Protests, bizarre news conferences and yams: Inside two ridiculous weeks with Kyrie Irving and the Nets

8:00 AM ET

At 2:44 p.m. ET on Oct. 27, roughly five hours before the Brooklyn Nets were set to take on the Dallas Mavericks at home, Kyrie Irving hit send on a tweet.

The post, without any text, was an Amazon link to a movie called “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” centered on antisemitic tropes and Holocaust denial. Soon thereafter, the backlash and fallout began, the 12-year veteran yet again unwittingly engulfing the Brooklyn Nets and NBA in a controversy that transcended the game. Team sources say dread filled the minds of many, an all-too familiar feeling during Irving’s three-and-a half year tenure with the Nets.

Two days later, in front of assembled media, Irving failed to apologize and say whether he held antisemitic beliefs. A week later, as pressures internal and external squeezed the organization, the team held another news conference. Once again, Irving failed to apologize or clearly answer whether he was antisemitic — like many within the Nets organization and the league office had hoped. Later that night, Irving was suspended for at least five games without pay, the organization stating in a release that Irving was “currently unfit to be associated with the Brooklyn Nets.” Hours later, Irving finally apologized in an Instagram post after the suspension became official.

Here’s a look inside his return, two weeks unlike any other in recent league history.

Tuesday, Nov. 15, Sacramento, Golden1 Center

Thirteen days into Irving’s suspension — and five days prior to his return to the Nets

Backup guard Patty Mills has been in the NBA for 14 seasons and can’t remember a stretch like the Nets are in right now.

On top of the uncertainty surrounding Irving, and the adjustments still being made under new coach Jacque Vaughn, they’ve just given up a season-high 153 points to a young Sacramento Kings team. Inside the visitors’ locker room, Nets players dress quietly after the embarrassing performance as they prepare for a team dinner at a local Chinese restaurant.

“This is a first for me,” Mills said of the Nets’ latest ups and downs.

Any excitement from Brooklyn’s win against the LA Clippers a few days earlier has evaporated. The Nets have dropped two straight games — the first to a 2-10 Los Angeles Lakers team playing without LeBron James and the second to this Kings team that began the season with a Las Vegas over-under of 33.5 wins.

Nets swingman Ben Simmons, who had played his best game of the season, scoring 11 points and grabbing five rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench, calls the performance “unacceptable.”

Irving’s absence hangs over everything and everyone.

“It’s a lot of adversity, it feels like [one] adversity after the other,” Mills said. “I think what you can hope for is this will pay off at some point. We learn from things. We learn about ourselves, so that we can come out at the end of it.”

Thursday, Nov. 17, Portland, Oregon, Moda Center

Fifteen days into his suspension — and three days prior to his return

A day after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports Irving’s return would likely come in Sunday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Nets are in Portland, Oregon, where the mood is noticeably sunnier. As players and coaches finish their morning workout inside the arena, Nets star forward Kevin Durant discusses his teammate’s pending return, saying the group will get a “much-needed spark.”

A few hours later, Portland Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups offers his own perspective, one shared by many throughout the league regarding the Irving controversy.

“They’re going through a lot over there,” Billups said. “It seems like they’re always going through a lot over there … it makes me thankful for my team. I’ve never played with that type of mistrust or dysfunction in my career.”

The Nets, led by Durant and another strong performance from Simmons, earn their most impressive win of the young season a few hours later. Veteran Royce O’Neale seals the victory, and his first career triple-double, with a last-second tip-in. Players and staffers smile and laugh their way back to the team hotel for an early morning flight back to New York the next day. The relief is palpable. It is, perhaps, their last game without Irving.

“If a coach could draw up a game and end up winning at the end, that was it,” Vaughn said. “Our team showing resolve, staying together, enjoying being in the moment. Just continue to learn about our group and at the end of the day we played hard.”

Sunday, Nov. 20, HSS Training Facility, New York

Eighteen days into his suspension — and the morning of his return

The Nets’ morning shootaround is anything but typical. While the expectation remains Irving will play later that night, he is listed as questionable. As media members arrive at the team’s practice facility, they are directed to a conference room where Irving is expected to address his suspension. A day earlier, in an interview with SNY, Irving said he was “deeply” apologetic for the damage his social media posts caused, saying for the first time on camera he is “not antisemitic.”

The tension in the room rises as each moment passes. Irving walks in, with several notable guests following behind him, including executive director of the NBPA Tamika Tremeglio and Irving’s stepmother and agent Shetellia Riley Irving. Nets general manager Sean Marks watches cautiously from the back of the room.

“As I look back and reflect,” Irving said, “when I had the opportunity to offer my deep regrets to anyone that felt threatened, or felt hurt, by what I posted, that wasn’t my intent at all. I meant no harm to any person, any group of people. And yeah, this is a big moment for me because I’m able to learn throughout this process that the power of my voice is very strong. The influence that I have within my community is very strong. And I want to be responsible for that. In order to do that we have to admit when you were wrong and instances where you hurt people and it impacts them.”

Irving speaks for more than 13 minutes. A few moments later, the Nets formally clear him to play against Memphis that night.

