Kyrie Irving shows NBA needs work on mental health

By DAVID BAIK | November 7, 2019

Kyrie Irving is good. Really good. He has crafty handles, a smooth jump shot and the clutch gene, and he’s undoubtedly one of the best point guards in the league. 

At the age of 27, just the start of his prime, Irving already has the accomplishments of a Hall of Fame career: a National Basketball Association (NBA) championship, two gold medals in international play, alongside multiple all-NBA and All Star selections.

But with all that he brings to the court, Irving has been somewhat of an enigma off the court. Take for example in February 2017, when Irving stated that he believed the earth was flat on a podcast. After an uproar of criticism from fans, Irving has tried to salvage his original stance.

First, Irving tried to play the comment off as a joke. A year later, in an interview with the New York Times, he urged people to do their own research, preaching that the U.S. education system is flawed. And in October 2018, Irving finally apologized for the flat earth comment, stating he “didn’t realize the effect” of his belief.

It is one thing to hold a belief like the earth being flat, but it is completely different to not be able to stand by or be held accountable for your beliefs. This pattern of oscillation in Irving’s actions and statements has been characteristic of much of his off court behavior.

In the summer of 2017, Irving demanded a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team he won a championship with just a year prior. The move came as quite a shock to NBA fans, as Irving was leaving a contending situation with players like LeBron James and Kevin Love still on roster. It also began the downpour of criticism toward Irving, as many marked him as a selfish player.

After getting his wish and being traded to the Boston Celtics, Irving, in front of thousands of Boston fans, verbally committed to re-signing with the Celtics for the next season. Irving then went on to perform dismally in the playoffs and ditched the team for the Brooklyn Nets.

In his stints with the Cavaliers and Celtics, Irving has repeatedly been characterized as a difficult teammate. According to a report from ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, Irving refused to talk to teammates during the team’s 2017 NBA playoff run.

And now in Brooklyn, things do not seem to have gotten any better. In his first offseason as a Net, Irving refused to take part in summer weight training with the team, an activity that has been a cornerstone of the Nets system to build chemistry. At a photo shoot at the Pearl TV Tower in China, Irving refused to remove his hat, repeatedly telling photographers to Photoshop the hat out. Irving’s difficult and at times problematic behavior has been frustrating to observe as an NBA fan, especially given his caliber as a player. 

Irving himself has addressed these changes in mood.

“Human beings have mood swings. It’s OK to be human. I don’t have to be perfect for anyone here, nor do I have to be perfect for the public. So I’m not here to dispel any perception. I’m just here to be myself,” he said.

I do agree with Kyrie here that as fans we shouldn’t hold him to this incredibly high moral standard, but Kyrie’s behaviors and words highlight a bigger issue in the NBA: the stigma behind mental health. This past year, the NBA has taken the right steps forward in dealing with this issue. 

Thanks to the work of players Kevin Love and DeMar Derozan of the San Antonio Spurs, teams are required to have at least one licensed mental health professional on staff. Teams must also have written action plans in the event of a mental health emergency and there are rules in place to ensure players’ mental health remains confidential.

I am not a mental health professional, so I am not qualified to say whether or not Kyrie has to go out and seek treatment. However, I believe that removing the stigma around mental health issues, especially in the realm of sports, will do much to encourage players to go out and get help. 

Removing this barrier starts with the media. In the pursuit of headlines and clicks, the media feeds the public with controversy, giving fans the fuel for hate and further alienating players. Like Kyrie said, he, along with all professional athletes, is simply human.

So as we would with any other person going through a difficult time, we should all give him some space. 

I understand that it’s not realistic for the media to solely focus on what happens on the court. As an NBA fan myself, I would be disappointed if they did, because basketball drama can be so entertaining. However, taking measures to cut back on covering players’ personal matters is the right direction to remove the stigma of “difficult players” and could potentially encourage players to seek help.

Kyrie is absolutely right in saying that he doesn’t have to be perfect. But that shouldn’t stop him from getting better both on and off the court. I want Kyrie to be happy, and maybe getting the media off his back and seeking treatment will put him on that path.

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