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 antisemitic film on his social media accounts and then defend that action in multiple news conferences.
“The learning lesson for me was just the power of my platform and the impact that it can cause if it’s not taken care of the right way,” said Irving, who missed eight games. “So meeting with different people within the Jewish community has offered me some clarity on a deeper understanding of what’s going on and the impact that was made and the hurt that was caused.”
[Must-read: Suspending Kyrie Irving is only a step toward acknowledging the damage done]
I was not in attendance for this news conference. I was at a cemetery in New Jersey, burying my wife’s grandmother, Mila Bachner, who died Friday night and who, 83 years ago, at the age of 12, was taken from her home in Poland and conscripted to work in a Nazi concentration camp. Mila survived. Most of her family did not. The Nazis murdered both her parents and four of her five siblings. One brother who had been sent to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp had been shot to death for stealing a piece of bread.
I spent Sunday morning hearing this story and others. How Mila had been chosen for slave labor and how this made her one of the lucky ones. How her job in one concentration camp had been to dispose of the dead. How around 1944, with the Allied forces approaching, the Nazis had ordered her and hundreds of others to march hundreds of miles in freezing cold.
I also listened to how Mila, after somehow surviving these horrors, and after arriving at Ellis Island and making a home in Passaic, N.J. — about five miles away from where the Nets used to play their homes games — made it her life’s mission to share her story, and the story of the Holocaust, to ensure that #NeverAgain would become a reality and not just a slogan. She spoke in public schools throughout the country. She recorded an interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She wrote a book.
I listened to these stories, and then I boarded a train for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, so I could see Irving’s first game back.
“Right now we’re just here to really take this effort to make a more equal world,” Irving had told reporters that morning, seemingly acknowledging the power of his words and influence of his platform after having downplayed it in previous interviews.
For a moment, Irving seemed to recognize the dangers of directing his millions of social media followers to a movie that describes Jews as engaging in a cover-up to “prevent Black people from knowing their true identity,” and features a quote falsely attributed to Adolf Hitler.
But Irving, just as he did in his two media sessions following the post, and in an interview with SNY on Saturday night, stopped short of denouncing the film, which has shot up Amazon’s rankings in the wake of Irving’s post. The movie, he said, “ended up exploring and opening my mind to more than I can put into words right now. So, I think there are deeper conversations that I would like to have regarding the lineage of Hebrews and regarding the lineage of more of our cultures here and abroad.”
Instead, Irving focused his attention on the label of “antisemite.” He explained why, in his view, someone with his background — he pointed out that he was raised in West Orange, N.J., a town he described as a “melting pot” and which has a heavy Jewish population — and with his love for all people of all religions could never be antisemitic.
“How can you call somebody an antisemite when you don’t know them?” Irving asked. “I have no track record of anything like that.”
Upon exiting the Atlantic Terminal on my way to the game, I was greeted by about 100 people on the plaza outside Barclays Center, wearing purple and yellow sweatshirts and chanting words of support for Irving and, more specifically, the themes of the movie he had promoted.
One man handed me a white pamphlet with the words “THE TRUTH ABOUT ANTISEMITISM” written in big, black letters on the front page. Later, I learned the demonstration was being led by an organization called Israel United In Christ, a fringe organization considered by the Southern Poverty Law Center to be a hate group.
The game started two hours later. Irving received a warm welcome from fans during starting lineup introductions. He then scored 14 points in the Nets’ 127-115 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
After the game, he was brought to the media room. A reporter informed Irving about the demonstration taking place outside the arena. He asked Irving what he thought.
“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 that morning, Irving had said that he hadn’t previously recognized the power of his platform.
“And these people are out here in your name,” the reporter pointed out. “Do you feel like it’s a consequence of what you have done?”
“Again, I’m just here to focus on the game,” Irving replied.
Next up was a question about Ben Simmons’ impressive performance; Irving was more than happy to answer. Then Irving was asked another question not related to Sunday night’s game — whether he and the National Basketball Players Association were planning to file a grievance against the Nets for how they handled Irving’s punishment.
“I have some strong people, men and women around me, that are going to do everything possible to make sure that I’m protected, my family’s protected, and we protect one another,” Irving replied. “So I’m sure some things will be done in the future, but there’s no timetable on that right now.”
Finally, I asked Irving about how just a few hours earlier he’d talked about his desire to use his platform for good and as a unifying force, and how now he was being asked about things being said in his name and in reaction to the movie he had promoted. How did he go about deciding when it was time to use his platform as a tool for good and when to just stick to sports?
“I would like to be on a platform where I can openly share how I feel without being harshly criticized or being labeled or dealing with, you know, outside perceptions that have nothing to do with me,” Irving replied. “Again, I said this morning, I just want to elaborate on just everyone getting to know who Ky is and what I represent, my tribe. That’s it.”
Not long after, I was walking outside and back toward the subway. It was late and quiet, save for the wind, which was sweeping some loose pamphlets across the plaza. As I sat on the train and thought about my day, I thought not about who deserves to be labeled an antisemite and who does not, but rather the part of the movie that Irving had promoted which claims that Jews had fabricated the Holocaust.
And I thought about how now Mila Bachner, like almost every other survivor, could no longer be called upon to share her story.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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