BROOKLYN — Stoic, reflective and apologetic, Kyrie Irving rejoined his Brooklyn Nets teammates on Sunday after missing the last eight games after he was suspended without pay for his refusal to apologize for posting a link to an antisemitic film.
Irving has spoken extensively this weekend, including a television interview and during the early morning shootaround, reiterating that he doesn’t have any antisemitic views and will do whatever it takes to make things right.
Irving completing steps mandated by the Brooklyn Nets in order to come back from his suspension, which included having conversations with multiple leaders of the Jewish community, while also speaking with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and team owner Joseph Tsai.
The Nets won five of those contests in Irving’s absence, but remain near the cellar of the Atlantic Division after the first month of the season.
“I meant no harm to any person, to any group of people and yeah, this is a big moment for me because I’m able to learn throughout this process that the power of my voice is very strong, the influence that I have within my community is very strong, and I want to be responsible for that,” Irving said during Sunday’s shootaround. “In order to do that, you have to admit when you’re wrong and in instances where you hurt people and it impacts them.”
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But outside the Barclays Center two hours before tipoff, Irving’s impact on the community was felt as the building was surrounded by a Black Hebrew Israelite group from the Bronx, who call themselves Israel United in Christ.
The Southern Law Poverty Center has labeled the faction as a hate group and they were handing out antisemitic literature outside of the arena.
The peaceful protest was in support of Irving, even though his suspension had been lifted, and satisfied with Irving’s progress, the Nets gave him the green light to return to the team.
It was nothing unlike the scene last October when a mob yelled “Let Kyrie Play” and “Nazi passports” and nearly broke through the front doors of the Barclays Center in support of the seven-time All-Star when he refused to receive the coronavirus vaccine at the height of the pandemic.
When asked about the group, Irving said he didn’t hear about it.
“I think that’s a conversation for another day. Just here to focus on the game,” Irving said, who repeated that stance several times when asked to elaborate.
However people feel about Irving, the Nets’ executives and his teammates were glad to have him back.
“Kyrie took ownership of his journey and had conversations with several members of the Jewish community. We are pleased that he is going about the process in a meaningful way,” the Nets said in a statement.
Irving was met with thunderous applause when he was announced last during the starting lineup introductions and hit his first shot attempt, a 26-foot pull-up jumper barely two minutes into the game. He finished with 14 points in 26 minutes in the 127-115 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, and sent several defenders to the floor with the spectacular ball handling and showmanship he has become known for.
With Irving back in the fold, the fact remains that the Nets as currently constructed were pegged as a viable championship contender but are a mediocre basketball team, even as they struggled for the most part to put away a pesky, depleted Memphis team missing All- Star guard Ja Morant, out week-to-week with an ankle injury, with Desmond Bane nursing an aching right big toe and Jaren Jackson Jr. also recovering after right foot surgery.
Hearing chants of “MVP,” Kevin Durant led all five Nets starters, scoring 14 of his 26 points, with seven rebounds and seven assists. It was his 17th straight game with 25 or more points to start the season, which is the most since Rick Barry had 25 straight games during the 1966-67 campaign.
Ben Simmons had his third straight game in double figures with 22 points, eight rebounds, and five assists ahead of his return to Philadelphia where he spent five seasons before being traded to the Nets in February.
Dillon Brooks led Memphis with 31 points, while Steven Adams added 15 points and 10 rebounds.
But again, this night was all about Irving and how he reinstated himself back in the lineup
New head coach Jacque Vaughn said he was just happy to have Irving back.
“It was great to have him out there. Just getting a feel of how we are going to piece this thing together. At the end of the day, it’s about hoopin'” Vaughn said. “With basketball, it’s factual. From this day on, it’s going to be about basketball.”
But just like at the aforementioned shootaround, members of the National Basketball Players Association, including executive director Tamika Tremaglio were on hand to hear what Irving had to say postgame.
Irving said he never had a doubt that he would be back after his suspension.
“It felt good. Just missed my teammates, missed my coaching staff.” Irving said. “Just trust what Jacque has going on in terms of leading our coaching staff. Just going out there and having fun, not putting too much pressure on ourselves. It felt good to get this game out of the way and now we can move forward with the rest of the season.”
Irving’s suspension cost him at $1.3 million in salary and he said that he has not filed any grievance with the union.
“I have to leave it to my legal team,” he said. “I have people that are going to make sure I am protected and my family’s protected. I am sure some things will be done in the future. But there is no timetable for that.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kyrie Irving makes Brooklyn Nets return in rout of Memphis Grizzlies