Kyrie Irving, the point guard for the Boston Celtics, is a dazzling basketball player, one of the best in the world. On this, there is very little debate — and certainly not from me, a lifelong Celtics fan. His ability to creatively dribble the basketball is so singular that The Boston Globe found last year that video game makers had trouble duplicating it.
He can handle the ball, but can he act? Mr. Irving is about to have a very different skill tested for a mass audience: He is the star of the coming feature film and branding vehicle, “Uncle Drew,” based on a series of viral commercials that Pepsi developed in 2012 and that Mr. Irving wrote and directed. He plays a virtually unrecognizable senior citizen who used to be a street basketball legend. Tiffany Haddish, Nick Kroll and Lil Rel Howery also star, along with other basketball luminaries like Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller and Chris Webber. The film is due June 29.
Mr. Irving, a West Orange, N.J., native, is among the most popular basketball players in the world, and he has one of the best-selling basketball jerseys in the N.B.A. With that popularity has come controversy: He has questioned several times whether the Earth is round, and in an interview on Friday with his most in-depth comments to date on the subject, he said that it was still worth debating.
“Can you openly admit that you know the Earth is constitutionally round?” he said to me. “Like, you know that for sure? Like, I don’t know.”
Speaking by phone from New Jersey, Mr. Irving, 26, also discussed his interest in acting, his desire to start a television network and the knee injury that kept him sidelined for the N.B.A. playoffs. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
It must have been very difficult watching from the sidelines as the Celtics advanced in the playoffs. How is your knee rehab going?
I’m taking it one day at a time. You know it’s just a process, getting back into the swing of things. It’s a different off-season for me. It’s a lot more time focusing on my body and getting mentally prepared for next season. I’m just super proud of the guys and what they accomplished. They really stuck together throughout everything. Obviously Game 7 didn’t necessarily go the way we all planned, but I mean those guys, they gave it all throughout the whole playoff run.
You were in a production of “High School Musical” at St. Patrick High School. Did you have a solo?
I was the basketball player who wanted to become a chef, and I did have a solo, about cooking crème brûlée and breaking out of my shell. For me, it was just an opportunity to get rid of my public speaking nerves. I knew that if I could sing and act onstage, then I should be able to publicly convey what I was thinking and what was on my mind.
You’re very close with your father, Drederick Irving. Did he encourage you to scratch your acting itch when you were young?
He’s just proud. He’s known for awhile that I have eclectic tastes in different things. I am more than willing to go into different areas and try it out. It doesn’t necessarily mean success or failure — if it works or not, or if the perception is great or not. It’s just the fact that I’m throwing myself out there and giving myself a chance. That’s how he raised me.
It’s one thing to shoot a commercial. It’s another to make a feature film. How did you prepare? Did you take any acting lessons?
I just had an acting coach. I [met] with him about being in front of a camera. Just a lot of redundant actions over and over again trying to get one particular shot. How do you convey that in front of a camera? And your voice and playing a character, playing a role.
Was that frustrating?
No, it wasn’t. There were definitely times on the set where it kind of got maniacal for the amount of hours we worked. I wasn’t used to that, 16-hour shoot days. That was a lot. So it was an adjustment from that aspect. But I enjoyed the acting.
You had to train for the season as you were shooting. How did you juggle both?
I was also dealing with an in-between stage of getting traded as well. So it was really figuring how best to divide up that time. I think I did a pretty good job of it. Balancing being a professional athlete and your side interests is definitely difficult, but it’s an opportunity that was afforded to me.
A lot of N.B.A. players are getting into the film business. Is this something you’re interested in on a long-term basis?
I would say so. I think more in a creative aspect, behind the scenes [in] production, ownership, and really just building something that I can be proud of or collaborating with other great people. I’m really a big fan of creative expression, whether it’s acting, music or seeing art.
Do you feel you have to find ways to challenge yourself? Do you get bored easily?
