Most of us have had a weird friend before. A person so odd that, if we were to bring them around other people, we might need to first explain their essence, so to avoid unpleasant frictions. They’re a bit of a kook, you might say, but they mean well. If they say X, they might actually mean Y or Z, or even A, B, or C. It’s hard to say. It takes a lot of decoding to be around them. But I promise you this much: they mean well. They’re not for everyone, though. That’s for sure. It’s okay if you don’t like them, but I love them.
It’s people like these who I’m reminded of every time the Brooklyn Nets’ star guard Kyrie Irving makes the news with his unpredictable behavior or rhetoric. Since joining his friend Kevin Durant in the northeast, he has done this for the following reasons: skipping the pandemic bubble season, refusing to speak to media, disappearing from team activities for multiple weeks, reportedly suggesting NBA players could break from the owners and start their own league, and ceremonially lighting sage courtside before a preseason game in Boston, as a means of transforming the potentially bad vibes between him and his former Celtics franchise.
More recently, Irving tweeted “My mask is off. Now take yours off. No fear.” Most assuredly a collection of platitudes with no ultimate clear reading, Irving’s words are closer to the fare of pablum-rich arena rock like Coldplay—big and infinitely interpretable in their spectacle—than any kind of ideological stance. In the context of the Coronavirus, however, there is a different, worse understanding of his language available, as the most ungenerous parts of her audience were quick to express.
Irving probably meant to present a metaphor that might lead slogan-starved people into being their best selves, but who really knows. “some of you are audacious enough to think you know what kyrie is talking about?” Bomani Jones tweeted. “i would never assume that.” Somehow, this confusion—which is rote in the world of Kyrie—distills the essence of following his team, who are equal parts excellent and bizarre. They are beyond dazzling on the court, so good at basketball and so stylized in their dominance that it could make you drunk, but there is also always an impenetrable, beguiling fog of mystery around them at the same time. As the Nets enter the 21-22 season as overwhelming title favorites, my question is simple: has a team ever been this good and this weird at the same time?
Some do not even scratch their heads as much in Kyrie’s direction as they do in Durant’s. Many have plausibly argued that, from a pure skills perspective, Durant is the greatest there’s ever been. Give him a healthy stretch to end his career, and the resume will show it too. But he is also, undeniably, so logged onto Twitter that he has changed the way that Being Online is perceived at large. With his gnarly, shape-shifting ethos as an internet user, he is capable of changing the terms of modern fame in real time, and in the process being emotionally nude and spiritually ragged in a way that the NBA has never seen before.
This is not to mention the team's third star and other MVP winner, who happens to be the most conventionally weird of the trio: James Harden. Constantly vying for historical scoring production and historical volumes of post-game partying at the same time, Harden by default introduces himself to everyone with that big beard that instantly lets you know that you're not in for a normal guy. Add in that the team's fresh young coach Steve Nash has worked with the front office to develop an ever-experimental approach to lineups in the regular season, treating each game like another lab session, and the brew in Brooklyn becomes all the more uncanny. No contender has ever taken so many different viably murderous shapes in such a quick period of time, while so fleetingly having the chance to take their ultimate form.
That, presumably, will change late in the upcoming season. After a more standard-length layoff from the previous year, and given all the precautionary measures the Nets have already shown they’re willing to take with their top-shelf talent—plus the ridiculous veteran depth behind them—there’s no doubt that they’ll do whatever it takes to have this thing running at maximum strength come Spring. The challenge for their audience is to not forget how serious they are while they distract us with their natural shenanigans all season long.