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Kyrie Irving burns sage to cleanse bad spirits before Celtics-Nets exhibition

Former teammates Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown exchanged a long greeting before Friday's exhibition at TD Garden.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Kyrie Irving’s two seasons with the Celtics were underwhelming for all involved — for the player despite a pair of All-Star appearances, for the team which made its deepest playoff run with him on the sidelines, and for the fans who watched it all and have been eager to greet his return to Boston with a chorus befitting such deep frustrations.

Fans were not in attendance at TD Garden on Friday night, when the Celtics hosted Irving’s Brooklyn Nets in the arena’s first event since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the world in March, but the All-NBA guard perhaps sensed the negative vibes.


Cameras captured Irving waving a handful of burning sage as he walked the perimeter of the floor, at one point crossing to wave it above the first row of seats, before dousing it in a shell — traditionally abalone — and heading on court. The ritual is known as “smudging,” and is considered a way to cleanse a person or space of bad energy.

While it could be taken as more theatrics from Irving, whom Hall of Famer Charles Barkley shredded for his faux intellectualism (among other things) on Thursday, the star on the cusp of his 10th NBA season explained it’s part of his Native American heritage.

“It just comes from a lot of native tribes. Being able to sage, just cleanse the energy, make sure that we’re all balanced,” Irving said following Brooklyn’s 113-89 victory. “When we come into this job, we come into this place, it’s not anything that I don’t do at home that I did today. I saged last game, and I plan to sage almost every game if the opposing team will allow me to.”

Smudging dates to prehistoric times, and is a long-standing Native American tradition. Irving’s mother was born Cynthia Janette White Mountain, half-Sioux through her mother. She was adopted as an infant by a Lutheran minister and renamed Elizabeth Ann Larson.


Mrs. Irving died at 29, when Kyrie was just 4. Not only does he have her name and birthday as tattoos, he famously spent a day with his mother’s Standing Rock Sioux tribe in the summer of 2018, becoming a member (along with his sister) and being given the Lakota name “Little Mountain.”

That year, Irving had multiple pairs of shoes designed to salute the Standing Rock Sioux.

“Literally, it’s more or less for us to stay connected and for us to feel great about going to work and feeling safe and provided for from our ancestors,” he said of smudging. “I’m not going to bring too much of the spirituality into basketball, but yeah, it’s part of my native culture where I’m from.”

Irving left the Celtics on bad terms, going from crowing to season-ticket holders that he planned on re-signing with Boston in October 2018 to repeatedly bristling at teammates and media, both publicly and privately, before signing with Brooklyn in July 2019. He missed the Nets’ visit to TD Garden last November with a shoulder injury, missing what former Celtic Paul Pierce declared would’ve been “the loudest boos in league history.”

He got warm greetings from some of his former teammates on Friday, however, including sharing a long embrace with Jaylen Brown.