Nets’ Kyrie Irving keeps focus on social impact while returning from lengthy hiatus

Admittedly trying to balance his impact on the court and his impact in the world of social activism, Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving made his return to the team Tuesday after a lengthy hiatus due to personal reasons and the NBA’s health and safety protocol.

Irving hasn’t played since scoring 29 points in 30 minutes during Brooklyn’s 130-96 win over Utah on Jan. 5, missing the Nets’ last seven games. Five of those absences were due to personal reasons and the last two were for conditioning after video surfaced of Irving at a family birthday party without wearing a mask, leading the NBA to fine the perennial All-Star $50,000 for violating health and safety protocols. But with those issues now behind him, Irving says he’s ready to return to the court and assist the Nets (9-6) in their championship pursuit.

“It’s a lot of family and personal stuff going on, so I just want to leave it at that,” Irving matter-of-factly told reporters Tuesday.

“I’m happy to be back,” he added. “Happy to be around these guys. Addressed the team, addressed everybody that needs to be addressed. Now I can move on. … Happy to be back.”

Despite facing criticism for his handling of things off the court, Irving has excelled this season on the hardwood while averaging 27.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists through seven games, connecting on 50.4 percent from the field and 42.6 percent from three-point range. Tuning out the external noise from critics, Irving says the team’s support during his hiatus will now allow him to pick up where he left off at before tending to his personal matters. It’s that show of support from teammates and the Nets’ brass that Irving adds will allow the new-look squad to hit the ground running when it returns to the court Wednesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers in what is expected to be the team’s first outing with Irving available after Brooklyn acquired eight-time All-Star James Harden from Houston in a four-team trade on Jan. 14.

“It’s been enough support for me to, you know, feel like they have my back, and that’s all I can ask for. You know, to support not only me but my family,” Irving confessed. “You know, I’m a hometown kid, so things get a little different with family and personal stuff going on. And that’s up to me to handle that as a man. So, yeah, I just take full responsibility for my absence with the guys, and just had a conversation with each one of them. And we move on.

“The thing that’s pretty interesting in watching, when you take a break from everything, there’s just so many assumptions about what’s going on. And so many people feel like they know me best, and they have no idea who I am, or what I’m about, or what I stand for, or even attempt to take the time,” Irving detailed to reporters. “Or even for me to invite them to take the time, so it’s a two-way street. And when things become overwhelming in life, you know, you’ve just got to take a step back and realize what’s important. I love to play. That’s never been questioned. I committed myself when this wasn’t even a thing for me. You know, I didn’t really care about media, didn’t really care about the fandom. All I cared about was just the ethics of the game and being taught the fundamentals. Now that it’s become bigger, and there’s more of a responsibility that I have in this position that I’m in, I’m grateful because I’m able to stand on this platform with others alongside of me that have sacrificed and are going through similar things. So, I’m not alone in this, and you know, that’s just a big thing about also mental health. You know, just coming in and being balanced with yourself first, and then being able to perform. So, you know, with everything going on in the world politically, socially, like I said, it’s hard to ignore. I want to make changes daily. You know, there’s so many oppressed communities, so many things going on that are bigger than just a ball going in the rim. So, for me, like I said, it’s just the balance of it of knowing I can delegate my responsibilities off the court to people that I’m surrounded around that are for the fight and are fighting behind the scenes and in front in the lines. Like I said, I’m not the only one that’s fighting, so I’m grateful to unify with others. And that’s all I’ve tried to do, and on the court the same way. Just play with a smile, leave something that I’ve felt very dear to my heart with this game. And then whatever my legacy is as a person, that’s all I care about.”

Irving’s impact off the court has been well-documented, stepping to the forefront in the fight for social justice while committing to pay $1.5 million to supplement the income of WNBA players that opted out of playing the 2020 season due to coronavirus concerns. It was also reported during Irving’s time away from the Nets that he purchased a home for the family of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis last May while in police custody after a white officer kneeled on his neck for nearly eight minutes. And according to the 2016 NBA champion, it’s his impact off the court that he wants to define his legacy.

“As you can see, you know, there’s a deeper level of emotions that I have for helping and serving people around the world. And I’ve done it since I was a kid. I’ll continue on way after basketball,” Irving proclaimed. “Basketball has given me enough, when I say perspective and attention on some of the things I’ve been into. And now that my life has changed, you know, with that change comes accepting that there’s older versions of me that I didn’t necessarily like or things that I’d like to do different, or conversations that I’d like to have with different people to address, you know, man-to-man talk or man-to-woman talk or just honest talk. And we all deserve that. You know, there’s nothing normal about this life that I live. It’s just something I’ve come to accept and embrace as, ‘Let me use this as a tool to be able to change things that I want to see in the world.’ And I have to be honest with myself about how much energy I give that and how many others I’m actually impacting. So, when I remove myself from something, you can definitely feel the weight and the absence definitely means something. And I’m aware of that. Like I said, I take full accountability. To those who are leading with me and also following alongside walking beside me: we’re going to get through this. This world is a wacky place at times, but as long as we persevere together, and as long as we continue to just tell each other the truth about how we feel about each other, you know, that’s a big thing. I just want honesty, and in order to be honest, I’ve got to be honest with myself. And that’s the first thing. I know I can talk in circles and I know all these words get used, but I’m just being honest here. It’s been a lot to balance, and now I called for help. And now I have just so many mentors and so many people reaching out, and just taking things off my plate that were never mine in the first place. And they are better suited for that position, so I’ll just play my role on this big team of change in the world and others will do the same.”

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