Sports

Kyre Irving exile must be extra painful for Nets’ Sean Marks

You wonder how the Crown Prince of Culture was spending his private moments Tuesday, sequestered in his office at the HSS Training Facility, hard by the Gowanus Canal. It was a busy morning for Sean Marks, having to essentially kick his star player off the team like a high school coach enforcing curfew, then answering for it, and explaining it.

Marks and the Nets did what they had to do, essentially turning Kyrie Irving into a non-person for as long as he chooses to keep his arms free of the COVID-19 vaccination. In truth, that was the easiest part of his day.

The hard stuff probably comes in quieter moments of solitude when he has to ask himself sometimes: was it all worth it?

The Crown Prince of Culture, you will recall, migrated to Brooklyn from San Antonio, where more poems and paeans have been penned about the Spurs Way than even the hungriest basketball junkie could consume in a lifetime. He promised he wasn’t just going to see to it that the Nets would win more basketball games.

“There’s a certain right way to having success,” he’d said not long after he came aboard in 2016. “I have a strong belief in that. Call it culture if you like, though I’m tired of that word. I just think you need to surround yourself with people who have the same vision you do and then give your belief system time to breathe.”

And here’s the thing:

Given time to breathe, Marks’ blueprint actually worked. He’d hired as a wingman Ken Atkinson, a first-time head coach who believed in pure basketball democracy, who preached the Marks Way, the Nets Way, to a group that started off borderline unwatchable and slowly progressed into a playoff team.

Sean Marks and Kyrie Irving
Sean Marks and Kyrie Irving
Charles Wenzelberg (2)

The first full season of the Marks/Atkinson partnership was hard on the senses: 20-62, and at the end of the year you were amazed to look up and see the “20” on the left side of the hyphen. But they were acquiring players, and developing players, and they slowly became fun to follow: 28-54 in Year 2, and then 42-40 in 2018-19, a playoff slot slightly ahead of schedule.

“It’s an enjoyable bunch to work with every day,” Atkinson said after what seemed certain to be the first of many high points of that era, a stunning 111-102 upset of the heavily favored Sixers in their first playoff game. “They all want to grow and learn together. It’s easy to coach guys like that.”

The players weren’t superstars but they were solid and enjoyed playing together and getting better all the time: Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen. You could build hope out of that core. Marks had done what he’d promised: he’d made the Nets watchable and, man, were they on the come.

Then July 1, 2019 happened.

And look: it’s absurd to argue with what Marks decided to do when it became apparent Kevin Durant was interested in hanging his shingle at Barclays Center. Even with a bum Achilles, even with a year’s rehab ahead of him, Durant was one of the two greatest players on the planet. And he wanted Brooklyn, not Manhattan. He wanted the Nets, not the Knicks.

But he wanted other things, too: he wanted a sidekick; that’s how Irving became a Net. He wanted a voice in how things would be in Brooklyn, and that’s how Atkinson became an ex-Net 62 games into the 2019-20 season. There aren’t a lot of athletes who merit such perks. Durant is one.

So the Crown Prince of Culture blew up the blueprint.

Maybe they would’ve won a title last year if Irving’s ankle doesn’t explode in the Milwaukee series, or if Durant’s foot was maybe a size-and-a-half smaller. But they didn’t win a title last year. Irving couldn’t stay healthy. James Harden couldn’t stay healthy. The Bucks eked by them in Game 7, and a month later they were parading across Knapp Street and down Water Street and across Wisconsin Avenue.

“I already can’t wait for next year,” Durant said, noble in defeat.

And maybe they can still do that without Irving. Or maybe circumstances will change, protocols will shift, and the prodigal guard can return. Or maybe this grand experiment is destined for the dust bin of good ideas gone horribly wrong.

“The hope,” Marks said, “is that we have Kyrie back under different circumstances.”

That’s what he said publicly. Privately, you wonder if he misses the old blueprint, the one that was tucked in Atkinson’s back pocket when Marks threw him under the bus. You wonder if the Crown Prince of Culture wishes he could wish that culture back, hard by the Gowanus Canal.

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