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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kyrie Irving isn’t offering any more hints about his free agent destination this summer. Of course, the Celtics are a possibility but don’t be surprised if the six-time All-Star meets with his hometown New York Knicks and perhaps even the Brooklyn Nets.
What Irving is revealing the past several weeks is a defiant and daring attitude, the admission that he no longer cares what outsiders think. He no longer plays for the crowd or his fans, only himself and his happiness.
It’s not necessarily a selfish philosophy but one of empowerment. At age 26 — he turns 27 next month — Irving views himself as more than a basketball player, more than a fancy dribbler and game-changing basketball player that could change the course of the Celtics’ franchise if he returns.
Irving wanted to emphasize during All-Star Weekend that he views himself as a leader, a savant, a man with thoughts and opinions that spread far beyond the basketball court. One of the reasons Irving had issues during his time with the Cleveland Cavaliers was that he felt his off-court opinions were largely ignored by the media.
The Donald Trump election? LeBron James got the questions. Colin Kaepernick? Ask LeBron. Meanwhile, a young but astute Irving felt he was acknowledged only for his basketball knowledge. He resented that.
So when given the opportunity, Irving chooses to speak out. His opinions may be vague or even bizarre — questioning whether the Earth was flat — but he vigorously seeks to be regarded and respected as a knowledgeable man.
First, Irving said, he had to acknowledge his talent and power. For years he watched James dictate the free agent market, determine his own fate, and call his own career shots. And while Irving begrudged that power because it affected him also, he also envied LeBron’s influence.
So Irving said he had to reassess his self worth. His decision to leave Cleveland for the opportunity to be the No. 1 star was part of his metamorphosis and perhaps his decision to keep his free agent plans private is another power move.
“I started listening to myself, that’s really what it comes down to,” he said. “I stopped listening to everyone else telling me who I was supposed to be, a scorer, a passer. ‘He’s not as good as this.’ I’m a great player. Like I know that. Nobody else is going to take that away from me.
“I go as far as I take myself and once I had that confidence inside, I believed it every single day and nothing was taken away from it, then it made this a lot easier, to just be who I am and really be the person I’m destined to be and that’s to service others and change this game.
“There’s not going to be another player like me and I understand that. There’s not going to be another person. We’re all one of one. So I support that. It gets hard at times being in the league, how much BS comes with it. That’s just it.”
The BS Irving is referring to is the growing rumors that his Celtics future is tied to whether the club can acquire Anthony Davis. He truly despised being dragged into the Davis trade demands and has been surly with the media since.
On Saturday, Irving didn’t want to talk much basketball. He offered a short answer about his health and whether he would play in Sunday’s All-Star Game despite a sore knee. He wanted to touch on his influence off the floor. He opened up about his place in society and the opportunity for empowerment on young people.
He didn’t take a political or racial stance, but more of a social stance.
“Outside of [the court] we all want to stand [against] social injustice, we all want to stand for what we believe in. We all want to stand for more than just being basketball players,” he said. “When we do speak, some people just don’t listen because we’re just these ‘athletes.’ It’s a little sad at times, but for me I’m just going to keep pushing the envelope of how much I can really spread and influence others to open up and be free about themselves and who they are.”
Irving used this forum at All-Star Weekend to discuss anything besides basketball, and that’s a good thing. Irving is discovering his influence can reach far beyond the basketball court. He said the most impactful activity this weekend wasn’t the parties or bonding, but coaching the Special Olympics Game on Friday, and there he was motivating, encouraging, and even calling late-game plays to get the win.
“I’m following the steps of a lot of the pioneers that came before me, the black pioneers, African-American pioneers, African pioneers, Native American pioneers, native Indians,” he said. “I come from so many different places so I represent a lot of different cultures and I’m proud to do that and because of that I have an understanding of life, of coming from the elders, a lot of wise people, and you have to impart the same wisdom that was given to you to the younger generation.
“It’s a lot harder when you’ve got to take the time to sit them down and understand this right here [wealth, success] isn’t going to make you happy. Leaving here and going home and seeing my family and making sure they’re taken care of every single day is going to make me happy. Making sure I stand up for what I believe in no matter what comes with it, no matter what judgments come with it, I have to stand for what I believe in.
“A lot of people have done it before me, like Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, obviously you think of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, like these are real leaders that sacrificed a lot of their lives to be put in this position. Maya Angelou, speaking about where she came from and teaching what she had, and understanding like I said, women run the world.”
Irving often talks of early retirement and being uncomfortable with the NBA life. But he made it clear he plans to keep trying to change that narrative and perception that athletes should only be acknowledged for their athletic prowess. He believes it’s a frustrating journey.
“There are times where this has been very overwhelming because a lot of my principles and what I believe in doesn’t correlate with what goes on every single day being an NBA basketball player,” he said. “So for me it’s about a lot bigger change [than] just playing basketball and throwing it in the hoop. Just to continue to inspire that’s what motivates every single day.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.