No, I wouldn’t say that. I just have interests outside the game of basketball and I try to further those by becoming more knowledgeable and turning it into something I can be proud of or be a part of with other great people. I think that being in the N.B.A., it definitely has a tremendous amount of commitment, as well as accessibility to a lot of different avenues.
You seem to really thrive on being different. You have a “Friends” tattoo on your arm. In this film, the makeup makes you unrecognizable. There aren’t many professional athletes who write and direct their own commercials. It doesn’t seem like you like following the crowd, do you?
[Laughter] I think trends, they’re great. Sometimes they’re culturally progressive and can breed originality. [But] how I think in terms of who I am as a person — it’s taking great things that I’ve learned and making them my own and moving on in life. It’s evolution, man.
What do you think drives you to be a little bit of a contrarian?
I’ve definitely wanted — well I know I am — a generational leader. To do that, it takes a long, long time of learning about other human beings, history and incorporating all that into things that I love.
Do you have a project that you are interested in trying out?
I am more or less trying to start my own production company, trying to collaborate with great influencers, people that inspire me. It’s just the ground level now but that’s the focus, becoming a content creator. That’s the hope of owning my own television network one day.
You want to own your own television network?
What would be on it?
See, that’s exactly what I’m trying to figure out. I just know that television, where it is now, there’s a certain sense of authenticity that I want to bring to audiences that are representative [of] what is going on in the world and in our culture. I don’t necessarily know how to capture that content as of right now, but I will figure it out.
You talked about wanting to be different. I’ve got to ask — and I know you get asked about this quite often — is that why you made suggestions about the Earth being flat? Is it a part of you wanting to be different?
No, I would say at the time when I was talking about it, I had literally been just given so much flak about what I felt, the way the shape of the Earth is. And it garnered so many different opinions; well, of course, the perception was going to be like, “Hey man, you’re just crazy, man, for thinking that.” What I would say is that just exemplified exactly what I meant on the intent of wanting to be different.
Because when you think something completely different, science has proven it, everyone has thought and believed this to be true, and then you say something on the opposing side, and it gets a reaction that’s not necessarily authentic at all. There’s just a “Hey, let’s get this preconceived notion about who he is as a person,” you have no idea. I really wanted to put that on the biggest stage of “now it becomes your side vs. my side.” At the end of the day, does it really matter?
National Public Radio did a story about this and there was a middle-school teacher who couldn’t convince his students the Earth was round because the students believed you.
Are you aware of that? If so, that would be, in theory, a concrete example of where those words might matter, right?
Oh yeah, no, and I absolutely agree, which is why research and why history has shown that even having opposing sides — I mean, history has shown even back then, our biggest scholars did think the Earth was flat. It didn’t just spark out of anywhere and then everyone just goes into their own groups. Definitely different scientists have come along and proved the law of gravity. Everything that science breeds, and you have specific scientists that are giving all this information. I wanted to open up the conversation, like, “Hey man, do your own research for what you want to believe in.” Our educational system is flawed. History has been changed throughout so much time. I literally got that from what they did to Nikola Tesla of what he was trying to do for just an incredible world. I could just go on and on about this stuff, man.
You’ve been coy about what you really believe so I’m hoping you’ll clarify here. Do you or do you not believe the Earth is flat? Or do you not know?
That’s what I’m asking you. No, no, no. Can you openly admit that you know the Earth is constitutionally round? Like, you know that for sure? Like, I don’t know. I was never trying to convince anyone that the world is flat. I’m not being an advocate for the world being completely flat. No, I don’t know. I really don’t. It’s fun to think about though. It’s fun to have that conversation. It is absolutely fun because people get so agitated and mad. They’re like, “Hey man, you can’t believe that, man. It’s religious, man. It’s just science. You can’t believe anything else. O.K.?” Cool, well, explain to me. Give me what you’ve known about the Earth and your research, and I love it. I love talking about it.
Well, I would push back and say that there’s a real picture of the Earth taken by astronauts. Do you not believe that picture is real?
No, I’m actually — yeah. Like I said, I do research on both sides. I’m not against anyone that thinks the Earth is round. I’m not against anyone that thinks it’s flat. I just love hearing the debate. It’s fun to talk about.
