Kyrie Irving is one of the most polarizing athletes in sports today. He's never been afraid to speak his mind, and that's been no different in 2020. With the NBA recently coming to a halt in the bubble, it looks very much so like Kyrie was right, too.
A majority of people love the man. Not hard to figure out why because he's easily one of the most electric players in the NBA when he's on the court. They’re blown away by his handles. They think Uncle Drew is hilarious. And they rave about his clutch 3 in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Love him or hate him, you probably feel some type of way about Irving.
But everyone can agree that it’s inspiring that he’s willing to speak his mind—and often put his money where his mouth is. He stands for what he believes in, like many great athlete-activists before him. Let’s trace back his history of social justice activism.
July 2020: Supporting WNBA Players
Some WNBA players have opted-out of playing in the league’s restart in Bradenton, Florida. They’ve mirrored the practice of some NBA players, including Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, and Avery Bradley, who’ve skipped the NBA’s restart in Orlando for various reasons, including concerns about the coronavirus and social justice.
However, the NBA players have much more financial security. WNBA players average just over six figures in annual salary. That means sitting out could be a crippling blow.
Kyrie stepped up to help them out. He pledged $1.5 million, through his new KAI Empowerment Initiative, to support the WNBA hoopers sitting out. The initiative will also provide 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.
July 2020: Breonna Taylor Documentary
Kyrie and Common released a documentary about Breonna Taylor, who was killed by Louisville police in March. She was shot eight times in her apartment while sleeping after officers with a narcotics warrant entered without knocking.
The program was called #SAYHERNAME: Breonna Taylor and debuted on the PlayersTV digital and broadcast network on Samsung TV Plus July 8. The film called on viewers to sign a petition seeking justice for Taylor.
A post shared by Kyrie Eleison (KAI) (@kyrieirving) on Jul 8, 2020 at 11:11am PDT
The documentary features a number of notable names, including Jemele Hill, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, and Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley.
June 2020: Resisting NBA’s Return to Play
Following a three-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA is set to officially return to play July 30. The league has set up a ‘bubble’ in Orlando to protect attendees.
Despite the obvious monetary benefits, not all players were on board with the idea—and the resistance was reportedly spearheaded by Irving, who was elected as a vice president of the NBPA in February. He led a conference call with 80 other players voicing his opposition to restarting play while the country mourned the death of George Floyd, who was killed May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis.
The call reportedly lasted almost two hours, with Irving saying he’s “not with the systemic racism and the bullshit,” adding that “something smells a little fishy” and “I’m willing to give up everything I have” for social reform.
Players were divided in their response. LeBron James and Austin Rivers supported the return, but others, such as Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant, were in Uncle Drew’s corner.
As an alternative to the bubble, Irving and his comrades reportedly hoped to see “the investment of resources and ideas of all league constituencies—from the commissioner’s office, ownership level, management, and the players’ association—in social justice reform.”
Irving and his coalition issued a statement, saying: “We are combating the issues that matter most: We will not accept the racial injustices that continue to be ignored in our communities. We will not be kept in the dark when it comes to our health and well-being. And we will not ignore the financial motivations/expectations that have prevented us historically from making sound decisions.”
April 2020: Donating Vegan Burgers to Food Bank
Irving has long been vocal about his belief in a vegan diet. He went plant-based in 2017 (while playing for the Celtics) and became an athlete ambassador for Beyond Meat in 2019.
Though the merits of the diet have been questioned (particularly for high-level athletes), Irving has not wavered in his support of plant-based nutrition, which he believes has taken his game up a level.
In April 2020, while many in New York City were struggling with food scarcity due to the spread of the coronavirus, Irving donated 200,000 vegan burgers to the NYC Food Bank.
“Seeing the effects of COVID-19 reach our loved ones, our schools, our jobs, and access to food has really impacted me,” he said.
He also donated more than half a million in cash to charitable causes.
November 2016: Standing with the Standing Rock Sioux
Irving has Native American roots on the side of his mother, who died when he was 4. She was part of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
In November 2016, Kyrie backed the Sioux by publicly opposing the development of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which would have run below the tribe’s reservation (its status remains up in the air amid a 2020 judge-mandated review). Adding the pipeline could have impacted the tribe’s burial grounds and also hindered its water quality. So Irving tweeted his support for pipeline protestors and also began making monetary contributions to the Sioux.
He and his sister, Asia, got to visit their tribe, located on the border of North and South Dakota, in 2018.
They were each given Sioux names, with Kyrie dubbed “Hela,” which means “Little Mountain.” The lightning-quick PG posted that he was “eternally grateful” for the tribe.
“Our journeys have been directed in so many different ways, but yet we are still standing here embracing each other as if we haven’t lost any time,” Irving said to the tribe. “It’s really special for me to be here because I lost my mom at a very young age, and I had no idea about the history and how inclusive this group is and what it means to be part of the Sioux tribe.
“This is finally meeting my mom’s family in their home. This is family for me now.”
The Sioux have remained an important part of his life. In May 2020, during the spread of the coronavirus, Irving donated 17 pallets of food and 3,000 masks to the tribe.
December 2014: Sporting “I Can’t Breathe” Shirt
The recent Floyd murder is, of course, not the first time the tragic killing of a black man by police has been caught on camera. It’s happened all too frequently in recent years.
In July 2014, Eric Garner was choked to death by Daniel Pantaleo of the NYPD. While multiple officers were pinning Garner face-down on the sidewalk, he repeated the phrase “I can't breathe” 11 times. It became a rallying cry for social justice reformers calling for racial equity.
Numerous NBA players got on board with the movement, including LeBron and his then-teammate Irving. Kyrie was among those to sport black “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts while warming up pregame.
“This is bigger than all of us,” Kyrie said. “We have to take a stand together and it’s truly important that we do. What happened is a tragedy and I feel terrible about it.
“That’s my emotion on this and I have condolences for the family. I just think it is really important to show our respect to the family. More importantly, we are in the city where the tragedy happened and it is important for us to stand up for this cause. This hits kind of close to home. It means a lot to me.”