NEW YORK — Kyrie Irving, returning to Brooklyn and the Barclays Center for the first time since the Nets traded him exactly one year ago, received no tribute video. His teammate on the dynasty-that-never-was, Kevin Durant, received one in his own return one week prior. But Irving’s tenure was far more turbulent, and his reception was met with boos, noticeable if not overwhelming, from the game’s opening minute.
In lieu of his former franchise playing his highlights, Irving created one of his own.
During a timeout early in the third quarter, Irving told his teammates to throw him a lob. “We saw how they were guarding us,” Irving said afterward. Irving knew he would be open on a baseline cut after Brooklyn trapped Luka Dončić. “He called for it in the timeout,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said, and then joked, “I told Josh (Green) to stick to a bounce pass.”
But Irving insisted it should be a lob. And, when the possession played out exactly as he anticipated, Green threw it just like Irving had asked.
Come for the SLAM.
Stay for the MUG. pic.twitter.com/8jA23GVuFQ
— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) February 7, 2024
The Barclays Center jumbotron didn’t replay this highlight, either. Perhaps that’s why Irving engineered it. “It’s not too often that I get to dunk,” Irving said, “so I’m grateful that I got a highlight.” According to the NBA’s stats site, it was the first alley-oop dunk of Irving’s career. And it was the signature on-court moment in Irving’s 36-point performance to lead the Mavericks to a 119-107 win.
Off the court, Irving’s career has been fraught with disruptions of his own making. He has shared New World Order conspiracy theories from far-right pundit Alex Jones on his social media accounts. He missed home games throughout Brooklyn’s 2021-22 season due to his decision to not be vaccinated against COVID-19, which ran afoul of a New York City mandate. He was suspended in November 2022 by the Nets for a minimum of five games without pay after he posted a link to a documentary promoting antisemitic views on his social media accounts, which he repeatedly refused to apologize for doing. He ended up missing eight games.
Irving has also had dissatisfied endings to his tenures at each of his prior three franchises. The last one was the Nets, a franchise formerly based in New Jersey, where Irving grew up. It was Irving’s trade request in early February 2023 that led to the Mavericks acquiring him.
Irving’s comments about all of this can be cryptic. After the Mavericks beat the 76ers on Monday, he pushed back against a question about his upcoming return to Brooklyn.
“We’re one big conglomerate, we’re one team,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a competitive edge you have going against your former team, but it’s not uncommon. It’s been happening for years. I was just saying that to say, let’s just normalize the emotions that go into those games playing against your former team instead of making it such a big deal of, ‘Are you ready for it?’” Irving said there was excitement, but that there was “nothing deeper to look into.”
Contrast those comments with Tuesday’s post-game interview — which Irving started by saying, “I don’t want to go too deep into it.”
“Obviously, it was emotional,” he said. “You could see my emotions running on out there.”
He said he does think about what those teams could have been, even if it isn’t “too often now.” He proceeded to run through several key moments that might have changed basketball history.
“Things could’ve been different if you look at the past with 20/20 vision,” he said. “This could’ve happened, this could have gone different. If I didn’t get injured against the Bucks (in the 2021 playoffs), do I still ask for a trade? If (Durant’s) foot wasn’t on the 3-point line (on a game-tying shot that the Nets lost to the Bucks in Game 7)? If James (Harden) doesn’t ask for a trade? All of the would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, would’ve’s, hopefully after this night, we can put that to rest and I can just look forward to the rest of my career.”
Bye, Kai: Kyrie Irving trade ends an era of unfulfilled expectations and controversy
Irving admitted he had regrets for some decisions he made during his time in Brooklyn, even if he declined to say which ones specifically. He probably harbored those regrets long before his return to Brooklyn this week. But this was the one time where he was given an opportunity to share them.
“I fell short of championship aspirations (in Brooklyn),” Irving said. “But, for me, it was bigger than a championship. I had to make some moral stances that propelled me to a point in my life that I had to become accustomed to. There were some political things that were going on here, as well, that I couldn’t control – I wasn’t responsible for. There were some things I did on my part that I look back, and they were mistakes. I have to be accountable for them. I’m not perfect, but I’ve been able to learn from things. Now I’m around good people, and that’s the important thing, surrounding yourself with good people.”
What Irving has meant to the Mavericks isn’t complicated. On the court, he’s the player who sees right through an opponent’s defensive scheme — which, often, is a Dončić double team — and identifies the right play to his teammate. His 36 points came on 15-of-24 shooting and included two 3s late in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
While Dončić played 43 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back, his load is lighter when paired with Irving’s shot creation. Dončic, the league leader in minutes per game, has shown he can carry the Mavericks in Irving’s absence. But since Irving has missed 22 games, his recent return is crucial to managing Dončić’s workload.
“It’s way easier for me,” Dončić said.
Irving has been an ideal teammate so far, too. Teammates and coaches notice his willingness to help younger players and remain approachable to them despite his aura as one of the league’s most talented on-court players. That Irving has excelled in Dallas, at least when he has played, is no reconciliation for his past. But Dallas traded for him, pairing him with Dončić, to be featured in the team’s present. And what Irving has done here, at least, has spoken for its own.
“All the uncontrollable circumstances that didn’t go in our favor, that’s life,” Irving said about his time in Brooklyn. “I’m pretty much at peace with what happened here.”
Irving bears his own responsibilities for his past transgressions. He also controls how his career with the Mavericks will go. Right now, if he were to ever return to Dallas in another uniform, there would not be boos. There would be a tribute video, perhaps one that even showcased Tuesday’s dunk.
(Top photo: David L. Nemec / NBAE via Getty Images)