Kyrie Irving: NBA hero’s suspension marks spectacular fall from grace

Kyrie Irving’s suspension is new low for one of the most talented players of his generation, a fast-falling star now likely to be remembered as a purveyor of offensive misinformation

The apology materialized close to midnight but by then it was too late. Kyrie Irving had been suspended by his NBA team after a week of widespread consternation but no contrition following his Twitter post amplifying an antisemitic film.

The Brooklyn Nets excluded the point guard for at least five games on Thursday and said he is “currently unfit to be associated” with the franchise. It is a new low for one of the most talented players of his generation, a fast-falling star now likely to be remembered more as a purveyor of offensive online misinformation than for his on-court brilliance.

Irving, who has about 17.6m followers on Instagram and 4.6m on Twitter, published a link to a 2018 film, Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America, on 27 October. He later deleted the post.

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the film “is a three-plus-hour effort to ‘prove’ the Black Hebrew Israelite (BHI) belief that certain people of color, including Black Americans, are the true descendants of the biblical Israelites” and “promotes beliefs commonly found among antisemitic and extremist factions of the BHI movement, including claims that modern Jews are impostors who stole the religious heritage of Black people”.

Irving, the Nets and the ADL issued a joint statement on Wednesday in which the player and the team said they would each donate $500,000 to organizations working against hate and intolerance. The player said he opposes “all forms of hatred and oppression” and that he does not “believe everything said in the documentary was true”.

However, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he was “disappointed” that Irving had not “offered an unqualified apology” and that he planned to meet with him. Irving spoke to reporters on Thursday, inflaming the situation when he deflected questions and again stopped short of an unequivocal apology and full denouncement of the film.

He suggested that the media should instead focus on America’s history of slavery and racial oppression. “Where were you when I was a kid figuring out that 300 million of my ancestors are buried in America?” the 30-year-old said, adding: “I’m growing up in a country that’s told me that I wasn’t worth anything and I come from a slave class … I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from.”

Noting the absence of remorse, the ADL said it would not accept Irving’s donation. The word “sorry” was finally deployed late on Thursday when Irving published a statement regretting his boost of “false antisemitic statements”. He wrote: “To all Jewish families and communities that are hurt and affected from my post, I am deeply sorry to have caused you pain, and I apologize. I initially reacted out of emotion to being unjustly labeled antisemitic.”

The Nets’ general manager, Sean Marks, told reporters on Friday that to return to the team Irving will have to take “remedial steps” including counseling and meeting with Jewish community leaders. All of it was too little too late for Nike, which on Friday cut ties with Irving and canceled the launch of his signature shoe.

In Irving’s mind, at least, he is an iconoclastic free-thinker and truth-seeker who will not blindly accept conventional wisdom or shelter in the comforting refuge of herd mentality on his journey towards a deeper understanding of the cultural, historical, political and genetic forces that shaped him. “I’m just here to continue to expose things that our world continues to put in darkness. I’m a light. I’m a beacon of light,” he asserted on Thursday.

To his growing legion of critics he is a pseudo-intellectual peddler of vile or idiotic conspiracy theories that risk causing grave harm. “He’s a flashpoint guy now … like Kanye, another unserious person who commands a lot of attention,” the broadcaster Bomani Jones said on his podcast, The Right Time.

“The reason that Kyrie really has to go is, whether he believes this or not, thre’s a fair argument to make that what he did was dangerous, right? He is an influential person spreading ideas that have the potential to foment violence.”

Kanye West, who now goes by Ye, tweeted references to Irving on Thursday in solidarity with the player. The rapper and mogul is enduring a costly backlash after making a series of antisemitic comments that are part of an alarming wider trend of openly hateful behavior in the US by prominent figures, including many right-wing politicians, as well as members of the general public.

Antisemitic incidents in the US reached an all-time high in 2021 and the FBI warned on Thursday of a “broad threat to synagogues” in New Jersey (the agency said on Friday that the alleged source had been interviewed and no longer posed a danger). The phrase “Kanye is right about the Jews” was projected onto a football stadium in Florida last week and displayed on a freeway bridge by white supremacists in Los Angeles.

“There is a real-world effect of antisemitism online,” Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit group, told the Guardian. “It makes people hate Jews and seek to harm them.”

Irving has long been on a quest to learn more about his heritage and examine his identity. Born in Australia to American parents – his father played professional basketball in Melbourne – he grew up in New Jersey.

He left Duke University to enter the 2011 NBA draft and was selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers, winning the league’s 2012 Rookie of the Year award and becoming an NBA champion in 2016, not least thanks to a crucial three-pointer that helped his team overcome the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the finals. He also won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA that year.

Aiming to step out of LeBron James’ shadow he sought a trade in 2017 and moved to the Boston Celtics. His time there was hampered by injury and he joined Brooklyn as a free agent in 2019.

He has Native American roots through his mother, who died when he was four. He was honored in 2018 with a naming ceremony in North Dakota by the Standing Rock Sioux, whose symbol is tattooed on the back of his neck – one of about twenty tattoos on his body, including his mother’s name and the logo of the 1990s sitcom, Friends.

Irving is also the NBA’s highest-profile vaccine refuser. His rejection of the Covid-19 shot saw him miss 35 home games in 2021-22 because of a New York City employment vaccine mandate. The guard, who is in the final year of a contract worth $36.5m this season, said his decision not to accept the vaccine cost him a four-year extension worth over $100m.

“This enforced Vaccine/Pandemic is one [of] the biggest violations of HUMAN RIGHTS in history,” he tweeted in September. That month he shared a video from 2002 about a government conspiracy theory called the “New World Order” espoused by the Infowars host Alex Jones, who was recently ordered by a court to pay $1 billion in damages for grotesque lies about the Sandy Hook massacre.

In 2017 Irving opined on a podcast that “the Earth is flat”. He told The New York Times that he “wanted to open up the conversation, like, ‘Hey man, do your own research for what you want to believe in’.” He said that he was unsure whether the Earth is round or flat and felt it was an interesting debate topic: an example of false balance posing as open-mindedness, as if being a contrarian and skeptic is a license to embrace both-sides-ism and live in your own reality.

Low-budget, homemade and previously obscure, Hebrews to Negroes was number one in the Amazon chart of best-selling documentaries on Friday afternoon. The book version was the leading seller in the retailer’s “Christian Education” section, comprising four of the top five along with its sequels.

“We know that algorithms promote stuff that gets high engagement,” Ahmed said. With re-tweets and other insertions in online feeds, “This is being seen by potentially hundreds of millions of people beyond just his followers,” he added. “The damage someone with that many followers can do is pretty uncontained.”