When Weldon Irvine wrote “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” for Nina Simone in the late ‘60s, he was talking about folks like Kyrie Irving.
On Sunday, the Nets guard – enigmatic to some, infuriating to many – completed the best regular season of his ten-year career after averaging 26.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 6 assists per game by becoming just the ninth player in NBA history to join the prestigious 50/40/90 Club, as he shot 50.6 percent from the field, 40.2 percent from three, and 92.2 percent from the free-throw line. That exclusive group includes names like Larry Bird (twice), Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Malcolm Brogdon, and Irving’s coach Steve Nash, who achieved it four times in his Hall-of-Fame career.
But, while Irving was making history on the court with his efficient play as he and his teammates were making the Cleveland Cavaliers look like the Washington Generals, it was what Irving said after Brooklyn’s Saturday night win over the Chicago Bulls that was most newsworthy, as he explained just how unimportant playing a kid’s game can be at times.
“I’m not going to lie to you guys, a lot of stuff is going on in this world, and basketball is just not the most important thing to me right now,” he said. “There’s a lot of things going on overseas. All our people are still in bondage across the world, and there’s a lot of dehumanization going on.”
Earlier this month, Irving divulged how he was participating in his first Ramadan, as it’s a time when Muslims fast from dawn to sunset – meaning that an NBA player couldn’t eat or drink anything during the day. And with the recent airstrikes that killed over 30 people in Gaza City, Irving’s focus hasn’t been on bouncing a ball, even with the playoffs just days away on a team that has championship goals.
“It’s a job,” he explained. “I was raised as a survivor. My family comes from practically the bottom in the South Bronx. They came out of some extreme conditions. I’m the product of a lot of sacrifice. ... It’s a unique balance because you’re on a platform or industry that a lot of people that are around it or surviving it don’t really get a chance to say what they believe in, or they have to play it safe, or they have to worry about money, or they have to worry about what people are saying.”
The thing that I love most about Irving is that he challenges people to think, which is rare these days in an era that values hot takes, tweets, and captions while denigrating things like context and reading comprehension. Yeah, that whole “flat Earth” thing might have been weird, but besides that moment, everything that Irving has done that has drawn criticism is usually more about his critics and less about him. For instance, when he called the media “pawns,” it pissed off a lot of media members. But, it should have. A lot of people in this industry are pawns. Trust me, I know. Hit dogs will always holler. And if you paid attention to when it happened, those that aren’t pawns were quiet. We knew he wasn’t talking about us.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I agree with all of Irving’s choices and words, but I’m not supposed to. However, I do realize that there’s a reason for his actions, no matter if I love or hate them. And in a post-Laura Ingraham world in which athletes – especially the Black ones – have proven that they won’t “shut up and dribble,” there’s still a desire to want athletes to be one-dimensional. At the heart of that is jealousy.
“If I was that tall, I’d…”
“If I was in the league, I’d….”
“If I could run and jump like that, I’d…”
Well, you’re short. You’re not in the league. And you’re slow and can’t jump over a phonebook. But, somehow fans – and media members – always think they know exactly what they would do if pro sports were their profession.
This isn’t about you, it’s about them. Athletes like Irving have proven that despite the exclusivity that comes with being a pro athlete, it’s still just a job at the end of the day. And if you’ve ever had a job then you should know that it’s not the most important thing in your life, even if it’s your dream job in the field you’ve always wanted to work in. Life just doesn’t work that way. People are layered and allowed to have different interests while also being ridiculously gifted at one or two of their talents.
Jamie Foxx can sing, act, and do comedy. Nobody ever tells him to “shut up and tell jokes.”
Over the last two years, we’ve watched Irving donate millions to those in need and the women in the WNBA so that they could opt out of playing during a pandemic and racial uprising without having to worry about paying their bills. He was the one that wanted the players in the league to have a deeper conversation about racism and police brutality before they went into The Bubble, weeks before Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times for being Black.
From politics to race relations to women’s rights and global affairs, Irving has been tuned in while still being able to do his job at a level so high and efficient that only a handful of players have ever been able to duplicate it. But yet, just a few months ago Stephen A. Smith said he should retire because he felt that Irving’s interests outside of basketball were too much drama and not worth the distraction. It’s even funnier when you realize this came from a media member that moonlights as a recurring character on a soap opera.
When you’re young, gifted, and Black, it comes with added responsibility. You’re expected to achieve the goals that others could only dream about. And that’s what makes Kyrie Irving – and others like him – so valuable. Unfortunately, too many times people are focused on what they think they should be doing, instead of paying attention to the myriad things they’re achieving.