As much as the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge is not an actual game—it’s more of a glorified, mediocre dunk contest with all of the injury risk and none of the payoff—the league insists on maintaining some semblance of the itinerary that actual NBA games have before, during and after the exhibition. So, even though guest assistant coaches Dirk Nowitzki and Kyrie Irving were not there to actually participate in any sort of game plan, they were still asked to address their respective teams before tip-off.
There wasn’t anything too remarkable about either speech on the surface beyond a bit of self-deprecating humor and some way-too-serious motivational quotes, but take a closer look at how each player-coach interacts with their regular season teammate. In Dirk’s case, there’s a warm rapport between the aging veteran and the rookie phenom, Luka Doncic. In Kyrie’s case, there’s a bit of coldness with Jayson Tatum to say the least.
It could be that there was a limited amount of time that the broadcast was going to show from each team, and those were what the producers were able to put together, but there’s no need for the kind of logical reasoning in a blog like this. Besides, I would be remiss not to mention the possibility that this is a sign of Kyrie’s imminent departure from Boston this summer, especially because the evidence is all over the body language of both players.
Let’s start with the first frame of Irving’s speech:
Note the lack of eye contact between two teammates on a squad with title aspirations. Sure, Kyrie is addressing the whole locker room, but Tatum only has one person to pay attention to and he’s instead half-heartedly turning his head as if to only give one ear’s worth of attention to the superstar on his team. This lack of attention is only magnified by the fact that Marvin Bagley III is intently looking over at his assistant coach and clearly hanging on to every word. There’s also a third detail that’s a bit hard to spot if you’re not a self-proclaimed body language expert like myself. If you take a look of the placement of Kyrie’s hands, you’ll see one is in his hoodie’s pocket and the other is out in the open. Gesturing with one’s hands in a way that shows the palms is a textbook example of open, welcoming body language. You’ll notice that that language is directed towards Bagley, while the hand in the pocket—which exudes closed-off, negative energy—is on the side of Tatum.
Another thing that Tatum does is aggressively fidget with his hands along his thighs during Irving’s talk. This game has no real-world consequence outside of a little bit of prize money that serves as a mere percentage of what someone like Tatum already earns, so it’s not like he should be nervous for the Rising Stars Challenge. The only possible explanation is that the mere sound of Kyrie’s voice that close to him makes him so uncomfortable that he has to keep his hands occupied to prevent himself from doing something stupid.
But the real smoking gun of the Celtics’ locker room schism that’s demonstrated in this clip comes from a call-and-response situation between the two players. The “call” portion comes from Kyrie, who ends up echoing a statement that’s been a bit of a sore point for his team this season, “it’s okay to compete.” In context of the guard’s habit this season of sniping away at the younger players on the Celtics in front of reporters, this kind of statement can be frustrating to hear on what’s supposed to be Tatum’s weekend off. In fact, he shows his frustration by looking down at the ground immediately after Irving finishes that statement, almost as if to say “I’m not dealing with this right now.”
The little head turn might have seemed so small in the video, but the message that Tatum was clearly sending to the rest of us was quite large. Congrats, Knicks fans, you’re definitely getting Kyrie this summer.