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Kyrie Irving is an easy and most times, deserved punching bag — for the media, for the NBA and for anyone with a pair of red gloves.
He was rightfully fined $50,000 by the NBA for his one-fingered salutes to Celtics fans and probably a phrase caught on social media as he walked to the locker room, fighting back against abuse from the scorned lovers.
And you know what?
Good for him.
The league did what it had to do — players can't be seen giving obscene gestures multiple times on national TV during a playoff game. As intense as April, May and June can be, there’s gotta be some decorum.
But it doesn’t mean Irving has to take every morsel of nonsense from the Celtics fans. It was admittedly funny when he mocked the fans, wiping invisible tears from his eyes as he torched the team in green during Game 1 of the highly anticipated first-round series.
The NBA has to protect its product, and Irving can reply to similar energy even when he knows the penalty is coming.
Plenty of times coaches will needle the NBA if not downright criticize it by airing grievances, knowing they’ll get the call from the top watchdogs who’ll make their next checks a little lighter.
But they get their point across.
Now to be clear, Irving wasn’t doing anything strategic to give himself or his team a competitive advantage Sunday — one could argue he let the Celtics fans get in his head too much, leading to a dribbling exhibition on the final offensive possession that went nowhere before Jayson Tatum’s improbable game-winner — but he doesn’t have to just sit and take the nasty things fans say.
At the heart of this, it’s all illogical. Passion usually is — fans being so invested in something so trivial when you think about it — but it fuels everything in the business of sports because people care.
Irving has waved sage around the TD Garden upon one of his returns, apparently trying to cleanse it of negative spirits. And he stomped on the Celtic logo (did anyone know it had a name — Lucky?) which drew the ire of all-time great Kevin Garnett and apparent luminary and defender of Celtics tradition, Glen “Big Baby” Davis.
Who knew Irving could inspire such non-vaccine anger?
Irving spurned the Celtics, planning his escape from Massachusetts Alcatraz within a year of his arrival. And that rejection was a high crime for the sophisticated Celtics fans who aren’t used to someone not loving them back, refusing to forgive and forget.
Now, Irving manages to douse kerosene on the city every chance he gets. That wound won’t heal after he said he would come back only to leave that next July, borderline quitting while still on the clock. He knows how they feel and does this passive-aggressive thing, intimating he’s at such a place of peace in Brooklyn which subsequently points to Boston as a place of turmoil.
But Celtics fans have been wearing well-earned labels for decades, many around issues of race. It’s something players are generally sensitive to, although most players who’ve recently played for the Celtics have come to love and appreciate the city and franchise long after departing.
It remains in the air — like a fog thin enough to drive through easily but a fog nonetheless, and it can’t be ignored. Irving bandies himself as being conscious and has certainly displayed sensitivity, even if it feels misplaced.
Those two ideals intersect and can’t be ignored. Sit in TD Garden long enough and you’ll hear some cringeworthy things — which you’ll hear in virtually any NBA arena, to be fair — but some things hit differently because it’s Boston.
And best believe, a lot of words are spewed because for all the proximity a courtside seat provides relative to the other professional sports, fans know that barrier exists where players won’t go but so far to retaliate.
So if Irving wants to troll and inflame this toxic relationship, good for him.
The NBA won’t say it aloud, but it’s good for the league. It builds anticipation and intrigue to an already passionate playoff series — and nobody has to say a single word about Irving’s nonsense on his vaccination logic.
A little hate never hurt anybody, especially when it’s manifested in the form of true, high-stakes competition. As much as we can all appreciate the classy, well-behaved athlete, sprinkling some color and some spice makes the league better.
The words of Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley lightly chastising Irving for his profane response echoes because of their respective statures: O’Neal, no matter what you think of his television persona, took all kinds of physical punishment as a player from opponents who weren’t as big or strong as him but had to hit as hard as they could.
Other than swinging at Brad Miller one time — which would’ve ended Miller’s life if he connected — O’Neal was a man of great restraint.
Barkley’s history is a little more checkered, but he’s as lighthearted as they come as he’s settled into the most entertaining person in sports television, so not taking anything seriously is the perspective he leans from.
But with fans being able to reach players in more ways than ever, holding up cellphones to bait and goad at every opportunity, soon enough someone will bark back in kind.
So while Irving knows exactly what he’s doing, flipping the double bird behind his head, giving a single one after hitting a clock-beating jumper and earning a five-figure fine. He doesn’t just have to take it, especially with social media being more prevalent and mean and fans becoming more and more brazen.
As long as he doesn’t dish out any Stephen Jackson-style justice, no complaints from here.
And in the meantime, get your popcorn ready.