The Media Column: Kyrie Irving smear campaign getting out of control

Alex Reimer
July 02, 2019 - 1:58 pm
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We hold many sacred traditions around these parts: spending our Fourth of July in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Bourne Bridge, drinking iced coffee year-round, and castigating our superstar athletes on their ways out of town. Few stars have experienced the lattermost tradition more than Kyrie Irving is right now. He’s been deemed villainous and called the “most disliked Boston athlete ever.” Kyrie’s self-inflicted divorce from us feels personal, right down to the last curated Instagram video. 

The relative goodwill directed at Al Horford for deciding he would rather play with Joel Embiid than stop him, compared to the vitriol spewed at Irving for jumping to Brooklyn, shows the importance of perception. While both players reportedly knew about their next destinations well ahead of time, Horford went about his business quietly. There were no public proclamations about re-signing and nauseating soliloquies about invasive media people and the struggle of playing with young teammates. For the last two years, Irving took us on an interminable journey through his id. The trip was less enjoyable than sitting on a disabled red line train during rush hour.

That’s why Irving is so detested right now. Few athletes appeared to enjoy their blessed life less than Kyrie, who berated camera men and said he didn’t owe anybody, including the fans who supported him, “s—“ about his upcoming free agency. His loathsome season ended prematurely in Milwaukee, as he shot the Celtics out of the playoffs with a 25-of-85 performance over the series’ final four games.

There’s also the fact Irving gave up nearly $50 million to sign with the Nets. Oh, and he’s teaming up with Kevin Durant. The disses keep on coming. Irving deserves most of this. 

But the smear campaign that’s unfolded over the last week is borderline satirical. It embodies the worst stereotypes about the sports culture here, right down to the last pasty old sports columnist  (said with love!) admonishing Kyrie for his self-confidence –– both on the basketball court and intellectually.

One of the more off-putting viral putdowns came from the mouth of Doug Gottlieb, who relayed a story about Irving asking Brad Stevens about the meaning of government prior to a film session. The anecdote implies Irving is too curious for his own good, and should just put his head down in the meeting room.

In other words, shut up and (watch yourself) dribble. 

The collective Boston sports media largely celebrated Irving’s bizarre personality when he first came here, even following his infamous appearance on “First Take,” when he called himself “very much woke” and said he is “very reality-based.” Now that he’s spurned us, the commentary has changed. That’s not surprising, nor is it unique to Boston. But the nugget in Jackie MacMullan’s latest story –– which includes several pro-Kyrie tidbits as well –– about Irving declining to signing charity basketballs is more damaging than barbs about his obnoxiousness. It implies Irving is not a good person; it implies Irving doesn’t give a damn about charity. 

It’s possible there’s more context to the anecdote about Irving not signing 100 charitable basketballs after a game last season. The Globe’s Gary Washburn wrote recently Kyrie preferred to participate in private charity events, because he didn’t want the publicity. 

Whose spin do you believe?

If you buy into the recency bias that’s invaded the minds of Dan Shaughnessy and Steve Buckley, then you probably think Irving is basketball’s Judas. Two of our cities most respected sports historians say Irving is Boston’s top sports villain, ranking him ahead of all-time traitors like Roger Clemens and Ray Allen. 

“It’s not just that things went horribly wrong with Kyrie Irving and the Celtics,” Buckley writes in the Athletic. “It’s that things went horribly wrong so quickly. Because of that, these past two seasons will forever be known as ‘the Kyrie Irving Era,’ and not in a good way.”

With all due respect to my dear pal Buck, that’s a little dramatic. Irving’s incredible play is the reason why the Celtics grabbed the No. 1 seed in 2018, and since they dominated at home, one of the biggest factors for their surprise near-NBA Finals run in his absence. And this season, despite all of Kyrie’s irritating gripes, he averaged 23.8 points per game and a career-high 6.9 assists per contest. 

It ended terribly for Kyrie in Boston, but his exit isn’t any worse than Manny Ramirez’s, who quit on the Red Sox and shoved down an elderly traveling secretary on his way out of town. Since Kyrie never won here, he probably won’t ever receive redemption, but he was also here for just two years.

Irving is more Pablo Sandoval than Johnny Damon –– a fleeting disappointment in this golden era of Boston sports. And yet, the Celtics would’ve happily taken him back if he had expressed interest in returning. The Boston Herald’s Steve Bulpett reported recently the C’s would’ve swapped Irving for the inferior Kemba Walker at any point over the last two seasons, which is just so hard to believe. It’s akin to the people who claim they’re actually thrilled when their longtime partners dump him, while simultaneously blocking them across all social media platforms. Kyrie is a top 10 player in the NBA. Of course the Celtics wanted to retain him.

It is simplistic and revisionist to solely blame the Celtics’ woeful season on Irving. They also would be better off if he were still here. Do not be swayed by the citywide smear campaign. 

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Curran pulls a ‘Volin’ with White House story: Two weeks ago, the Patriots’ pitchfork army excoriated the Globe’s Ben Volin for writing declaratively that Nick Caserio wants out of New England, while not explicitly citing any sources. Well, Tom Curran pulled off a similar trick Monday, writing declaratively the Patriots will not visit the White House this year, without explicitly citing any sources.

And yet, the perpetually aggrieved Brady-loving masses aren’t second-guessing Curran. 

“Nobody with the Patriots will say it. Nobody has to,” Curran writes. “The 2018 Super Bowl champion Patriots aren’t going to the White House to be feted by President Trump because it just isn’t worth the trouble.”

Per usual, Curran’s piece is supported with rigorous facts and detail. But so was Volin’s. It cited the Patriots’ recent history of blocking Caserio from interviewing with Houston, along with scouting director Monti Ossenfort. 

Volin’s colleague, Chris Gasper, also wrote a column last week about Caserio’s apparent desire to move on –– echoing the sentiments expressed in Volin’s much-maligned piece.

The messenger should not matter more than the message in these cases.

NBA free agency is perfectly timed: Over the weekend, ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio tweeted about how the NBA is foolish to start its free agency period over the Fourth of July holiday. “I thought the NFL did a bad job of maximizing interest in free agency until I realized that NBA starts free agency at 6:00 p.m. ET on the Sunday of Fourth of July week,” he wrote.

Please. The NBA is capitalizing on the slowest sports time of the year, and has managed to control the entire sports conversation for weeks now. The tampering period is now an official joke, but who cares? The rumors leading up to July 1 only augment our interest. 

Cheerleading London coverage insulting to native Londoners: The fawning baseball media managed to infantilize London natives last week, yammering on about their excitement to order beers in their seats while watching Red Sox-Yankees and keep foul balls. It was the definition of an oversell. It’s clear people were interested in the weekend series, with roughly 120,000 tickets getting sold for the two games. The excessive buildup only cheapens any real successes baseball experienced with its trip across the Atlantic. 

Related: The Media Column: What will trolls like Chris Simms do when they don't have Tom Brady to kick around anymore?