Celtics guard Kyrie Irving spent Thursday at the top of the sports news cycle as pundits tripped over themselves in a rush to tear Irving down for publicly revealing his call to LeBron James.
Some of the cynicism is understandable. In noting he apologized to James for being so stubborn when he was a younger player, Irving essentially reaffirmed that the Celtics' kids are not properly embracing their role on this team. But this is what Irving has been saying for much of the year and his revelation after the Wednesday night win over the Toronto Raptors suggested a player that understands HE must change in order to get the most out of those younger players.
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I thought Irving’s postgame comments were brutally honest and showed just how much he desires to grow as a leader and guide these Celtics to their loftiest of goals. I think Irving finally saw his younger self in Boston’s kids and realized that his current self was turning into something he resented. Irving humbled himself multiple times, both in swallowing his pride to simply call James and also admitting that Jaylen Brown was right in suggesting earlier this week that Irving shouldn’t be pointing fingers at his team's younger players.
Irving laid himself bare, acknowledged the difficulties he’s enduring in trying to become a leader, and admitted he’s made missteps that likely caused unnecessary strife in the locker room. It seemed like a moment of growth for a player who so desperately yearns to lead the right way.
The reaction by many on the outside was to suggest Irving was putting the spotlight on himself and was again taking more shots at Boston’s younger players.
Irving’s pointed comments in Orlando, in which he again pinned the Celtics' seesaw play on the team’s younger players, delivered a backlash that seemingly forced him to realize that some of his comments were counterintuitive. Irving admitted that he only had good intentions in challenging the younger players to grow, but finally recognized that the public criticisms were everything he hated about the way James led in Cleveland.
Irving called to apologize to James because he now recognized why James pushed him the way he did and Irving knows he could have been quicker to embrace the bigger picture and individual sacrifice. But Irving also recognized that James’ leadership wasn’t necessarily the right way and now Irving must alter his own approach or risk alienating the young core that is critical to him reaching his own big-picture goals in Boston.
Irving is loquacious in his responses but can sometimes struggle to clearly make his point. His words and messages can often be hard to parse. You sometimes have to dig to really figure out what he’s trying to say.
Irving likely realizes he needs to be more careful in what he says publicly, particularly in regards to those younger teammates, and has pledged to keep those criticisms behind closed doors.
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We tend to forget, Irving is still only 26. If not for all he’s already accomplished, he’d still be one of the kids. Instead, he’s trying to figure out how to get the most out of a young roster. He’s realized it’s maybe more difficult than he could have imagined and his shortcomings have been on public display. Part of being a leader is figuring out how to overcome those missteps and evolve as a guiding presence.
And, make no mistake, Irving is the leader of this team. He’s proven that with his play on the court, not only with his offensive wizardry, but this season by embracing the defensive side of the ball. Irving is having the best all-around season of his career and his play has helped the Celtics keep their heads above water even as they’ve endured unexpected struggles through the first half of the season.
Irving’s revelation Wednesday night was rooted in good intentions. He recognizes the talent in Boston’s locker room and the championship potential of this group. Yes, his desire for the younger players to see the bigger picture serves Irving’s own title goals, but he also understands what it’s like to be a young player who's overly focused on individual accomplishments on a championship-caliber team and wants to help them avoid some of the pitfalls he endured, or the tension his resistance caused.
Irving essentially admitted he isn’t perfect. He’s trying to figure it all out, all while we scrutinize his every word. It’s fascinating to watch his journey, his evolution, his realizations. He’s coming to peace with the past and trying to figure out the future.
The Celtics were in a tenuous place before Wednesday. Frustrations were more visible than ever. There were questions about a locker room divide and this season the team has rarely responded well to adversity. It didn’t feel like players were willing to work to make things better.
Irving admitted his own faults and came to terms with past demons in hopes of moving forward. He must hold true to his word to nurture Boston’s younger players but it felt like progress on Wednesday night, both on the court and off.
We yearn for our athletes to lay themselves bare more often and, too often, they are torn down for showing those imperfections. Irving’s revelation Wednesday seemed genuine but it only matters if his teammates feel the same way. If they understand that no one has been perfect in this, they can all learn and grow.
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