NEW YORK — On Sunday morning, Kyrie Irving addressed the media for the first time since being suspended by the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 4, a punishment for his decision to promote an anti-Semitic film on his social media accounts and then doing so multiple times to defend press conferences.
“The lesson for me was just the strength of my platform and the impact it can have if not properly maintained,” said Irving, who missed eight games. “So meeting different people within the Jewish community has given me clarity about a deeper understanding of what is going on and the impact and the injuries that have been caused.”
[Must-read: Suspending Kyrie Irving is only a step toward acknowledging the damage done]
I was not present at this press conference. I was in a New Jersey cemetery burying my wife’s grandmother, Mila Bachner, who died Friday night 83 years ago at the age of 12 and was taken from her home in Poland and drafted to work in a Nazi concentration camp. Milla survived. Most of her family did not. The Nazis murdered her parents and four of her five siblings. A brother who had been sent to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp was shot because he had stolen a piece of bread.
I spent Sunday morning listening to these and other stories. How Mila was chosen for slave labor and how it made her one of the lucky ones. How their job in a concentration camp had been to dispose of the dead. Like around 1944, when the Allies were approaching, the Nazis had ordered her and hundreds of others until March Hundreds of kilometers in the freezing cold.
I also listened to Mila, after somehow surviving those horrors and after arriving on Ellis Island and making a home for herself in Passaic, NJ — about five miles from where the Nets played their home games – made it her life’s mission to share her story and the story of the Holocaust to ensure #NeverAgain becomes a reality and not just a slogan. She spoke in public schools across the country. She recorded an interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She wrote a book.
I listened to those stories and then got on a train to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn so I could watch Irving’s first game back.
“Right now we’re just here to make a real effort to create a fairer world,” Irving had told reporters This Morning, apparently acknowledging the power of his words and the influence of his platform after downplaying it in previous interviews .
For a moment, Irving seemed to recognize it the dangers Directing its millions of social media followers to a film that describes Jews engaging in a cover-up to “prevent black people from learning their true identities” and includes a quote falsely attributed to Adolf Hitler.
But Irving, just like he did in his two post-post media sessions, and in an interview with SNY stopped slamming the film on Saturday night, which has skyrocketed the Amazon rankings following Irving’s post. The film, he said, “led me to explore my mind and open myself to more than I can now put into words. So I think there are deeper conversations I’d like to have about the lineage of the Hebrews and the lineage of more of our cultures here and abroad.”
Instead, Irving turned his attention to the label “anti-Semite”. He explained why, in his view, someone from his background — pointing out that he grew up in West Orange, New Jersey, a town he described as a “melting pot” and which has a strong Jewish population — and his Love for all people of all religions could never be anti-Semitic.
“How can you call someone an anti-Semite if you don’t know them?” asked Irving. “I don’t have a track record of anything like that.”
As I exited Atlantic Terminal on my way to the game, I was greeted by about 100 people in the plaza in front of the Barclays Center, wearing purple and yellow sweatshirts, chanting words of support for Irving and particularly the themes of the film he had promoted.
A man handed me a white brochure with the words “THE TRUTH ABOUT ANTISEMITISM” in large black letters on the front page. I later learned that the demonstration was led by an organization called Israel United In Christ, a fringe organization run by the Southern Poverty Law Center be a hate group.
The game started two hours later. Irving received a warm welcome from the fans during the presentation of the starting grid. He then scored 14 points in the Nets’ 127-115 win over the Memphis Grizzlies.
After the game, he was taken to the media room. A reporter briefed Irving on the demonstration, which was taking place outside the arena. He asked Irving what he thought of it.
“I think that’s a conversation for another day,” Irving said. “I’m just here to focus on the game.”
Another reporter pointed out that earlier this morning Irving said he hadn’t previously realized the power of his platform.
“And these people are out here on your behalf,” the reporter pointed out. “Do you feel like it’s a consequence of what you did?”
“Again, I’m just here to focus on the game,” Irving replied.
Next was a question about Ben Simmons‘ impressive performance; Irving was more than happy to answer. Then Irving was asked another question unrelated to Sunday night’s game — whether he and the National Basketball Players Association planned to file a grievance against the Nets for handling Irving’s punishment.
“I have some strong people around me, men and women, who will do anything to make sure I’m protected, my family is protected and we protect each other,” Irving replied. “I am sure that some things will be done in the future, but there is no timetable for that at the moment.”
Finally, I asked Irving how, just hours earlier, he had spoken about his desire to use his platform for good and as a unifying force, and how he was now being asked what was being said on his behalf and in response to the film, the he had applied. How did he decide when it was time to use his platform as a tool forever and when to just stick with the sport?
“I want to be on a platform where I can openly share how I’m feeling without being harshly criticized or labeled or confronted with external perceptions that have nothing to do with me,” Irving replied. “Once again, I said this morning, I just want everyone to know who Ky is and what I represent, my tribe. That’s it.”
Not long after that I went outside and back to the subway. It was late and quiet except for the wind that blew some loose leaflets across the square. As I sat on the train reflecting on my day, I wasn’t thinking about who deserves to be called an anti-Semite and who doesn’t, but rather the part of the film that Irving had promoted that claims Jews had it Holocaust invented.
And I thought about the fact that Mila Bachner, like almost all other survivors, could no longer be called upon to tell her story.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and author of Fueling up to the top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the boldest trial in professional sports history. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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