Sunday, Nov. 20, Barclays Center, New York

Hours before tipoff — and after the game

The purple shirts are unmistakable as fans and onlookers step off the escalators from the Atlantic Ave./Barclays Center subway stop that leads to the arena. It’s a cold, gray evening as fans mill about the plaza. Lining the left perimeter of Atlantic Avenue, within earshot of the Barclays Center entrance, dozens of members of the Israel United in Christ group stand in formation and chant, in part: “We are the real Jews!” Men are seen circling the plaza, handing out flyers with various headlines including “The Truth About Anti-Semitism” and “The Truth About Slavery.” The demonstrators — a hate group as designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center — are there, they say, to support Irving.

Inside the arena, Irving scores 14 points in his return in a 127-115 win against a Grizzlies team playing without star Ja Morant. After the game, Irving is back at the lectern. Multiple Nets staffers watch in anticipation — and with fear. The past couple of these have not gone well. Irving begins by saying he “never had a doubt,” he would be back with his team, but does not want to discuss the events surrounding his return.

“I think that’s a conversation for another day,” he said. “I’m just here to focus on the game.”

He’s asked again, about the demonstrators chanting in his name.

“I’m just here to focus on the game.”

He’s later asked a third time, about when and how to use the platform that got him — and the Nets — embroiled in controversy.

“I would like to be on a platform where I could openly share how I feel without being harshly criticized, or being labeled,” Irving said. “Or dealing with outside perceptions that have nothing to do with me.”

After just over four minutes, a nervous Nets PR staffer ends the news conference. Many within the organization, those who’ve seen the harm his posts and subsequent actions caused and have been tasked with damage control, watch as Irving’s first day back at work ends without more self-inflicted chaos.

“It felt good to get this game out of the way,” Irving said. “Now we can move forward with the rest of the season.”

Tuesday, Nov. 22, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia

Two days into Irving’s return

It’s perhaps the most anticipated matchup of the season, one more than a year in the making: the return of Simmons to the court in Philadelphia. It’s also Irving’s first game on the road after his suspension.

Simmons, 26, is noticeably relaxed, meeting with the media prior to the game. When asked if it will be anticlimactic to play a Sixers team that will be without Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, Simmons is quick to answer.

“The fans will make up for it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun.”

On the floor, Simmons nearly racks up a triple-double, with 11 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds, but the Nets can’t knock out the starless Sixers, losing 115-106. After the game, the absurdity of the season, and especially the past two weeks, comes into full view — this time in the form of a news conference.

Vaughn speaks first. Frustrated by his team’s inconsistent effort, his demand is direct. “There’s no way we’re going to win games if we don’t play hard every single possession, every night,” he said. “It’s just as simple as that. And we’ll play the guys who want to play hard.”

Irving comes to the podium a few moments later, seemingly unbothered by the tough loss. Just before he takes his seat at the lectern he says, “I’m a free man,” before outlining the team’s lack of attention to detail.

Next comes Durant, clearly frustrated he is left to answer for yet another uneven performance.

“It’s the same s—,” Durant said. “[They had] 20 more shots than us and seven more 3-pointers. That’s the game.”

A few minutes later, it’s Simmons, wearing the countenance of a man who knows he cleared another hurdle in his comeback.

“I thought it was going to be louder,” Simmons said.

Wednesday, Nov. 23, Scotiabank Arena, Toronto

Four days into Irving’s return and a trip across the border

Irving plays in Toronto for the first time in nearly three years — and the fans let him know it from the moment he’s introduced in the Nets’ starting lineup. Other than New York City, where citywide vaccine mandates prevented Irving from playing in home games for a large swath of last season, no city on the NBA circuit conflicts with Irving’s choice more than Toronto, where until recently, no one could cross the border into Canada without being vaccinated.

The boos don’t seem to faze Irving much, as he scores 29 points in 28 minutes, the Nets beating an undermanned Raptors team playing with 10 healthy players. After the game, Irving addresses his return to the city.

“I love Toronto,” Irving tells reporters. “It’s a good place.”

Friday, Nov. 25, Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

Six days and three games into Irving’s return

Nineteen games into this turmoil-ridden season — a stretch featuring a players-only meeting before Halloween, coaching change, lingering injuries and poor play from Simmons and Irving promoting an antisemitic film, the Nets are in Indiana to face the Pacers.

As has become custom, the game offers a metaphor. The Nets race out to a double-digit lead in the first half, only to see it disintegrate, losing by 11 to a Pacers team considering trading two of its starters.

The locker room is quiet as tired-looking staffers pack up after the team’s 10th road game of the month. Irving, after FaceTiming his family, tries to keep the mood light, passing dejected teammates and Nets personnel as they head into an adjacent room for the postgame spread. As Durant sits in his corner locker stall and teammates get ready to file out of the arena and head to the airport, Irving unexpectedly breaks into song. “Ohhh, sweet yams!” he sings as he starts to fill his plate. “Sweet, sweet yams …”

After Irving finishes his meal, he offers the most honest assessment of the night while discussing the team’s upcoming seven-game homestand.

“This is essential for our season,” Irving said. “Just to be able to establish some great habits at home. Like we’ve been doing, but now we’ll be tested … it’s not a hard basketball game for us.”

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