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Kyrie Irving’s Gambit May Not Come Cheap

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 21: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets reacts after a basket during the second half of their game against the Atlanta Hawks at Barclays Center on December 21, 2019 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

So now Kyrie Irving does not talk to pawns. Other than the obvious question of who he does talk to—six-slice toasters, polar bears, cheese cubes, the Illuminati, our alien overlords, Scott Foster—the real question is who’s going to pay for this.

Understand that Irving doesn’t have to talk at all, as long as he’s willing to pay, and as long as the NBA plans to take money from him in paper-cut amounts. At 25 grand per pawn denied, he can say no 1,333 times this season before he starts working at a deficit. And as a rule, compulsory interviews tend not to be worth the bother anyway, and can sometimes become part of brand-building, as Marshawn Lynch has learned to his post-football benefit. Indeed, it is a time-honored media strategy to ignore the media and make it come to you at a more advantageous time, so we should consider the possibility that Irving is playing a second-level game—in other words, just pandering with a better ROI.

So this is not your standard kneejerk he-has-to-talk rant because no he doesn’t. If he’s willing to let his narrative be controlled by the pawns, whoever they are, and have to pay for the privilege, I must take him at his word that he is serious about this.

What is fascinating, though, is not the identities of the pawns, although that might be a keen talking point among the greater pawn community. His decision not to identify the pawns is, in its own way, a cynically clever way to win a news cycle, as though that were an actual thing. Is he talking about Rachel Nichols? Jeff Van Gundy? Adrian Wojnarowski? Zach Lowe? Doris Burke? Mark Zuckerberg? Comrade Burneko? Alex Karras as Mongo in Blazing Saddles? Who knows? And ultimately, who cares? You’ll know you’re a pawn when he doesn’t talk to you. And if he does talk to you, consider yourself castled.

In some ways, this is about the all-enveloping narcissism of a sports media corps that likes covering itself, sometimes more than the people and things it is paid to cover. After all, we have access to us, we know how we think, and we like talking to ourselves about ourselves. Moreover, many of us still think athletes and coaches and general managers and owners still need what we can provide, even though the evidence screams otherwise. No wonder that some players consider us a tiresome lot; I wouldn’t want to have to talk to me, either.

It is also true that the media knows far less about what the players do than the reverse, so it isn’t really a fair fight except for the fact that the league and the teams still like free publicity delivered by admirers and true believers, and regard it as a useful tool for moving tickets, suites, sweatshirts, and team logo chess sets. Conversely, they don’t like bad publicity delivered by impertinent yappy dogs who, while not powerful alone can be mightily obnoxious.

More interesting is how long others within Irving’s circle will be willing to carry his water. Irving’s decision to become the chessmaster is problematic for those who now will be showered with daily Irving-related questions (or face the resultant fines). His coach, Steve Nash; his chief compadre, Kevin Durant; his general manager, Sean Marks; his employer, Joe Tsai; commissioner Adam Silver. They’re the ones who will be swarmed by Pawn Nation, especially if Irving or the Nets struggle. In other words, the Irving issue is about the moment when they get sick of dealing with the Irving issue.

If Tsai, who is worth $13 billion and therefore probably not in a mood to talk to reporters either, wants to make the Nets a bigger deal than the Knicks, and if today’s Topic A is Irving’s reluctance to mediatize, he might find Irving’s stance defensible but annoying. If Durant finds his media availabilities dotted with daily inquiries about pre- and postgame Irving, he will become irked. Nash… well, he knew the job was going to be weird when he took it, and one of his coaching mentors, Steve Kerr, plays the media like a bagpipe. But Nash will get tired of it, too. And the league has already expressed its opinion with the first of what might be many $25K invoices for the team.

None of this makes Kyrie Irving a bad human being. His greatest public flaw is saying things that make media people think he might be loony, which like all other perceived medical/emotional diagnoses is a thing the media is particularly unqualified to make. Nobody is being ruined by his decision, and if he never speaks again, well, the loss to the nation is likely to be minimal. His right not to speak and our right not to care are equal in the eyes of the law.

This little kerfuffle-ette will end if and when those with whom he works daily, as in the Nets themselves, and occasionally, as in the NBA office, convince him that the more he doesn’t do is in direct proportion to the more they have to do on his behalf. That day may never come and he may never deviate from his anti-pawn stance, but the concept of the shared burden is considered by many within the business as a vital part of team-building. This isn’t about his responsibility to the pawns, which is roughly zero, but to his fellow knights and bishops, which is considerable. If they’re OK, then there’s nothing to see here, citizens, and we can all move on until that anticlimactic day when Irving changes his mind and speaks to the media again as though nothing ever happened. Maybe he’ll even deny he ever made any kind of chess reference at all, the way he was just kidding about the earth being flat. Maybe his denial of planetary formation has just momentarily morphed into a new interest in board-game theory. Whatever. He can talk or not talk, and talk or not talk to pawns, the scottie dog in Monopoly, or Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the lead pipe.

But most chess matches begin by moving a pawn, so there might be a lesson in that, too.