No, but I’m asking you. Do you believe the pictures that exist, taken by the astronauts? Do you not believe those pictures are real?
I feel like now you’re asking me if I am now grouping myself with conspiracy theorists that believe that everything that has come out about the Earth being round is completely fake.
No, I don’t know.
I don’t limit that to not being real. You know what I’m saying? I haven’t convinced myself all the way like everything that has been given to us is fake. No. But you also know that a lot of history has been distorted over time. That’s something that I’m always aware of. I’m not against it all.
I don’t want to misrepresent what you’re saying here. So just to clarify. You don’t know whether the Earth is round. You don’t know whether it’s flat. You’re just open to having the discussion about it.
Absolutely. It’s fun for me, man. It’s mentally stimulating to hear because there absolutely are scientists or engineers that have said, “Hey man, I believe the Earth is flat.” But then of course, utilizing an exploitation tactic of utilizing my name and who I am, and all of a sudden it turns into a bigger thing. Which is fine. That’s the way our society works. It is what it is. I don’t mind it.
Totally. But I guess there are people like me on the outside here, who will say that you are one of the most popular N.B.A. players right now. You’re a star in a feature film. You might very well launch your own television network. So my point is there are concrete examples of kids that believe, because of what you’re saying, the Earth might be flat. Do you not see any downside? Or do you feel by perpetrating the discussion, that you are doing a favor in a sense?
Doing a favor?
Maybe not doing a favor. Contributing to the public discussion by introducing it as a “debate” rather than it being science. Does that make sense, what I’m saying?
Oh no, for sure. Even when the debate is happening within science, it’s just concrete facts vs. popular opinion or theories. And I’m up for that, man. I’m aware of the responsibility of what my biases and judgments are and of kids being able to connect with that. But I’m also not trying to go against complete science and factual information to the point where it becomes an inner belief. I think that the discussion can happen. Not just over whether the Earth is round or flat. That doesn’t really bring importance, in my book, in terms of doing your own research.
I think kids should have the freedom to do that regardless [of] a particular authoritative figure telling you, “Don’t believe anything else.” That’s what our society has come to and then of course, you get separated based upon your other beliefs, which is what you’re aware of or not.
Not everyone thinks the same. Not everyone feels the same. Some people openly come out and say things. Other people are afraid because of the common misconception of who you are and who you represent as a person. Your intellectual ability, based upon something you said or did. That holds true in our society, man. I’m just aware of that. Does it really bother you that much that I think something different than you or that I actually want to have that conversation?
I could see it bothering — if there are people genuinely believing this stuff as a result of what you’re saying. Does that make sense?
Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I understand that responsibility. I also see it from a different perspective, from a humanity side, that doesn’t mean you have to cap who I am as a person, who I know I am, who I present myself as, based on a belief or something I said or did.
Were you frustrated by the reaction after you initially started talking about it?
No, I think it was surprising but, as well, it gave me an introspective look, like, “Hey man, are you sure you want to go with this?” I had to learn more about what were going to be the consequences of that. When I was saying it, people were saying I’m a complete conspiracy theorist. And I had felt like there had been a time where I just did not question anything. And when I was talking to Richard Jefferson [a former teammate with a podcast, “Road Trippin,’” on the Cleveland Cavaliers official website], when it came out, the response was just like, “Yo, what is really going on?” And at the time it was overwhelming. Because now it bred more questions, like, “How could you ever think that?” and I honestly, probably said that prematurely before I even understood the impact it was going to have, you know, and that’s just the reality. It just stopped mattering.
You don’t strike me as someone who cares that much if other people criticize you. Do you care that people think you’re a conspiracy theorist?
No. Why would it ever matter? No man, I’m not afraid of that. I used to be afraid of not being able to convey what I feel or what I think and bringing more questions from everyone, and literally, everyone becomes intrigued. People want to know more. People are going to say what they’re going to say. It’s not my job to be in a convincing stance every single day on something that I feel.
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