ANTA, a Chinese company linked to human rights violations. Appropriately, the recently released new colorway looks like an Alex Grey painting. He’ll write a check and issue an apology he doesn’t mean and disavow the dumb documentary. He loves to walk right up to the line, but at the end of the day he’s going to toe it. The Black leaders who became legends earned our admiration through sacrifice, real political conviction that cost them everything in some cases. Some might say Kyrie did this when he sat out a few home games and ruined his basketball team to stand up to… modern medicine in the midst of a public health crisis, but I don’t.

It takes more than peeling off thin slices of your massive fortune to assuage your conscience while you keep adding to it. That doesn’t make you a revolutionary, it makes you a limousine liberal. In this way, he’s no different than many of us, who have lights to keep on and families to feed. But the theatrics, the constant haranguing that he’s some kind of modern-day Malcolm with a signature shoe is pretty grating, especially if you bother taking him at his word, which I advised several paragraphs ago to never do for any reason.

Houston Rockets v Dallas Mavericks

Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic have carried each other to new heights as a duo this season with the Dallas Mavericks.
Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

This season, Kyrie executed perhaps his greatest all-time contrarian troll: He was an additive, productive, agreeable teammate with a good attendance record. No one in the Mavericks organization or media had a bad word to say about him for a whole year, which would’ve been entirely inconceivable at this time two years ago. Or really even one. Perhaps in Luka Donçic, even more than another beloved dumbass contrarian, Kevin Durant, Kyrie found the basketball soulmate he’s been looking for since he parted ways with LeBron. Luka seems equally unbearable to play with, a style and attitude that historically has chased talent away from him. But as it turns out, Kyrie and Luka’s playing styles are perfectly complementary. Luka, the heliocentric, iso-Mozart dissecting defenses on his own delayed time, and Kyrie content to hang on the margins and watch until his number is called. They’ve been a scary team all season, and currently pose a legitimate threat to win the West, and Kyrie is the second biggest reason why, so much so that Luka — famously not the most self-accountable star — now even apologizes for letting Kyrie down when he doesn’t play up to the level of his co-star’s incredible shotmaking.

Kyrie has apologized for making his Flat Earth statement, but if you read between the lines, he never retracted it, only apologizing for saying it out loud. In 2017, a Public Policy poll found that 1% of Americans believe the Earth is flat, while another 6% “aren’t sure”, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but is more than 20 million people if you do the math. When you ask a Flat Earther how they can justify their belief in the face of so much compelling evidence to the contrary, they will often respond with what is known as “The Zetetic Method,” which is the exact opposite of the “Scientific Method.” It’s making deductions based on how something “looks” and “feels” to the observer, rather than testing these observations and feelings with rigor to prove or back them up.

The Zetetic Method continues to overtake our discourse, our politics, our legal system, our foreign policy and pretty much every aspect of American life, and in a few weeks, it may see its greatest manifestation in the Dallas Mavericks winning it all. Kyrie has felt his way through a long and strange postmodern NBA career, at turns eschewing all conventional, pragmatic logic and reason, doing everything you could conceivably do to set that career on fire, and just may come out the other side unscathed. If this season ends with Kyrie Irving hoisting another championship trophy over his head, there’s only one thing we can be sure of, the one thing you can always count on Kyrie for no matter what: He will be completely insufferable.

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