Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 28, 2019

At Three Different Games, Character Is Revealed

The three events were, on the face of it, unrelated. They were separated, by both distance – some 1,500 miles from New England to the Gulf Coast, with a Washington, D.C. suburb in between; and by time – with the first taking place on Sunday and the other two not until Wednesday evening. But all three involved interactions between a player and fans, and each spoke volumes, not just about that athlete’s ability in his sport, but also about his character and the depth of his understanding of the role played by those who sit in the stands.

Actually, the scene at Boston’s TD Garden during the NBA tilt between the home town Celtics and visiting Brooklyn Nets Wednesday night didn’t include direct interaction, because the player who was the focus of the vocal ire of Celtics fans wasn’t even in Massachusetts, much less on the Garden’s parquet floor. Kyrie Irving is currently sidelined with a right shoulder impingement that has kept him out of Brooklyn’s lineup for almost two weeks. But Irving’s absence for one of just two visits the Nets will make to Boston this season wasn’t going to deter the Celtics faithful from sharing their feelings about the player who arrived in Boston with so much hype prior to the 2017 season, only to depart after two deeply disappointing campaigns.

Irving engineered the trade that brought him to Boston from the Cleveland Cavaliers because he wanted out from under LeBron James’s very long shadow. But while he may have hungered for the role of leading man, he never looked entirely comfortable playing the part in front of a demanding fan base that hungers for another championship. His very first game in green presaged the two years that were to follow. Irving put up very good numbers against his old team from Cleveland in the Celtics’ 2017 season opener, with 22 points and 10 assists. But in a game that was marred by the gruesome injury to Boston’s other big offseason acquisition, Gordon Hayward, Irving had the ball with a chance to tile the Cavaliers and force overtime as time expired. But his three point try was off the mark and the contest went into the record books as a loss for Boston.

By late that season Irving had joined Hayward on the sideline with a knee injury, deferring any hope that he would be the superstar leading a surprisingly strong effort by a supporting cast of very young players. Still Celtics fans were willing to give Irving a chance to prove his mettle with a full roster, and they cheered when he announced at a fan event last fall that he intended to sign with Boston for the long term when he entered free agency after his second season at TD Garden.

A few months later, as the Celtics put up middling numbers and the atmosphere in the dressing room soured, Irving’s commitment to the fans was long forgotten, at least by the player. By the time he became a free agent in July, Irving plainly couldn’t wait to get out of Boston. The broken promise combined with an uninspired second round exit from last season’s playoffs – a worse result than the Celtics had posted without an injured Irving one year earlier – left most Boston fans feeling betrayed and abandoned. That was clear Wednesday night, when chants of “Kyrie sucks!” and “Where is Kyrie?” echoed through the Garden from the opening tip to the final horn of Boston’s 121-110 victory.

That should have been that, especially given Irving’s absence, but he responded from afar with a lengthy and rambling diatribe on social media, complaining that Celtics fans took their sport too seriously and didn’t respect him as a person. Given the complete lack of respect Irving showed Boston’s fan base, his whining served only to reveal his extraordinary level of self-absorption.

A much more positive story could have played out a few days earlier, when Washington’s rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins joined fans in celebrating that doleful franchise’s first home win in more than a year. Haskins made his way to the front of the stands behind Washington’s bench, where he grinned and mugged while taking a series of selfies with groups of fans who had congregated in the first rows of a largely empty FedEx Field. But what might have been a harmless bit of fun by an eager rookie enjoying his first NFL victory had one major problem. The game against the Detroit Lions wasn’t over. When interim head coach Bill Callahan couldn’t locate Haskins, he had to send backup quarterback Case Keenum onto the field for the contest’s final play.

Worse than Haskins’ lack of professionalism was his apparent lack of understanding that he’d done anything wrong. To be sure, perhaps in 2035, as he winds up a Hall of Fame career, this small incident will be long forgotten. But right now, Haskins is a very green first year player whose numbers to date suggest any future entry into the Hall will require him to buy a ticket. Plus, it’s fair to wonder just what there was to celebrate? With the 19-16 win over a fading Detroit team, Washington’s record inched up to 2-9, which hardly seems to merit the wide smile Haskins displayed in the pictures he may wish were never taken. If he wants to have an NFL career that lasts, he needs to both markedly improve his play and find a maturity that so far is utterly absent.

Finally, about the same time that fans in Boston were raining down invective on a ghost, their New Orleans brethren were giving former Pelican Anthony Davis similar treatment. “AD’s a sellout!” was the cry even before the star who forced a trade to the Lakers last June was introduced at Smoothie King Center. The booing that followed him all night long had to be sound familiar Davis, who was turned on by once adoring New Orleans fans after he announced his desire to be traded in the middle of last season.

But in his first game back at his old arena, Davis responded in the best possible way. It didn’t involve social media, or losing track of the game, or anything other than doing his job in the very best way. Davis connected for 41 points in the Lakers 114-110 win, and if that weren’t enough, he also stole an inbounds pass with the clock winding down, then sank a pair of free throws to seal the L.A. victory. It was a record-setting performance, the first time a player netted forty or more points in the first meeting with his previous franchise. It was also a testament to Davis’s professionalism and focus. Kyrie Irving and Dwayne Haskins would both be well-advised to consider it a teachable moment.

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