When the National Basketball Players Association conducted a conference call and vote on restarting the season a week ago, Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving was an active participant — although his questions were of a mundane nature.
Sources say Irving asked, as an injured player, if he would count among the Nets’ allotted 35 people should he want to join the Orlando, Florida, bubble. Could he sit in the stands to cheer on his teammates? Use a sauna for his rehab?
He had a question about NBA sponsors on campus, and whether they would be supplying players with products. A union official asked him for an example, and Irving mentioned a popular adult beverage — before insisting that he had indeed simply shared an example — and wondered what food might be provided to players under league partnerships.
All in all, his inquiries weren’t of weighty consequence.
There were two dozen-plus team representatives and several more executive committee members on the call, and Irving’s stature as one of the NBPA’s six elected vice presidents, in addition to his credentials as an NBA champion and All-Star Game MVP, elevated him among those peers voting on the call. The final tally: 28-0.
Looking back, the call itself was much less a discussion on the merits of restarting the season, and much more a Q&A with NBPA executive director Michele Roberts and president Chris Paul on the mechanics and rules expected to govern teams, players and the bubble environment, sources said.
So, yes, it surprised several of his NBPA colleagues that Irving — lost for the season with shoulder surgery in March — was simultaneously lending his voice to a far different discussion with rank-and-file union members on upending the league’s plans for a 22-team restart at Disney World in Orlando, sources said.
On a call that included nearly 100 players and several stars on Friday night, Irving made an impassioned plea for players to make a stand and sit out the season’s resumption in Orlando, sources said. Around 90 minutes in length, the call included several players suggesting they’d be willing to sit out the season — and numerous more discussing social issues, league economics and, ultimately, a sense that they needed to be united in a decision.
Where it leads the NBA now remains unclear. Even after the call, there was still a belief within the league that the NBA would have the players’ support it needed to resume the season, but no one could be as sure as they seemed to be a mere week ago.
Irving, 28, has forged a reputation as a disruptor within his career, and that’s emerging again at this crucial moment for the NBA. Irving’s stance has pitted him against the league’s establishment, including his former Cavaliers teammate LeBron James, once again. There’s significant support to resume the season among the league’s superstars — most of whom are on playoff contenders — and Irving seems to be relishing the clash.
“I’m not as interested in him as the messenger than I am in the message,” one Western Conference player told ESPN on Friday. In some instances in the past several days, Irving has assured some in the NBPA that he’s aligned with the broader plan surrounding the league’s return in Orlando — and then directed a far more skeptical tone to players he has engaged with within the Nets and across the league, sources said.
In recent days, Irving has been one of the prominent player voices tapping into the hearts, minds and ambitions of his peers in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody. Players are discussing everything now — from the limitations of freedom in the proposed bubble, the value of the remaining season for many teams and players, the risk of sickness and injury, and yes, the pain, anguish and determination of communities throughout the country on the issues of police brutality and racial inequality.
While many players are arguing that these discussions would benefit from the global stage a resumption of play would offer, with the eyes of the world turning to Orlando, the argument hasn’t been so simple for some players.
“Once we start playing basketball again, the news will turn from systemic racism to who did what in the game last night. It’s a crucial time for us to be able to play and blend that and impact what’s happening in our communities,” one widely respected NBA player told ESPN. “We are asking ourselves, ‘Where and how can we make the biggest impact?’ Mental health is part of the discussion too, and how we handle all of that in a bubble.”
The limitations of the NBA bubble form a significant part of players’ uncertainty, too. There appear to be players who will choose to stay home, but how many? And for what ultimate reasons? Several players who have participated in these recent calls and conversations told ESPN that they’re still leaning toward playing in Orlando but want to keep listening and talking about a number of the factors that concern them.
As they’re talking to each other, many players are hearing stern warnings from their agents — especially on the financial implications of a lost season. Agents have spent the latter stages of this week delivering foreboding warnings on the short- and long-term financial impact if the season gets blown up.
Players are already losing an estimated $300 million in salary, and terminating the rest of the season would cost another 25% of salary with owners exercising the force majeure provision. That’s on top of losing an additional 10% held in escrow that would be lost to the league, too. NBA players would stand to lose $1.2 billion in salary this season.
There exist larger fears for next season. The NBA has the ability to terminate the collective bargaining agreement that already includes a mutual opt-out in 2022-23. Already, the NBA and NBPA have to negotiate a long list of financial and competitive items to account for the loss of revenue, but agents expect that the league would react to the cancellation of this season by blowing up the CBA, locking out the players and moving to implement a more unfavorable financial share of basketball-related income, which is now essentially a 50-50 split.
The NBA has its superstars on board for a resumption, but it needs a broader base of its players to be fully committed to Orlando. Before Friday night’s call, Irving had become far less communicative with the executive committee and union leadership and far more engaged with the rank-and-file membership.
For a superstar who had counted himself out of the season, suddenly, the clock’s ticking down and the ball is back in Irving’s hands.