Kyrie Irving has always been electric on the basketball court. And recently, the 28-year-old superstar has been using that spark to and bring attention to issues that are bigger than the game. Despite critics who prefer that he “shut up and dribble,” Irving is setting the tone for athletes and entertainers who want to use their platform to change the world for the better. His 2020-2021 season included a media boycott similar to "Sportswoman of the Year" nominee Naomi Osaka’s, and an unapologetic stance that athletes deserve personal time off for mental health without being fined or scrutinized.
All that and more are the reasons why Kyrie is a nominee for "Sportsman of the Year" at BET Awards 2021. Tune in June 27 at 8/9C p.m to see who takes home the top prize, and keep reading for a refresher course on how Irving has used his juice to fight the power.
Long before the NBA was onboard with Black Lives Matter messaging, Kyrie and his teammates made a huge statement about police brutality in 2014. After Eric Garner was choked to death by multiple NYPD officers, his last words, “I can’t breath,” became a rallying cry for change nationally. To show support, Kyrie and LeBron James led their Cavs teammates onto the court wearing black shirts that said “I Can’t Breathe” for pre-game warmups. The statement went viral, and set the tone for a new era of socially-active athletes who use their celebrity to affect change.
Kyrie’s late mother gave him pride in their Native American roots, which stretch back to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. In 2016, the tribe needed help opposing the development of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which would taint the water supply and destroy parts of their sacred burial ground. Irving’s first move was to contribute financially, before he and his sister, Asia, eventually joined frontline protestors at the border of North and South Dakota. After the protest, Kyrie posted to social media that he was “eternally grateful” for the experience and proudly shared the new Sioux name he’d been given: “Hela,” meaning “Little Mountain,” a perfect moniker for the sturdy-minded guard.
Fans know that Kyrie doesn’t just go with the flow on or off the court. In 2020, the New Jersey native divided the sports world when he suggested players skip the NBA bubble that facilitated the 2020 playoffs during last year’s pandemic. After the coronavirus shut the season down for three months in March, Kyrie spoke out against the bubble solution, citing health concerns and national protests for social justice that he felt should be prioritized.
Fellow NBA pros Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Avery Bradley later chose to sit out for various reasons, proving why Irving was elected to represent his peers as vice president of the league’s Players Association. After play began, Irving spoke out on a conference call with 80 players about suspending the bubble in response to the murder of George Floyd. He was the loudest voice against continuing, reportedly saying he’s “not with the systemic racism and the bullsh*t” and adding “I’m willing to give up everything I have” for social reform.
While NBA players debated skipping the NBA bubble last year, many WNBA players lacked the financial security to easily call out of work. The women of the WNBA are paid far less on average than their NBA counterparts, especially max contract players like Irving, who makes over $30 million per year in salary.
Recognizing his privilege, Kyrie Irving stepped up to donate $1.5 million through his KAI Empowerment Initiative to support WNBA hoopers, while providing financial literacy education. “Whether a person decided to fight for social justice, play basketball, focus on physical or mental health, or simply connect with their families, this initiative can hopefully support their priorities and decisions,” Irving said in a statement.
In 2020, Kyrie teamed up with Common to release a documentary about the killing of Breonna Taylor by law enforcement. The program, titled #SAYHERNAME: Breonna Taylor, debuted on PlayersTV digital and Samsung TV Plus last summer and included a call for viewers to sign a petition that demanded justice for Taylor, who was shot eight times when police mistakenly raided her house. While promoting the film on Instagram, Irving vowed, “We will claim justice through collective action.”
(Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
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