Ground Control to Uncle Drew

Kyrie Irving became disconnected from the ship and drifted into free agency on June 30th. He has now found a landing site in Brooklyn, yet seemingly his career perspective and connection to the NBA viewership remain far from the Earth’s surface.

The 27-year-old’s overall skillset and specifically his handle could be described as ‘out of this world’. And yet occasionally his demeanour, as well as his ill-judged self-aggrandising has led much of the media to wonder if that superlative extends beyond his dribble and to question whether his self-proclaimed genius transcends the mere round planet on which the rest of us inhabit.

When outside of the sporting atmosphere, Irving appears to be a compassionate, thoughtful and fiercely loyal person, who has put an emphasis on the importance of family. He has consistently stressed the massive importance of his father, expressed intense devotion toward his girlfriend and spent a great deal of time learning about his mother’s Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, even making a public appearance at their reservation. He has shown an appetite for travel, which has been whetted this summer during his trips around East Asia and a willingness to dive deep into any issue, to see if there’s more to it; most famously he has questioned the achievements of NASA, the existence of Dinosaurs and the shape of our planet.

Of course, everybody’s perspective would be distorted by a life of being reminded of your brilliance and placed upon a pedestal. Kyrie isn’t alone in the world of professional athletes, when it comes to his detachment from non-players that surround the game. However, the apparent root of Irving’s public frustration is his relationship with the media and fans, most recently tested during his time in Boston – a town in which player-fan connection is held in lofty esteem and the local broadcasters expect a certain level of candour.

You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare

When Irving forced his way out of the contending Cleveland Cavaliers, his motives were questioned. In response, he emphatically affirmed his desire to become untethered from the ship and it’s indisputable pilot, LeBron James. He wanted to escape the ‘little brother’ narrative and lead a team, in a new environment. When Danny Ainge came calling, the trade afforded him that opportunity.

From the very moment he donned the green jersey for the first time, the city of Boston was abuzz with optimism and rightfully so, Irving has tremendous talent. When he looked into the eyes of a healthy Gordon Hayward during their introductory press conference and said ‘it’s gonna be crazy, G’, it sent the imagination of the Celtics fan base into overdrive.

So, part of the leadership role, for better or worse, is the media glare that comes along with a major NBA organisation. Often the questions are unimaginably pointless, occasionally reporters set traps to create their own narrative but generally, availability to the media is part of what qualifies the day-to-day life of an NBA player as an actual job.

When a player positions themselves as a figurehead of a team, brand ambassador and even movie star, the spotlight that follows them intensifies and they become part of the machine that renders professional basketball a multi-billion dollar industry.
Athletes are only human beings and everybody has their problems, but occasionally, every employee has to do things that they don’t enjoy and leadership involves an increase of air pressure. It was time for Kyrie to adjust to the altitude of his new role.

I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

Everything sort of fell into place early on. Kyrie showed exactly why the Celtics moved on from, Boston icon, Isaiah Thomas in order to bring him on board. He possessed a true willingness to facilitate and continued to prove himself as one of the most entertaining performers in the game. Of course, fans saw this again in spurts throughout Irving’s tenure, including winning plays that sparked jersey-tugging primal screams, as the Garden erupted around him.

Despite the more positive phases, it never truly felt as though Kyrie had properly bought in, as though this leadership deal wasn’t exactly what he expected.
Following years of putting it off, the 27-year-old decided to undergo knee surgery toward the end of his first year in Boston. In his absence and that of the brutally injured Gordon Hayward, the young Celtics core forced their way to the Eastern Conference Finals led by Al Horford, only to be defeated by LeBron. The team’s heart, energy and, ironically, their togetherness peaked during that postseason run, while Kyrie watched on.

With the roadblock of James’ Cavaliers disarmed by The King’s westbound departure, the development of the young wing duo and the return of their recovering stars, it was logical to expect Boston to catapult themselves into contention during the 2018-2019 season. With that much talent on the roster, how could the team fail?

While that sense of optimism was rife, Kyrie took it upon himself to pre-emptively temper rumours and pledge his commitment to Boston back in October, during a tip-off event in a packed out TD Garden. “If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here,” he stated, in exchange for an impassioned roar.Plans change, dramatically it seems.

Chemistry became a problem for Brad Stevens’ team throughout the year, as they churned out an underwhelming season that was ugly to watch for extended periods. As one of the team’s leaders, Kyrie’s response was to backtrack on his commitment in February, tease his June availability and burn bridges with the media for asking why.

