NEW YORK — Kyrie Irving’s return to Boston and TD Garden with fans was the primary storyline of this Nets-Celtics series. He was expected to be booed like a villain in his comeback, just as Johnny Damon and Ray Allen were when they signed with rival teams.
But Irving’s comments Tuesday night after Game 2 may have elevated the disdain Boston fans have for the All-Star point guard, who spent two troubled seasons with the Celtics.
After the Nets easily took care of the Celtics with a 130-108 win in Game 2, Irving finally addressed going back to Boston, the potential reaction from fans, some still seething that he reneged on his promise to re-sign with the Celtics when his contract expired.
Irving made that declaration in October 2018, entering the final year of his contract. But by May 2019, Irving had mentally checked out of Boston, his heart waiting for a maximum offer from the Nets. He bolted from Boston, where he missed the team’s first playoff run with injury and then the second season was filled with team turmoil and Irving’s resistance to become an encouraging leader for the young core that included Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
A city that he claimed to love just a few years ago, where his father played college ball (Boston University), has now drawn the disdain of Irving, who said after Game 2 that he hopes the fans don’t cross the line of their displeasure.
And he became the latest athlete to paint Boston as a city with racism issues.
“Hopefully we can just keep it strictly basketball,” Irving said after scoring 15 points in a light workload night. “There’s no belligerence or racism going on, subtle racism, and people yelling [expletive] from the crowd. Even if it is, it’s part of the nature of the game and we’re just going to focus on what we can control.”
‘Hopefully, we can just keep it strictly basketball. ... There’s no belligerence or racism going on, subtle racism, and people yelling [expletive] from the crowd. Even if it is, it’s part of the nature of the game and we’re just going to focus on what we can control.’
Kyrie Irving on his return to Boston for Game 3
Irving was then asked whether he’s experienced racism in Boston during his career. With Kevin Durant offering his commentary while Irving was on the Zoom camera, Irving said: “I’m not the only one who could attest to this . . . but it’s just, it is what it is. The whole world knows it.”
A Nets official quickly called for the next question. Irving was laughing during his final answer, but his explosive comments again raise the question about Boston being a comfortable place for a Black athlete. Irving had never intimated that he had been pelted with racist comments before but the atmosphere was expected to be volatile because of Irving’s checkered stint with Boston and the perception that he had been planning his exit for more than a year.
📹 Kyrie Irving said he hopes he's not subject to racism coming back to play in Boston for the first time with fans in the stands at TD Garden #WBZ #Celtics pic.twitter.com/pdE3p8bQpx— Joe Giza (@JoeGiza) May 26, 2021
During the February 2019 All-Star Game in Charlotte, Irving was caught on video having an adamant conversation with Durant while both were about to take the floor for the game. Irving vehemently denied in the days afterward that it was a recruiting meeting but he refused to disclose the subject of the conversation. He eventually admitted the topic was signing with the same team following his commitment to Brooklyn.
The Nets signed Durant, despite having a torn Achilles, about an hour before Irving. The two had said they wanted to play together for years. Irving painted his signing with Brooklyn as a return home — he grew up in New Jersey. Celtics faithful weren’t buying the homecoming, betrayed that he bailed out on the franchise at the first opportunity.
And because of his departure, Irving was blamed for most of the upheaval during the 2018-19 season. His surly attitude annoyed teammates. He was not friendly or cordial with some members of the staff. The organization never knew what Kyrie was going to show up to the arena each night — the reflective one, the standoffish one, the friendly one, the philosophical one?
Part of the organization was gleeful that Irving and his issues departed, especially when he was replaced by the affable Kemba Walker. And the Celtics’ sentiments were confirmed when Irving played just 20 games in his first season while Walker helped the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals.
But now with a healthy Durant and superscorer James Harden, who was acquired in January, Irving walks into TD Garden playing for a legitimate title contender, perhaps enjoying Brooklyn’s dominance over his former team in the first two games.
Now for the next 48-plus hours before Game 3, Boston will be again put in the spotlight for its racist reputation, and the tension regarding his return has risen to what could be an unhealthy level, especially with an 8:30 p.m. start. TD Garden will be 25 percent full Friday but nearly 100 percent full for Sunday’s Game 4.
Irving’s comments just inflamed an already tender issue for the city of Boston. And what was perhaps more damaging was Durant’s encouragement for Irving to tell his truth. The Celtics made a hard push to sign Durant in 2016, even using former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to visit the All-Star in the Hamptons before Durant chose the Golden State Warriors.
Boston thought it had moved on from Irving, but he obviously had some suppressed feelings about the city that he had been waiting to unleash and decided to drop this detonating comment just days before his return.
As Irving has proven over the years, his truth is not necessarily our truth. Is he speaking from his own experience or for those athletic predecessors who had real and concrete issues with race in this city?
And as we know with Kyrie, many of his statements are not necessarily rooted in accuracy, they are just to make you think.
That’s his intention, whether it is diabolical or genuine.
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Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.