Why do NBA players stand by Kyrie Irving? ‘He shows a lot of love’

Perhaps no player in today’s NBA is criticized more by the media, loathed by more fan bases, and yet more admired by his peers than Kyrie Irving.

Irving just endured a messy season; another used as a lightning rod for criticism. Earlier this year, a season after sitting out because of a refusal to get vaccinated, he was suspended for eight games by the Brooklyn Nets after tweeting the cover of an anti-Semitic movie and initially refusing to apologize. Then came his latest trade demand, which resulted in the Nets sending him to the Dallas Mavericks at the February deadline. After Irving joined the team, the Mavericks went 10-18 and plummeted from fourth in the Western Conference standings to missing the playoffs altogether (Dallas was 8-12 in the games Irving played).

Thus, the Dallas Morning News referred to Irving’s presence on the Mavericks as “the Kyrie Irving mess” and suggested the team wash its hands of a player who averaged 27.0 points on 51% shooting with a 3:1 assist-to-turnover -relationship. for the Mavs. Meanwhile, it took Dallas forward Maxi Kleber less than six weeks as Irving’s teammate to declare, “He’s a very, very good teammate. He always has a positive attitude and an uplifting word.” Despite the results, team owner Mark Cuban has said keeping Irving, a free agent, is the franchise’s top priority this summer.

Mark Cuban wants Kyrie Irving back after he ‘learned his lesson last year’

Mark Cuban wants Kyrie Irving back after he 'learned his lesson last year'

How can one player evoke such different emotions? Ahead of NBA free agency, which opens Friday at 6 p.m. ET, FOX Sports spoke with Irving’s peers to find out.

While the eight-time All-Star has often sparred with reporters and pledged his allegiance to fans only to ask for a trade or bolt through free agency, those who have competed with and against Irving describe a dedicated worker with a team-first -attitude.

“I’ve been around a lot of All-Stars and he’s by far my favorite,” said LA Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr., who spent two seasons with Irving in Boston. The other All-Stars he has played with include James Harden, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Julius Randle, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

“When you’re in the dressing room with him every day, you know his heart is pure, you know where his mind is. [and] you know he’s going to win,” Morris added. “He comes in and shows the work. It’s hard to talk bad about a guy who comes in every day and works hard.”

The results of that work ethic are readily apparent when Irving is on the court. No one is born with his shooting and ball handling skills. Despite his checkered availability — he missed almost as many games (140) as he played (141) for the Nets — the Mavericks traded Dorian Finney-Smith (their best defenseman), an unprotected future first-round pick and another starting in Spencer Dinwiddie for Irving, even though he is a pending free agent. He’s also the architect of one of the league’s standout moments, a game-winning 3-pointer over Stephen Curry to complete the Cleveland Cavaliers’ comeback from a 3-1 deficit over the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the 2016 title.

Since that moment, however, he’s made more headlines for what he’s said and done off the court — including trade demands made to both the Cavs and, in February, the Nets.

“A lot of people think I’m a bad guy who doesn’t know me,” Morris said. “I’ve had people say that. He’s just in the spotlight and he’s speaking his truth. Sometimes it can be taken the wrong way or taken out of context. It’s just what he believes. Is he mischaracterized ? Absolutely. You can say that about a lot of guys.”

Morris’ perspective is especially striking in light of how their two seasons together in Boston (2017-19) went. In 2017-18, Irving suffered a late-season knee injury and untouched, the team nearly reached the NBA Finals without him, losing to the LeBron James-led Cavaliers in a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals series. The next season, with Irving back, the Celtics won six fewer games in the regular season and were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the same Milwaukee Bucks team they swept in the first round the year before.

Worse, Irving, a pending free agent, went from saying at a preseason event for Celtics season-ticket holders, “If you guys want me back, I plan on re-signing here” to gloating about the Nets joining forces with free agent Kevin Durant. Having grown up nearby in New Jersey, Irving said when he signed with the Nets, “In my heart, I knew I would always play at home.”

What could be seen by the media and some fans as inattentive at best, desertion at worst, was viewed by Toronto Raptors veteran forward Will Barton as Irving dealing with the changing, fickle nature of life in the NBA.

“He played like an MVP candidate, goes down and those guys go to the Eastern Conference finals,” Barton said. “It was a very young team at the time, apart from him. You know them [other] guys didn’t come back and say, ‘Hey, I’ll take a back seat,’ like they did in the beginning because they’d never been successful. Then it was easy for them to say, ‘You’re my guy, Ky.’ But how are you going to tell Jayson Tatum, who everyone said after that year is a rising star, to call back? Want Jaylen Brown to call you back? No, guys won’t do that. Especially not young guys. There are no rings left.

“That was the problem,” Barton continued. “And that didn’t make those guys bad or Kyrie bad. It’s part of sports, life and basketball. But nobody talks about it. I haven’t heard a media talk about it. They always say Kyrie was a cancer He broke the team, but no one [on the team] Told you.”

