As a child, I thought couples who “separated” were elegant, elevated. the crème de la crème of failed families. The word tastes different, lighter than the mud-thick “divorced,” loftier than the prole-ish “broken up.” I imagined these people lived on the Upper East Side and read the Times every day, the archetype behind William Holden and Beatrice Straight’s crumbling marriage in Network.
I’m going through a separation now. There’s nothing light about. Nothing basic. Even though it’s been amicable, swirling pains and sudden, shrieking loneliness can come at any time; their absence hangs heavier in the air than the moments they manifest. It’s emotional whiplash when every second of the day is epiphany or crucible, epiphany and crucible.
Which brings us to Kyrie Irving and the New York Knicks.
Yesterday, “news” “leaked” that Irving and the Brooklyn Nets are at an impasse in contract extension talks, meaning he could hit the open market and make bedroom eyes at several teams, the Knicks among them. If New York did reach an agreement with Kyrie, there’d be so much to talk about on- and off-the-court we’d need an entirely new internet just to fit it all in.
I’m not really interested in the odds of whether it happens. Nobody had Kawhi Leonard becoming a Raptor until it happened. Kevin Durant joining the Warriors was just a fever dream until it wasn’t. What fun would life be if we ignored all unlikelihoods? Besides, if there’s one player who feels impossible to measure by traditional metrics, it’s Kyrie Irving.
What fascinates me about Irving is the contrast between the hosannas his game inspires and the “hahahahas” and “HELL nos” that harmonize his off-the-court self. He’s like a super hero, maybe a tragic one. With the ball in his hand, he’s Spiderman: the incomparable balance; the ability to best bigger, strong opponents; the sixth sense to know when and where danger’s coming from and seemingly always escape unscathed. Off the floor, a different comp may fit better.
Bruce Banner is a brilliant scientist whose research leads him to push into fields and realms most would fear to tread. Kyrie is brilliant, unquestionably a kinesthetic genius. Despite all the heat he gets for his words and actions as a private citizen, there is something precious and rare about his off-the-floor gems. Banner can’t help branching out into new fields and that ultimately leads him to become the Hulk, a rage monster who views the world around him as a constant threat and who may not have the power to tear it all down but who’ll damn well give it his best shot.
You may value Irving as an iconoclast, or a modern-day Don Quixote, or a modern-day one-man comedy. But truth is truth: if all we know of Irving’s public face were “both teams played hard” banalities and commercial endorsements, he’d be REVERED. You don’t have to like what he says or does – sometimes, he makes it difficult to, which by my estimation makes him no different than you or I – but regardless of what Kyrie is expressing, the fact that it isn’t just basketball puts a target on him. He sees the world around him and not only perceives threats, but seeks to tear them down. Sometimes that manifests as political activity. Sometimes it’s refusing a needle. Sometimes it’s questioning the whole media/athlete relationship. Sometimes it’s refusing to work in solidarity with people who aren’t allowed to work for refusing to get vaccinated, only for Irving to return to work the minute a special exemption allows him to. That exemption didn’t help any of the people he supposedly joined in solidarity. A pawn is a pawn is a pawn.
Does Kyrie make sense on the Knicks? Good Christ, yes. He would instantly be right up there with Walt Frazier as the greatest point guards in franchise history. He’s a legit primary scorer, something Julius Randle isn’t and RJ Barrett isn’t and may never be and pro’ly should never be. He creates for his teammates. He’d make Madison Square Garden sound like it hasn’t in a long time, and maybe ever; after all, the greatest Knicks of the post-championship years (Bernard King; Patrick Ewing; Carmelo Anthony), for all their greatness, were not human highlight reels. Irving is the sizzle and the steak.
There are reasons the Nets are at an impasse with Irving rather than handing him an automatic max contract, and those reasons matter. Ignoring for a moment Kyrie’s more esoteric peccadillos, check out these numbers: 31, 13, 10, 7, 29, 10, 22, 15, 52, 18, 53. Those are how many games he’s missed every year of his pro career. He’s played 611; he’s missed 360. That’s nearly 40% of his team’s games. Tilting at windmills isn’t the only concern with Irving. When it comes to durability he’s not quite Mr. Glass, but he’s no Superman, either.
Then there’s the question of radiation. Irving’s played for Cleveland, Boston and now Brooklyn. Were he to leave the Nets, especially if he left for Manhattan, he would be reviled by every fan base who used to love him. Early in my relationship, my partner used to marvel and say, “How could any of your ex’s have let you go?” Suffice it to say she hasn’t said that in many years. It’s hard to watch Irving play and not imagine him beloved where he plies his trade. The Celtics thought it a steal when they acquired him for Jae Crowder, a depreciating Isaiah Thomas and the pick that became Collin Sexton. The Nets wanted to throw themselves a ticker-tape parade for landing Kyrie to pair with Kevin Durant. If you’re considering dating somebody who on the surface has everything you’ve ever wanted and more, but you know all their ex’s have battle scars and zero interest in reuniting, you gotta wonder what you’re missing.
There’s a wonderful DC story called Tower of Babel, where the Justice League – Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, etc. – are all defeated by an unknown enemy using tactics specific to each member’s vulnerability. It turns out the villain in the story got the ideas from files belonging to Batman, who’d prepared contingencies in case any of the JL members one day went rogue. At the end of the story the League is deciding whether to allow Batman to remain a member after what they consider a betrayal when he spares them the trouble: he quits.
I don’t remember what connection I meant to draw between Irving and Tower of Babel. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s what Kyrie to the Knicks would belike. Brooklyn’s grand plan would be defeated. They’d feel betrayed. Irving would come to MSG. He’d score 27 a game and earn that many oohs and ahhs every night. He’d miss half the season. His interactions with Marc Berman would be a reality show. Irving Knick jerseys would sprout like mushrooms. The Knicks would be on national TV every week. They’d make the playoffs, be a dangerous team. They wouldn’t win a title. Irving pro’ly gets bought out before his contract expires. It’s 2026. The Knicks are rebuilding again. We look back at the Kyrie era. There’s a sense of loss. Of betrayal. More than anything, there’s the sense that some connection failed to connect. We can’t remember how, or why. We’re not sure it matters.