Hackett: Kyrie Irving. Superstar player? Yes. Leader? No.

Jim Hackett
February 28, 2019 - 8:07 am

“Leadership is a process of social influence which maximizes efforts of others towards the achievement of a goal.” 

I found this quote in an article in Forbes magazine from 2013 by a contributing writer named Kevin Kruse. Like his article shows, there are many quotes about leadership but most fall flat and are incomplete at best. Of the many definitions and quotes that I researched, I like this one the most and notably, not one word of it reminded me of Kyrie Irving. This quote actually has quite the opposite effect on me when I apply it Kyrie. Listening to him lately has been nauseating and watching him Tuesday night was equally as bad. I can’t imagine how uninspiring it must be to be near him on the floor or in the locker room these days as he begrudgingly mopes through the motions with a growing look of burden on his face. Color me uninspired.

Right now, Irving is giving his team exactly what it doesn’t need. After an embarrassing and frankly unacceptable loss to the lowly Chicago Bulls last weekend, he was asked if he was worried about the team’s play and their postseason chances. Irving addressed it in his increasingly familiar, short and snarky way. “No.”After being probed further as to how he could say that, Irving defiantly said, “Because I’m here.” Though that quote shows unwavering confidence is own abilities, a needed trait in a leader, his smug delivery and tone-deaf feel for what the moment required gave off a stronger vibe of narcissism than it did of leadership. Message fail. A bad one and it’s not the first in what is truly becoming a lost season for the talented and once lovable Celtics. Not so much these days though.

In Tuesday night’s post-game when asked about defensive rotations that his coach had cited in an earlier interview, Irving said, "Ask Brad." Remind you of anything? How about "You’ll have to ask Manager John" a very telling quote from a then very flustered and equally uninspiring David Price. How’d that season work out? As Irving leads this Celtics team, it’s feeling a lot like the rudderless chicken & beer Red Sox of 2011 or worse yet, the following season’s edition, that featured clown-show leader Bobby Valentine. Yes, that 2012 Red Sox season, where it was apparent as early as April that not a single player on the roster would follow him.

The buck certainly doesn’t stop with only Irving either. It’s more than fair to criticize Brad Stevens these days too, as 75 percent of the season has passed and the team’s season-long problems are worsening. The leadership chain from coach to floor general is quite obviously not aligned and granted, that could very well be confounding things for Kyrie. However, the leadership qualities that could help at the player level to elicit some form of togetherness are clearly not coming from him when his team needs it most. 

Tom Brady. Rodney Harrison. Tedy Bruschi. Vince Wilfork. Kevin Garnett. Larry Bird. David Ortiz. Chris Sale. Patrice Bergeron. Zdeno Chara. These are leaders. Some like Harrison, Garnett and Bruschi were more vocal and demonstrative. Others like Brady, Bergeron and Chara lead with their preparation, discipline, commitment and consistency. Regardless of the tactics or behavior displayed, each of these men influences their teammates, motivate them to play their best and do so for an ultimate goal, just like the quote at the top suggests. None of them point fingers, whine, mope or use the media with passive-aggressive intent to either insulate or shield themselves from blame. Leaders don’t do such things, but prima donnas often do. 

With true leaders, praise is shared as is defeat and the result of their effort and example creates a unified front, win or lose. That’s leadership and that’s not what’s happening with the Celtics these days. Certainly not on the floor.

Around these parts, we’ve been truly fortunate to watch great field generals in action over many decades. We know what a real leader looks like and similarly, we know what a posing fraud looks like too. Which description does Kyrie Irving best fit these days? Does he remind you more of Brady and Garnett or A-Rod & LeBron? To me the answer to that question is clear. Brady or Garnett he is not.

Irving is an all-time great player. He’s both creative and dominating on the floor, but often times the greatest players aren’t necessarily leaders. It’s very interesting to me that Irving publically sought out the help of a veteran presence very early in the season. He literally vocalized it. It was noteworthy then, but boy is that public request telling now. It was a cry for help. In time through life experience, I assume he’ll find the words and a better way to go about things, but for now, his public disposition and comments just miss the mark and whether he wants to believe it or not those things matter. Real leaders understand this. 

There’s definitely a vulnerability in Irving and it interferes with his ability to lead. Until he figures it out, the Celtics will be better off if he stops trying to begrudgingly take that mantle. He clearly isn’t cut out for it, not yet anyway. He may never be a leader, but maybe someday as he matures he’ll at least learn from the mistakes of this season about how not to go about it. 

Years ago Charles Barkley unapologetically proclaimed "I’m not a role model." If Irving can’t lead, he’d be wise to make a similar type declaration at least to himself and rather focus on playing his best ball either here or somewhere else. I guess we’ll find out July 1. 

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