A week after Boston Celtics fans let Kyrie Irving hear their dissatisfaction with how he handled his exit from the team, prompting a lengthy response from the six-time All-Star about the impact of fandom and media coverage on the mental health of athletes, retired ex-Celtics star Kevin Garnett has piled on the point guard.
When asked if Irving’s signing with the Brooklyn Nets took him by surprise this past summer, Garnett promptly answered, “No,” according to the New York Daily News’ Stefan Bondy. Garnett reportedly added:
“Boston’s a tough town, dawg. You have to have some major cojones to be there. You got to want that. The people want it for you. That’s why Paul [Pierce] is perfect for it. Paul wants the shot every time. Like, ‘You’re 0-for-14.’ And he’s like, ‘I know, but they WANT it.’”
The implication, Bondy said, was that Irving did not have the “cojones” to stay in Boston.
On one hand, this is an odd criticism, considering Irving made one of the most high-pressure shots in NBA history — the series-winning three-pointer in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. Also, one of the chief issues Celtics fans had with Irving last season was that he did want the shot every time in a five-game second-round loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. He shot 30 percent on 20 attempts per game over four straight losses.
Irving is still in the limelight in Brooklyn, although Garnett roasted that choice, too, telling Bondy, “I thought they should have done the Knicks, if I’m being honest. I’m not a Knick fan by far. But if they come to the city and dominate, man. ... The first superstar to hit New York and be vibing is going to be bigger than life.”
On the other hand, this is Garnett’s modus operandi. Part of his success hinged on challenging opponents (and even teammates) in a mental and physical test of whether they were willing to meet his intensity level. He also prided himself on loyalty, and former Celtics teammate Ray Allen is among those who learned that the hard way. Garnett has not softened on his “there’s no room for soft” stance in his post-playing career.
Garnett is as fascinating a character in 2019 as he ever was, because he was among the loudest voices in a generation of superstars who prided themselves on bullying the best and the worst out of their peers, depending on whose side you were on. He was not interesting in making friends outside of his own locker room, and he certainly would not have embraced Irving the way this year’s Celtics did on Wednesday night.
This is a guy who — four years after Allen left Boston for the Miami Heat — hosted a handful of Celtics for a TV segment during a playoff broadcast so they could all explain in great detail why they did not invite their ex-teammate on a 10th anniversary reunion cruise celebrating their 2008 NBA championship. This Garnett line from that special stands out in this Irving context: “People don’t understand that this is real life for us.”
This was Irving’s Instagram response to Celtics fans chanting “Where is Kyrie?” when a shoulder injury prevented him from returning to Boston for the first time since he broke a promise to re-sign with the team:
“It’s one big SHOW that means Very VERY little in the real world that most people live in because there are Actually things that matter going on within it,” Irving wrote in an [sic]-filled Instagram post. “Like figuring out a life that means more to you than A damn Ball going into a hoop, or learning how to grow up being in a fish bowl of a society based on your popularity level as a person, or even dealing with becoming the leader of your family after someone’s passing and now knowing how to deal with Life after it happens. Butttt, This Game of Sports entertainment matters more than someone’s mental health and well being right?”
Garnett is 43 years old. He entered the NBA out of high school in 1995 and retired 21 seasons later, two years before DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love publicly disclosed their bouts with depression and anxiety, leading to a league-wide discussion about mental health that prompted both the NBA and its players’ association to launch mental health and wellness initiatives. Irving is 27 years old. He was the No. 1 overall pick at age 19 in 2011, just as social media was becoming a fixture of society and celebrity culture.
The two former Celtics stars may only be separated by 16 years in age and four years in Boston, but in that span the way we talk about toughness and cojones has changed, especially in the NBA. There is a larger conversation to be had here about the generational divide between old-school norms and cultural sensitivity, and, man, would I like to hear Garnett and Irving hash that out in another televised special.
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