Inside the high-wire decision to suspend Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving

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For several agonizing days, the pleas had grown into a crescendo for Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai to punish star guard Kyrie Irving. The most important and invested voices in his orbit — including NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Nets general manager Sean Marks – had sided with a broad swath of the public in believing that Irving’s refusal to condemn the contents of an antisemitic film he shared to his social media had left the Nets no choice but to suspend him, sources told ESPN.

Against the backdrop of calls for swift action, sources said Tsai had resisted and insisted on taking time to educate Irving on the horrors of antisemitism. He’d enlisted the counsel of the Anti-Defamation League, watched the full three and a half hours of the hate-filled movie Irving had shared, “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America” — complete with its Holocaust denialism and quoting of antisemites such as Adolf Hitler and Henry Ford – and researched the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, whose beliefs Irving frequently references in public settings.

As it turned out, the redemptive arc that Tsai had imagined for his star had devolved into what the owner had felt was a repetitive exercise in Irving’s betrayal of good faith, sources said. For nearly a week, Tsai kept extending the clock to give Irving a chance to get this right for himself, the franchise and the Jewish community — and Irving never returned a single of his text messages, sources said. Almost a week later, Irving had shown no inclination to deliver an apology, nor a disassociation of the movie’s contents – nor a willingness to answer “No,” when asked if he held antisemitic beliefs.

The team leveled a five-game suspension without pay, declaring Irving “currently unfit to be associated with the Brooklyn Nets.”

For all the questions surrounding the most troubling week in the troubling tenure of Irving and the Nets, one question remained: Why did it take Tsai so long to get there? As much as anything, Tsai had held out a hope that there could be a two-way conversation with Irving.

After a combative news conference on Saturday night when Irving refused to “stand down,” there had emerged stronger calls within Nets’ leadership and the commissioner’s office to level a suspension, sources said. For the franchise and league, embarrassment grew and patience waned. For most, this had portrayed a familiar Irving, who was drafted No. 1 overall in 2011 – defiant, undeterred and crusading with misinformation.

“I’m only going to get stronger because I’m not alone,” Irving, 30, said. “I have a whole army around me.”

This stirred the echoes of Irving’s anti-science, anti-vaccination stance of a season ago. Much of the Nets’ standoff with Irving in the offseason had been rooted in the franchise’s unwillingness to guarantee him a long-term contract, leaving him in the final season of his deal and a $36.5 million salary.

The failed negotiations of the summer had spilled into a far more dramatic and destructive matter this time. The franchise’s communication with Irving had been channeled completely through his agent and stepmother, Shetellia Riley-Irving, sources said. Tsai had wanted time and space to work together with the ADL and Irving, but there was no direct dialogue with Irving himself, sources said. Silver had cautioned Tsai that issuing a joint statement with the ADL without dealing with Irving directly – nor including a condemnation of the movie’s material, or a full apology — simply didn’t reach an acceptable threshold, sources said.

The Nets and Irving publicly pledged $500,000 each to the ADL for the purposes of combating antisemitism, only to have the ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt publicly declare hours later — and following news of Irving’s suspension – that the group would no longer accept the donation after Irving’s “debacle” of a news conference on Thursday.

Silver’s patience on letting the Nets handle the matter had run out on Thursday morning, sources said. What had started as a humiliation for the Nets had become a full-scale embarrassment for the league – and crisis. Silver issued a piercing condemnation of Irving’s failure to offer “an unqualified apology and more specifically denounce the vile and harmful content contained in the film he chose to publicize.”

Irving had become an albatross around his team, too. He had played a listless game on Tuesday in a loss to the Chicago Bulls, leaving his teammates and opponents to privately describe him as disengaged and seemingly “in another world.” For a player averaging 30 points and shooting at almost every opportunity, Irving didn’t make a basket until the fourth quarter. He had been distant to everyone in recent days, sources said, his presence feeling like an anvil hanging over everyone.

Before the Nets on Thursday took off for a weekend trip to play the Washington Wizards and the Charlotte Hornets, Irving had walked over to an assembled media and again refused to apologize or condemn the film. Asked if he held antisemitic beliefs, Irving responded, “I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from.”

For Tsai, that was it. No more. Irving’s refusal to disavow antisemitism and Holocaust denial had convinced him Irving had been insincere in his joint ADL statement hours earlier, sources said. The efforts to educate had failed miserably, his faith in Irving proving once more to have been misguided and ultimately disastrous for his franchise.

The only question left for Tsai and the Nets: How long of a suspension for Irving, and what would be the path to reinstatement? After hours of conferring with lawyers and the league office, the Nets landed on five games without pay — costing Irving $1.2 million — and a requirement to complete a “series of objective remedial measures that address the harmful impact of his conduct.”

In an email outlining the suspension to his agent, the conditions needed for Irving’s reinstatement included a public statement recognizing the film is antisemitic, an apology for supporting the film and the falsehoods within it, and training sessions on the dangers of hate speech, sources said. There would also need to be meetings with Brooklyn Jewish leaders too, Marks said to reporters on Friday morning.

Four hours after learning of his suspension, Irving issued a statement on his Instagram page that went further than he had gone in the previous week.

“To all Jewish families and communities that are hurt and affected from my post, I am deeply sorry to have caused you pain, and I apologize,” Irving wrote.

“I initially reacted out of emotion to being unjustly labeled Antisemitic, instead of focusing on the healing process of my Jewish Brothers and Sisters that were hurt from the hateful remarks made in the documentary.”

Marks called the apology a “step in the right direction,” but “certainly not enough,” on Friday.

Amid the suspension, the Nets are in freefall. They have already lost six of their first eight games to start the season. Besides Irving, Ben Simmons is out with knee soreness and the Nets are still working through the final stages of vetting the hiring of suspended Celtics coach, Ime Udoka, sources said.

As usual, Irving’s future is murky and tied to Kevin Durant. If Irving’s trade value was low this summer, it has cratered now. Even so, the Nets needed a trade partner willing to give Irving a long-term deal to engage in a trade over the summer, but that’s no longer the case. He’s on an expiring contract, which means a team isn’t committed financially to him beyond the end of this season.

Four years ago, Durant and Irving arrived in Brooklyn together. The partnership nearly crumbled over the summer, and now teeters again. When talking to reporters on Friday morning, Durant was non-committal on Irving, the organization and the chaos of the entire week. “I feel like it was all unnecessary,” he said.

Once more, there’s an unmistakable question looming over the franchise: Who’s the last man standing for Kyrie Irving?

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