Former teammates Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum embrace after the Nets faced the Celtics in February. Irving went to Brooklyn in free agency after spending one season with the Celtics.

Irving has certainly been an agent forever. He served as the players association vice president and has made numerous charitable donations to causes both locally and globally. One of Irving’s former Nets teammates, Langston Galloway, started his own shoe company, Ethics, and Irving offered to wear them in a game as a gesture.

“It’s something small, but him wearing them brings a lot of attention,” Warriors guard Donte DiVincenzo said. “He shows a lot of love to other guys in the league. He’s never one to say, ‘I’m better than X, Y and Z.’ It’s, ‘He’s a bad m—– f—–, I really love his game.’ He’ll give you your props, and that’s not common in the NBA.”

But Irving has also been an agent of chaos. And while not all of the 12 players FOX Sports spoke with support the controversial stances that have resulted in fines and suspensions and missed games for Irving, they all respected his fearlessness in expressing them, regardless of the consequences.

“If you peel back the layers from every player in the NBA, I’m sure you’ll find some opinions that don’t fit into what the rest of the world wants to see,” said Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet, also a coveted free agent this offseason. “Now, Kyrie talks about them more often than anybody, but as we get deeper and deeper into what people think and feel about every little thing, you’re going to find some friction there. I think that’s probably what it is with him.”

Whatever struggles Irving may have had off the court, Morris said he hasn’t let them affect his interactions with his teammates. So it was in Brooklyn, according to Morris’ twin brother Markieff, who played alongside Irving in Brooklyn and was included in the trade to Dallas.

Kevin Durant defends Harden, Kyrie & Westbrook in a series of tweets

Kevin Durant defends Harden, Kyrie & Westbrook in a series of tweets

“Me and Ky spent a lot of time together off the court just talking and having conversations,” Marcus Morris said. “It’s different for me because I never really got close to a lot of players in the NBA. He’s from Jersey and I’m from Philadelphia, so we crossed paths a few times in high school. It’s always been real. Sometimes we everybody has bad days, but he never let them get to him, he never brought them into the locker room. He never rubbed anybody the wrong way.”

That’s not quite right. Philadelphia 76ers guard Harden, who spent parts of the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons with Irving in Brooklyn, indicated he asked to be traded in part because of Irving’s chronic unavailability. And Los Angeles Lakers point guard Dennis Schroder also had a problem with Irving at one point, as a result of an altercation two years ago in a game in Brooklyn.

Schroder felt that Irving was overly physically protecting him, and Irving seemed upset when Schroder complained to the refs. At one point they stood nose to nose and Schroder said, “Come on, n—-!”

Irving yelled back, “You can’t say that! You’re from Germany!”

Schroder, born to a Gambian mother in Germany, was outraged. They continued to bark at each other and were kicked out.

“My first six, seven years, I respected him so much because it didn’t matter if he beat your ass with a 40-point game or had a quiet game, he was always the same guy,” Schroder said. “Didn’t talk s—. Then we had that incident in Brooklyn, which surprised me because it was out of nowhere. I was shocked. I’m not going to lie. I asked LeBron, ‘Why did he act like ?’ LeBron said, ‘I don’t know, just don’t.'”

Dennis Schroder said Kyrie Irving apologized for an altercation between the two point guards two seasons ago in Brooklyn. “I respect him as a player and as a person,” Schroder said of Irving.

The two didn’t face each other again until February when the Lakers visited Dallas. At one point in the game, after coming out of a timeout, Schroder went to guard Irving as the Mavericks inbounded. That’s when Irving told him, “I want to apologize. We’ve been at it for so many years, you know, it’s not me.”

Schroder was touched by the apology.

“He said he was going through something at the time and that’s why he reacted that way,” Schroder said. “To say that and you’re such a strong player? That means everything. We swapped shirts after that game. I’m right back on the same page as I was the first six, seven years. I respect him as a player and as human being.”

VanVleet suggested that Irving’s problem with the media — or perhaps the media’s problem with Irving — is that he has never been forthcoming with his critics.

“He’s been in a lot of headlines the last few years,” VanVleet said. “He’s definitely made some mistakes, but that’s up to him to deal with. Once you get caught up in the mainstream media wave, it’s a whirlwind. If you don’t climb out by doing or saying what they want have you do or say, the hole just gets deeper and deeper. He rebelled against it a little bit.”

Schroder admires that tenacity, especially in light of the millions of dollars in salary Irving has lost through suspensions and the criticism he has endured.

“He stays true to himself and I love that,” said Schroder, who also balked at being vaccinated.

“There’s not that many people like that. Because he’s a top-five or top-10 player, whatever you want to call him, to stay true to that, a lot of people in that position don’t. If you have something on your mind, money should not be the problem.

“I’m not saying he’s wrong or right, but what he thinks is right, he stayed true to it, and that’s what I respect.”

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He has previously written for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with Parkinson’s disease, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @Rick Bucher.

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