Kyrie Irving played a basketball game Sunday night, and that’s easily the most anodyne sentence written about Kyrie Irving in the last three weeks.
He did not play particularly well, at least by Kyrie Irving standards, finishing with 14 points and zero assists in a 127–115 Nets victory over the shorthanded Grizzlies. When he scored, Nets fans cheered, and when he missed, they groaned, the entire night adhering to the mundane script of a standard late-November game.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about the evening—aside from the presence of 300-plus members of a reputed hate group who filled the main plaza outside Barclays Center, marching and chanting and distributing flyers laced with anti-Jewish themes.
The assembled members of Israel United in Christ—“one of the country’s largest antisemitic and extremist Black Hebrew Israelite groups,” according to the Anti-Defamation League—had come to support Irving as he returned from an eight-game suspension stemming from his promotion of an antisemitic film.
A sampling of the group’s beliefs, per their flyer: “I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.”
There’s no reason to believe Irving sought or wanted this kind of support, or that he was even aware of it. When asked about the demonstration in a postgame press conference, Irving replied: “I didn’t see it. What happened? There was a group outside?”
When a reporter explained who they were, Irving quickly pivoted, darting past the question as swiftly as he slips through a double team: “I think that’s a conversation for another day. I’m here to focus on the game.”
And there it was, the full downshift to the “basketball questions only” phase of his return. The weekend had begun with a sincere (and arguably overdue) apology during a lengthy interview with SNY’s Ian Begley and continued Sunday morning with another round of explanations and contrition during a brief media session at the Nets’ morning shootaround.
Irving has earnestly asserted, time and again, that he harbors no anti-Jewish views, no antisemitic beliefs, no hate of any kind, toward any race or religion or ethnic group. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who is Jewish, met with Irving recently and came away confident in his sincerity. Nets owner Joe Tsai has said the same. Many others who know Irving have attested to his character.
“He’s not antisemitic. He’s not prejudiced,” Sandy Pyonin, who coached Irving for four years in his youth, recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer. Pyonin, who is Jewish, added: “Him being a bright kid, he didn’t realize what he was doing. How do you promote something of that nature? Do your research. With the position you have, you have so many followers. Got to be a lot smarter.”
Whatever Irving may have intended by his social media post last month—and that rationale remains a bit hazy—he seems to have reckoned with the hurt and the damage and is doing what he can to make amends. He’s met with Jewish leaders and NBA officials and taken the perfunctory steps toward public atonement. Based on the cheers that greeted him during pregame introductions Sunday, Nets fans are as ready to move on as Irving is.
What Irving cannot control, and perhaps doesn’t entirely grasp, are the ripple effects of his actions—of the blatant opportunism by hate groups who seized on this controversy to amplify their own agenda, while elevating Irving as some sort of martyr. But the demonstrators who marched and chanted for hours outside Barclays Center on Sunday don’t care about the Nets, or Irving, or whether his rights under the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement were protected. They were there only to spread their propaganda and intimidate passersby, which they did by lining nearly every foot of the sidewalks near the main entrance at Flatbush and Atlantic avenues.
It was reminiscent of a night in October 2021, when a mob of anti-vaccination activists—seizing on Irving’s opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine—stormed through Barclays security barricades and tried to force their way into the arena. Irving of course is not responsible for the actions of bigots and crackpots, but he should by now be aware of how his controversial stances can be weaponized by bad actors.
And this is the real crux of the issue now. Whatever Irving himself believes, whatever he did or did not intend by promoting an antisemitic film, matters much less than the cascade of unintended consequences—the spike in publicity and sales for a toxic film, the embrace by groups whose anti-Jewish views are unambiguous.
“I’m just here to focus on the game,” Irving said, before a packed room that included his agent and stepmom, Shetellia Riley Irving, as well as several officials from the players union, including executive director Tamika Tremaglio, all attending in a show of support.
For all the ways in which Irving has expressed contrition and regret, he has yet to unequivocally and specifically repudiate the film or those who echo its themes. And though he has spoken passionately about using his platform to promote understanding and rebuke hate, he demurred again in this instance.
“I would like to be on a platform where I could openly share what I feel without being harshly criticized or being labeled or dealing with outside perceptions that have nothing to do with me,” he said. “Again, I said this morning, I just want to elaborate on just everyone getting to know who [Kyrie Irving] is … and what I represent, my tribe. That’s it.”
And with that, Irving ended the press conference, barely four minutes after it began. He’d made his apologies, offered his regrets and perhaps felt nothing more needed to be said. He’s clearly ready to turn the page, hoping this all will fade soon. But that’s no longer a matter Kyrie Irving, the Nets or anyone else in his orbit can control. It might just depend on the 300 demonstrators marching outside and the countless others who share their views, who don’t need Irving’s consent to keep spewing their hatred and bigotry.