“Like, it’s crazy how stories and things and storylines can seep into a locker room, and, you know, you guys are part of the destruction of locker rooms,” he told the Boston Herald. “And that’s just what it is. This is an entertainment industry. I don’t live for this entertainment. I don’t live for all this talking to everybody every single day about my life and my decisions, and I would just hope that everybody would respect that.”

You know, I’m a normal human being at the end of the day. I don’t want to answer all these questions about my future all the time. And, you know, it’s unfair to me, because I have focus to really help these guys grow as individuals and really help this team be successful. And, you know, when it starts getting out of hand and people start getting attacked personally and he said-she said, like, that’s so fifth grade and elementary. Like, this industry is just so f’d up.”

So, about those guys who he apparently felt obligated to lead and usher into adulthood.

After a tough loss to Orlando, Irving pointed toward the same young core that prospered in his absence and suggested that they could be the problem. He then positioned himself again as the leader who can bring everything back together. The issue there is that Al Horford was clearly always the on-court leader of that basketball team and Marcus Smart was the team’s spark plug, yet according to Kyrie everything fell on him. If the heightened expectation was Irving’s problem, he wasn’t helping himself.

The next logical step was to reveal details of a private phone call between himself and the ‘big brother’ that he left behind in Cleveland, while also admitting he made a mistake calling the young guys out. Irving explained that during his struggles in Boston he called LeBron to apologise for being a somewhat difficult teammate during their time together, in turn comparing their leadership roles and suggesting he was dealing with similar difficulty.

There were reports that the mood in the Celtics camp depended primarily on Kyrie’s daily mood and the younger guys were walking on eggshells, when expressing themselves at times. Combined with the apparent desperation to reintegrate Hayward at the expense of others, a type of working environment was created that doesn’t usually breed great results.

Celtics fans were beginning to see that talent wasn’t everything and without a certain level of chemistry, a team’s ceiling can’t be reached. Kyrie’s surliness and unnecessary jabs had caused problems that could have easily been avoided. But then again, “who cares?”

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still

In David Bowie’s smash hit single ‘Space Oddity’ the character of Major Tom is well past Earth’s atmosphere and has lost perspective of his ship’s movement, due to the lack of relativity. Therefore, it seems as though his ‘tin can’ is completely still, despite the massive rate of speed. During that period, he feels strangely calm.

The life of an elite NBA player can be frantic during the season. The massive fortune and constant assistance helps, but on-court activity plays only a small part in their schedule. They are constantly on the road, in business meetings, watching film, speaking to the press and in Kyrie’s case, plastering on make up for anti-ageist, 5.7 IMDB rating basketball comedies starring with Lil Rel Howery.

The Australian-born guard has his way of dealing with the lifestyle and that is to appear completely apathetic in certain situations, which more often than not just projects as aloofness. Kyrie obviously has a desire for excellence, or he wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as he is but his disconnect from team-based anxiety and everyday sporting conversations can suggest otherwise. It all just seems to be below Kyrie’s worldview.

His blocking-out-the-noise mind-set will have a positive impact on his composed, unshakably confident play, no doubt about it. Some players use negativity as motivation and some prefer to ignore it. However, it seems as though there is nothing that can be said by anybody to change Irving’s mind – even when it comes to blindly shooting your team out of a major playoff game.

Here am I floating round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Much of Bowie’s allure comes from his adaptability. He was a musical chameleon, who changes his music almost as often as he changes his aesthetic. Yet, while listeners saw his music as an escape, they felt a connection to the human being too. Tracks like ‘Heroes’ and ‘Where Are We Now?’ show a real vulnerability that hits fans on a different level altogether.

Kyrie Irving may or may not be too far gone from MVP contention, team leadership and a fan base’s adoration. Now that he has planted a flag in Brooklyn, it’ll take more than pretty crossovers to become beloved, but of course nobody is sure just how beloved he wishes to be. After all, sports fandom is just about the most conditional love there is.

The ship has already taken off in Boston, who will now heavily lean into the partial-unknown with their latest draft picks, the cap space they’ve created for the arrvial of Kemba Walker and most notably, the high ceilings of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

You could argue that removing himself from the capsule in the first place has done more damage than good for Kyrie’s stock over the last few years, when it really should have afforded him a sense of liberation. His success will primarily be determined in the NBA stratosphere, but Kyrie’s legacy will be decided back down here, on earth.

Feature photo – Science and Society Picture Library / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Oliver Primus