NEW YORK — When it comes to Kyrie Irving and Boston fans, there’s a whole lotta gray area.
That’s not a particularly strong way to start a column or hook you into an opinion, but, as with most things involving Kyrie, abstruseness rules the conversation.
Here was my initial reaction to Irving flipping birds and cussing:
Kyrie Irving is right. He should be allowed to extend his middle finger. He shouldn’t be lampooned and fined a maximum $50,000 for the behind-your-head double-bird disguised as a head-scratch, a maneuver we learned in middle school as a stealth response to those whispers from behind. It’s unfair to expect a human being, no matter their level of compensation, to endure taunts and vulgarities without a response.
If the fans can spew whatever they desire, they should anticipate equal verbal or gestured reciprocation, without punishment from the NBA. It’s the only major sports league in this country where fans are so close they can heckle at the volume of a casual conversation.
And we know those Boston fans are a nasty and vindictive bunch. They even managed a “Kyrie Sucks” chant at a Red Sox game Monday.
“It’s the energy they have for me, and I’m going to have the same energy for them,” Irving said. “It’s not every fan, I don’t want to attack every fan, every Boston fan. When people start yelling p—- and b—- and f— you… there’s only so much you can take as a competitor.
“We’re the ones expected to be docile, and be humble, and take the humble approach. Nah, f— that, it’s the playoffs. This is what it is. I know what to expect in here, and that’s the same energy I’m giving back to them.”
But then, point No. 2:
Irving lost credibility on this issue after a video emerged from the TD Garden tunnel, where Irving was retreating to the locker room immediately after Sunday’s devastating Game 1 defeat. A fan shouted, “Kyrie, you suck.” The point guard responded, “Suck my d—, b—-.”
That’s not giving back the “same energy.” That’s unnecessary escalation. That’s Will Smith without the slap. Irving can’t claim victim under those circumstances.
OK, but then point No. 3:
The NBA is all over the place with their rules and guidelines regarding fan engagement. Last year, while under pressure from the media and players, Commissioner Adam Silver tried to crack down on abuse from the stands. Fans were getting banned left and right, and the media played along by acting like popcorn being thrown on Russell Westbrook was a capital crime.
A fan in Boston chucked a water bottle at Kyrie, which prompted criminal charges of assault with a dangerous weapon. Yet, just last week, Hornets forward Miles Bridges wasn’t even suspended a single game after he threw his freshly-used mouthpiece at a heckler and missed, instead hitting a 16-year-old girl. Bridges was fined 0.9% of his salary.
This isn’t David Stern’s NBA. Silver has re-defined player friendly. So why should Irving not feel protected from nasty fans? Why should he be punished for reciprocating rudeness when the NBA is failing to uphold its written “Fan Code of Conduct”? Why should he be fined the same amount for his middle finger as Bridges was fined for hurling his nasty mouthpiece in the direction of an unsuspecting spectator?
Yeah, but what about the final point:
Irving brought a lot of this on himself. He’s a lightning rod whose purposeful vague ramblings leave actions up for interpretation. Of everything Irving said during this chaotic season, the following stuck out the most:
“I don’t really give an explanation. You guys know me. I throw darts in the air and just wait for people to assume whatever they want.”
But then the final point:
In Boston, Irving clearly presented himself as the ultimate heel by blasting the fanbase after he left, by stepping on that silly leprechaun. He can’t anticipate civility and video tributes. He’s getting paid VERY well because of the fans, so there’s an expectation, at least on some level, to just “man up,” as Shaquille O’Neal said.
Is that fair? The NBA clearly thinks so. Like we said, it’s complicated. That’s the way it tends to be with Kyrie Irving.