It was not a smooth exit for Kyrie Irving, slipping out of Boston after two seasons—the first ended in injury and the second ended with playoff disappointment—to sign as a free agent this summer with Brooklyn, joining Kevin Durant. It was just about a year ago, after all, that Irving stood in front of assembled Boston media and said, “If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here.”
On Friday, speaking at the Nets’ media day ahead of the opening of training camp, Irving did his best to explain what changed for him in the nine months from that declaration to his July contract with the Nets.
He started by trying to explain why he’d said he planned to re-sign in the first place. The Celtics were coming off a surprising run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Cleveland, led by budding youngsters Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum, with Irving and forward Gordon Hayward injured. The Celtics were shaping up to be the East favorites last year and Irving got caught up in the exuberance.
“I think around that time, it felt incredible in terms of the energy we were building especially for the future in Boston,” Irving said. “It was something I couldn’t really explain at the time because personally, I don’t think I was acknowledging the things that were going on in my life as well. How to lead this group of guys that I’ve been traded to. I wasn’t drafted by Boston, I had no type of affiliation with Boston before I left Cleveland. Boston was a surprise team with Wyc and Danny that took the chance on trading for me.”
Weeks later, though, Irving’s grandfather passed away. He would miss a game on Boston’s early Western Conference road trip—November 9—to attend the memorial service. And, according to Irving, that experience changed him entirely last year.
“Things just got really, really rocky for me in terms of when I left, after the Phoenix game, I went to my grandfather’s memorial and he passed on October 23,” Irving said. “After he passed, basketball was the last thing on my mind. A lot of basketball and the joy I had from it was sucked away from me.
“There was a facial expression I carried with me throughout the year, didn’t allow anyone to get close to me in that instance and it really bothered me. I didn’t take the necessary steps to get counseling or get therapy to deal with someone that close to me dying. I have never dealt with anything like that. For me, I responded in ways that are uncharacteristic.”
His Grandfather’s Death Made Him Value Family More
Coping with his grandfather’s death and returning home for the memorial struck a chord with Irving, that maybe he was putting too much focus on his career and needed to have more time for his family. That’s when going closer to home—Irving is from New Jersey—became important to him.
“Throughout the year,” Irving said, “it started becoming more and more clear that my relationships within my home life have way higher precedence than the organization or anyone. I barely got a chance to talk to my grandfather before he passed form playing basketball. You tell me if you would want to go to work every day knowing that you just lost somebody close to you doing a job every single day. … Just keep being a basketball player. A lot of things throughout the year just became rocky.”
Of course, Irving was in Boston with the expectation that he would be the leader of the young Celtics, the guy with championship experience who could help the team get to the Finals. But he acknowledged that he did not carry himself that way during last season and that it cost the team.
“I failed those guys,” Irving said, “in the sense that I didn’t give them everything I could have during that season especially with the amount of pieces that we had. My relationships with them personally were great. But in terms of me being a leader in that environment and bringing everyone together, I failed.”
It may be a small consolation to Celtics fans who thought the team had enough talent to win a title last season, but Irving has made an effort, he said, to reach out to his teammates and members of the Boston front office.
And he learned much from the experience.
“For me, it’s like a huge learning experience just to slow down and acknowledge that I’m human in all this,” Irving said, “and also take my steps going forward of reaching out to Danny (Ainge) and talking to those guys and Wyc (Grousbeck) and reaching out to them and let them know, ‘Basketball can end tomorrow. I care about you as a human being.’”