Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kyrie Irving: ‘Wasn’t my best self’ during Celtics tenure, ‘looking forward’ to NBA Finals in Boston

Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving answers questions from the media following practice at their practice facility in Dallas on Monday. The Mavericks are preparing to face the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.  (Tribune News Service)
By Tim Cato The Athletic

DALLAS – As he prepares to return to the arena where he once vowed to have his jersey retired in the rafters, Kyrie Irving said he wasn’t his best self during his two seasons playing for the Boston Celtics.

Since joining the Dallas Mavericks, Irving has mostly avoided discussing the two years he played with the Celtics, a team he once planned to re-sign with before leaving to join the Brooklyn Nets in 2019. With Irving’s Mavericks beginning the NBA Finals on Thursday in Boston, he talked at length after the team’s Monday practice about the unsuccessful partnership and the hostile reception he expects to receive from Celtics fans in TD Garden.

“I don’t mind, after a few years, taking the brunt of the blame (for my time in Boston not working out),” Irving said. “(I’m) one of the best players in the world, so I know what comes with that fair criticism. You know, it’s just that a little bit more grace could have been extended my way, especially with what I was dealing with during that time as a human being.

“I know sometimes in sports, it’s literally about the end goal and result in what you accomplish, and that’s one thing. But we’re still human. At the end of the day, I wasn’t my best self during that time. When I look back on it, I just see it as a time where I learned how to let go of things and learned how to talk through my emotions.”

Irving arrived in Boston in 2017 following a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team where he won the 2016 NBA Finals next to LeBron James.

After his surprise announcement in October 2018 that he planned to re-sign with the Celtics, he walked back that commitment months later, saying, “I’m going to do what’s best for my career,” during a Boston shootaround in February 2019.

After joining the Nets, Irving revealed his grandmother died prior to the 2018-19 season, which he said affected his on- and off-court performance. “I failed those guys,” he said at Brooklyn’s media day in 2019. Now, looking back on the experience, Irving said his time with the Celtics taught him how to manage his emotions better.

“Moving on to the next thing, learning how to move and let go of the past,” Irving said. “It could cripple you if you allow it to. I’ve been bombarded with Boston questions since I left, people trying to figure out what actually happened, but I think the full story will come out probably when I’m retired or when it’s appropriate.”

Irving specified a 2022 first-round series, where the Celtics swept his Nets, as a specific moment he regrets. His previous playoff returns to Boston have ended with tension.

Following a Game 4 win by the Nets in the 2021 first round, Irving stepped on the Celtics half-court logo and a Boston fan was arrested after throwing a water bottle at Irving as he left the court. After a Game 1 Nets loss in 2022, Irving flashed his middle fingers to the crowd.

“Last time in Boston, when we played in the playoffs and everyone saw me flip off the birds and kind of lose (it) a little bit, that wasn’t a great reflection of who I am and how I like to compete on a high level,” Irving said. “It wasn’t a great reflection on my influence on the next generation, (with) what it means to control your emotions in that type of environment no matter what people are yelling at you.”

Irving has become better at “consolidating those emotions now,” he said Monday, which he believes will help him avoid moments like that in the upcoming games in Boston.

“I’m built for these moments, to be able to handle circumstances like that, and I’ve been able to grow since then,” Irving said. “Of course it’s going to be a hectic environment, but I’m looking forward to it. I see it as a healthy relationship to have with the fans. (I) think about gladiators. Just win the crowd over. It’s good to hear the TD Garden silent when you’re playing well. They still respect great basketball.

“Regardless of the attention that’s going to be paid to me on my end, I have a group to lead that’s going to be looking at me for a voice of peace and to be able to control what I can control and also help them through it.

“So I’ll take the brunt of it, of all the yells and stuff like that, all the remarks, but I’ve been able to grow since then. I just can handle things better especially when I want to put the majority of my energy toward playing well. I can’t just be getting into it with fans like that, even though it may be fun at times, but it’s a waste of energy. It’s a waste of my time. It’s also a waste of my talent trying to answer questions from the past that people have.”

Irving also said he has maintained a great relationship with his old Celtics teammates, which included Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, despite some reports that claimed otherwise.

“I think we’ve pretty much put it to bed (this idea) that a lot of my (former) teammates hate me,” Irving said. “I don’t know what was being shared intimately with some of the media personnel that were reporting over the past few years (when) I first left Boston. But I’ve embraced all of those guys.”

Tatum recently spoke on his relationship with Irving and reflected on their time together as teammates.

“Obviously, it was some ups and downs,” Tatum said. “But I think for me, being a first-, second-year player being around a superstar essentially every day and seeing how to navigate that space and on the court he’s one of the most talented guys I’ve ever seen. … I’ve got a lot of great memories from having (Kyrie) as a teammate.”

While Irving described his relationship with Tatum, Brown and others as a brother-to-brother one, he hasn’t had any conversations with them in the lead-up to this series.

“It’s going to be adversarial on the court, it’s going to be competitive, but off the court, we know each other’s families, and that’s the type of relationship I’ve always wanted outside of the game of basketball,” Irving said.

“To compete with people on the court, and also to treat them like my brothers when they need me.”