When Kyrie Irving came into the league the player he wanted to know and establish a relationship with was Kobe Bryant. Bryant and his isolation game, his shot-making and me-first mentality, resonated with the young Duke point guard. One summer, during the USA Basketball camp, when Irving was on the Select Team and Bryant was on the Olympic team, Kyrie was boasting about his skills. Kobe then put him to the test. One-on-one me and you. But there was a catch. $10,000 on the line. In other words, put up or shut up. Bryant was always confident in his ability. It was Kyrie who sheepishly backed off, unwilling to bet on himself when money was at stake.
That 20 year old has disappeared. In its place is an often cynical, thirsty, and passive-aggressive star that can be unlikeable when he mocks Thanksgiving, declares a flat earth, and then changes his mind, and hates being in the shadow of LeBron James, despite the benefits of such a relationship.
Because the LeBron relationship ended badly- Kyrie’s choice- and because Irving specifically expressed his desire to play away from James, whenever he makes comments that have merit on the facts, but slant towards denigrating James, an uproar is created.
Kyrie has been the go-to shotmaker on every team he has played on. But the results have been mixed. His first year playing with LeBron James, his 4th quarter 3-point percentage was 32%, the lowest of any quarter. The next year, it was worse. 30% from three in the 4th, and 27% with less than 3 minutes. But his shot over Steph Curry redeemed Irving and gave him a narrative he uses to justify just about everything.
Kyrie seemed to soften somewhat once he reconnected with his Native American ancestry and if it didn’t exactly mature him, it did give him a greater sense of empathy. However, there is Native American wisdom from Shooter Teton Sioux that Irving needs to embrace: I have seen that in any great undertaking it is not enough for a man to depend simply upon himself.
That is where Irving is still running headfirst into a wall, this belief that everything, including team excellence, is about him. It is not. It is about the group. Kyrie is selfish which makes him a great, great player when the game is on the line. He doesn’t run from tough moments. But then he is required to back up a bit from that ego when team is involved, his teammates in particular. Sometimes, he has to drown out his own voice and listen to others.
It’s the listening part that is the Irving challenge.
Not so long ago, Kyrie wanted everyone to know how magnanimous he was in reaching out to the one person he couldn’t stand to be around. LeBron James was shocked when he saw who was calling. ‘Bron passed the phone around the table. “I wonder what he wants,” LeBron said because it truly was a mystery. Kyrie couldn’t wait to escape him and now he was reaching out. For what? The time for that was their last season in Cleveland.
The only way we know the LeBron-Kyrie conversation took place was because Kyrie told the world. The way he told the story was befitting of who Kyrie is. He started with the pronoun “I”. I called LeBron. I apologized. Kyrie always has to be the star of his own story, the star of his own team, just the star. But you know what leaders do. They use the word us and the word we.
So why let the world know he apologized to LeBron? So he could be the hero in his own story of failed leadership? To let everyone know he was mature while others were not? To hijack the news cycle and the victory over Toronto by what he had done?
But wouldn’t a mature player respect a private interaction with the game’s most important player? Kyrie could have told reporters he was young and immature once upon a time without revealing the phone call. But being the star of everything is what Kyrie is about.
Kyrie played 200 games with LeBron James and won 68% of them. With James as his teammate, Irving was 43-11 in the playoffs and he won a title. Since then, slim pickings. He’s won 59% of regular-season games and is an average 5-4 in the playoffs. Realizing he can’t do it by himself, Kyrie has teamed up with Kevin Durant but continues to belittle James when an opportunity presents. It’s all so passive-aggressive, particularly Kyrie using the word “brother” to defend himself when he was called out for being petty.
Silence is leadership too.