Kyrie Irving on NBA restart: ‘I don’t support going into Orlando’

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A week ago, Kyrie Irving was on a call with the NBA players’ union president Chris Paul, Executive Director Michelle Roberts, and the rest of the executives of the National Basketball Players’ Association, discussing a 22-team plan to restart the NBA in Orlando. Irving asked mostly logistical, uneventful questions, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Friday night, Irving led a Zoom call with more than 80 NBA players, some vocally hesitant to restart the season. The call included Donovan Mitchell, Carmelo Anthony, Joel Embiid, Malcolm Brogdon, Avery Bradley, Mike Conley, Dwight Howard, and many more. The players were asking hard questions about whether the league should resume play amid social justice and coronavirus concerns, and discussing the consequences of those actions. It was a group discussion of what is ultimately a very personal decision for players, and they wanted their voices heard (something many players didn’t feel from the union’s backing of the plan).

The players — led by ‘Melo on this topic — also stressed unity in whatever actions they take.

Irving said he doesn’t like the optics of many Black players in the NBA going to a quarantined city to entertain the masses, taking the spotlight off the Black Lives Matter movement and much-needed police and social reforms. He is far from the only player thinking this way. Irving’s quote, via Shams Charania of The Athletic:

I don’t support going into Orlando. I’m not with the systematic racism and the bulls***. Something smells a little fishy.”

Other players had concerns about health and safety in the bubble, while others reportedly had concerns about the restrictions placed on them in Orlando. Charania and Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports had these details from the call.

The argument for playing, coming largely from a coalition of superstars, is primarily financial.

Cancel this season, sit out the 88 seeding/regular-season games, and players as a group stand to lose a reported $300 million more in salary. More importantly, canceling the season would, without question, lead to the owners to use the force majeure to tear apart the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement — the players don’t want to renegotiate the CBA in the middle of a pandemic. They would have no leverage and take a long-term financial hit.

That message resonates with players. One established NBA veteran told NBC Sports today he had concerns about health and safety heading into Orlando, he wants to see the league’s detailed plans (which were supposed to be released Friday but that was delayed). However, he said he also knows he will never get the chance to make this money back, and he doesn’t want to further jeopardize future earnings by canceling the season. He added he and other players could come up with ways to use their social media platforms — while they are playing and the spotlight is on them — to promote social justice causes important to him and many players.

There will be some players who chose not to go to the NBA’s Walt Disney World campus and restart the season. They don’t see the risks — injuries, the coronavirus — as worth the reward, and they see it potentially slowing crucial social change. The NBA and players union agreed players will not be punished for not playing in Orlando, however, they also will not be paid.

If enough players are willing to forgo that money then it could halt the NBA’s restart plans.

How many players will sit out? That remains to be seen, and the social justice cause is an important and motivating one. But so is money, and most likely the players will try to find a balance.