Irving said a couple of things last month that are worth going back to. The first one, the one that draws immediate notice, is the one that shines starkly with the superstar basketball player doing everything right now except play basketball:

“I am committed to show up to work every day, ready to have fun, compete, perform, and win championships alongside my teammates and colleagues in the Nets organization.”

That’s a commitment which Irving has broken. He said he would be there every day with his teammates, and he’s not. Steve Nash, his coach, couldn’t say where Irving was the other day. Maybe the Hall of Famer is just a pawn Irving doesn’t talk to. If you’re not going to be at work, you generally let your supervisor know what’s up, maybe give an idea of how long you expect to be out. If it’s more complex than that, fine, but you’ve got to talk it out as part of the commitment you’ve made by signing a nine-figure contract to play a team sport. There are other people being affected and having their lives made more difficult, not just by Irving taking time off for what’s been called personal reasons, but by his own handling of it.

But it’s more complicated than that. We’re living in an absolutely wild time, in which it can feel impossible to concentrate on work, or really much of anything sometimes. Mental health is never not an important issue, but struggling with mental health during a pandemic is a particular challenge. Irving in the past has been pretty open in talking about mental health issues, including his own struggle with depression after the death of his grandfather.


That connects to the other part of what Irving said in December:

“Life hit differently this year and it requires us, it requires me, to move differently.”


It would be irresponsible to try to guess at what Irving is going through right now, but we’re all going through something in these first chaotic weeks of 2021, after a 2020 when, like Irving said, life hit differently.

Being out without a mask is obviously inexcusable. Getting on a Zoom call organizing for a district attorney candidate is a perfectly fine activity while on a mental health break from work. We already knew that Irving was a complicated character, someone who is capable of incredible selflessness and selfishness, of critical thought and flat-eartherism. So the juxtaposition of a maskless outing and the Zoom meeting isn’t even all that surprising.


If we try to apply the regular sports tropes to him, about how he owes it to the Nets and his teammates to be out on the floor with them, we’ll fail. The normal standards don’t fit Irving in the first place, but particularly not now amid the maelstrom of life’s circumstances at this moment.

It’s okay to be going through it right now. Pretty much all of us are, in one way or another. For a lot of people, work can be a calming bit of normalcy in the middle of unknowns. But it can also be suffocating. Get past the egoism of one more thing Irving said in December, and see something else:


“It’s just really how I felt about the mistreatment of certain artists when we get to a certain platform…”

How many athletes refer to themselves as artists? Yes, Irving is full of himself, but as a basketball player, he damn well should be, and what he does on the court certainly can be referred to as art.


In that light, it’s not hard to imagine where Irving would be frustrated at the setup of performing his art in empty arenas, the effect that this situation might have on him that might not hit other ballplayers the same way. Yes, part of the responsibility of his contract is to be more open with the team that’s paying him all that money, and the coach who himself should be considered a peer as masters of hardwood art. But if you can put yourself in Irving’s shoes, it makes more sense.

The other part of the situation is that the Nets don’t really need a full season of Irving to get to the playoffs, but they sure do need him in the postseason — and they need him at his best if they’re going to go anywhere. Would he really be at his best if he slogged through the current circus that is the NBA season from now until late in the spring? Or are the Nets better served by having Irving fresh, in a good headspace, and ready to go for the big games?


It’s not ideal for anyone, but what is lately? Irving should be able to take the time he needs and given space to get his head right to go back to work. It would just be nice if he’d wear a mask and, for once, not make things harder on himself.