For several agonizing days, the pleas had built to a crescendo for Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai to punish star guard Kyrie Irving. The biggest voices involved in his orbit, including NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Nets general manager Sean Marks, had sided with a wide swath of the public in believing that Irving’s refusal to condemning the content of an anti-Semitic movie he shared on his social media had left the Nets no choice but to suspend him, sources told ESPN.
In the context of calls for swift action, sources said Tsai resisted and insisted on taking the time to educate Irving on the horrors of anti-Semitism. He recruited the Anti-Defamation League (LDA) council, watched the three and a half hour hate-filled film Irving had shared “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America” with its Holocaust denial and citing anti-Semites such as Adolf Hitler and Henry Ford, and investigated the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, whose beliefs Irving frequently mentions in public places.
As it turned out, the redemptive arc Tsai had envisioned for his star had become what the owner felt was a repetitive exercise in betraying Irving’s good faith, the sources said. For nearly a week, Tsai kept extending time to give Irving a chance to do well for himself, the franchise and the Jewish community, and Irving never returned a single text message from him, sources said. Nearly a week later, Irving had shown no inclination to offer an apology, no disassociation from the film’s content, and no willingness to answer “No” when asked if he held anti-Semitic beliefs.
On Thursday, the team announced a five-game suspension without pay and declared that Irving is “currently unfit to associate with the Brooklyn Nets.”
For all the questions surrounding the most troubled week in the troubled era of Irving and the Nets, one question remained: Why did it take Tsai so long to get there? More than anything, Tsai had been hoping there might be a two-way conversation with Irving.
Tsai released a statement on Friday night, stating that he was “disappointed that Kyrie appears to support a movie based on a book full of anti-Semitic misinformation” and described his desire to “sit down and make sure he understands that this is detrimental to all of us.” And as a man of faith, it’s wrong to promote hate based on race, ethnicity, or religion.”
After a combative news conference Saturday night in which Irving said he refused to “retire,” stronger calls arose within Nets leadership and the commissioner’s office to level a suspension, sources said. For the franchise and the league, embarrassment grew and patience ebbed. For most, the news conference had portrayed a familiar Irving: defiant, unflappable and crossed with misinformation.
“I’m only going to get stronger because I’m not alone,” Irving said. “I have a whole army around me.”
This stirred up echoes of Irving’s anti-science, anti-vaccine stance from a season ago. Much of the Nets’ matchup with the 30-year-old Irving in the offseason stemmed from the franchise’s unwillingness to secure a long-term contract for the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, leaving him in the final season. of his contract with a salary of $36.5 million.
The failed negotiations of the summer had turned into a much more dramatic and destructive affair this time. The franchise’s communication with Irving had been channeled entirely through his agent and stepmother, Shetellia Riley Irving, sources said. Tsai wanted time and space to work together with ADL and Irving, but there was no direct dialogue with Irving himself, the sources said. Silver had warned Tsai that issuing a joint statement with the ADL without dealing directly with Irving, without including a condemnation of the film material or a full apology, simply did not meet an acceptable threshold, the sources said.
Statement from the Brooklyn Nets pic.twitter.com/699px8XYpx
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) November 4, 2022
On Wednesday, the Nets and Irving publicly pledged $500,000 each to the ADL to combat anti-Semitism, only for ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt to publicly declare hours later, and following news of Irving’s suspension , that the group would no longer accept the donation after the Irving “debacle” at a news conference on Thursday.
Silver’s patience had run out on Thursday morning. What had started as a humiliation for the Nets had turned into a full-scale embarrassment and crisis for the league. Silver issued a piercing condemnation of Irving’s failure to offer “an unconditional apology and, more specifically, denounce the vile and damaging content contained in the film he chose to advertise.”
Irving had also become a liability for his team. He had played a listless game Tuesday in a loss to the Chicago Bulls, letting teammates and opponents privately describe him as out of touch and seemingly “in another world.” For a player averaging 30 points and shooting almost every chance, Irving scored well into the fourth quarter. He had been distant with everyone in recent days, sources said, his presence felt like an anvil hanging over everyone.
Before the Nets left Thursday for a weekend trip to play the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets, Irving approached a group of assembled media members and again refused to apologize or condemn the film. When asked if he had anti-Semitic beliefs, Irving replied: “I can’t be anti-Semitic if I know where I come from.”
The Lakers superstar spoke out about the Nets point guard controversy.
For Tsai, that was it. No more. Irving’s refusal to repudiate anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial convinced him that Irving had been insincere in their joint ADL statement hours earlier, the sources said. Efforts to educate had failed miserably, and Tsai’s faith in Irving was once again proven misguided and ultimately disastrous for his franchise.
The only question that remains for Tsai and the Nets: How long to suspend Irving and what would be the path to reinstatement? After hours of conferring with attorneys and the league office, the Nets went five games without pay, costing Irving $1.2 million, and the requirement to complete a “series of objective corrective measures that address the damaging impact of his conduct.”
In an email describing the suspension to his agent, the necessary conditions for Irving’s reinstatement included a public statement acknowledging that the film is anti-Semitic, an apology for supporting the film and the falsehoods it contains, and training sessions on the dangers of hate speech, the sources said. There would also have to be meetings with Jewish leaders in Brooklyn, Marks told reporters Friday morning.
Four hours after learning of his suspension, Irving issued a statement on his Instagram account that went beyond what he had done the week before.
“To all the Jewish families and communities that are hurt and affected by my post, I am deeply sorry for causing you pain and I apologize,” Irving wrote.
“Initially I reacted out of the emotion of being unfairly labeled anti-Semitic, rather than focusing on the healing process of my Jewish brothers and sisters who were hurt by the hateful comments made in the documentary.”
Marks called Friday’s apology a “step in the right direction” but “certainly not enough.”
Amid the suspension, the Nets are in free fall. They have lost six of their first eight games to start the season. In addition to the Irving situation, Ben Simmons is out with knee pain and the Nets are still working through the final stages of investigating the hiring of suspended Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka, sources said.
As usual, Irving’s future is murky and tied to Kevin Durant’s. If Irving’s trade value was low this summer, it has now tanked. Still, the Nets needed a business partner willing to give Irving a long-term deal to execute a trade over the summer, but that’s no longer the case. He has an expiring contract, which means a team isn’t financially committed to him beyond the end of this season.
Four years ago, Durant and Irving arrived in Brooklyn together. Society nearly fell apart over the summer and now it’s floundering again. When he spoke to reporters Friday morning, Durant was noncommittal about Irving, the organization and the chaos of the week. “I feel like it was all unnecessary,” he said.
Once again, there is one unmistakable question hanging over the franchise: Who is the last man to represent Kyrie Irving?