ON A COLD, February night in Chicago, a cluster of reporters gathered around Kyrie Irving, backing him up against a whiteboard in the visitors locker room of the United Center. Minutes earlier, the Boston Celtics had stooped to a new low in their vexing season, suffering a dispirited loss to the lowly Chicago Bulls.
Irving, an Uncle Drew cap jammed low over his brow, was asked to gauge his level of concern regarding the team's long-term prognosis.
"It'll be fine," he answered in a monotone cadence, a vast departure from emotional responses he'd provided as recently as a week before.
"Why do you think that?" a reporter persisted.
"Cuz I'm here."
Boston's players say Irving began prepping them for the postseason weeks in advance, pulling them aside individually for quiet counsel and expressing the urgency required for playoff basketball. It is imperative, he told them, that every possession, every sequence, be treated with the utmost care.
His leadership approach has been notably more collaborative, less combative.
"The energy is great now," Terry Rozier says. "We're together. Not like before."
The Celtics swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round, then stunned the league's top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks with a Game 1 thrashing that was their most complete effort of the season. It seemed Kyrie had been proven prophetic.
Then Boston was trounced in Game 2. Irving missed 14 of his 18 shots, delivering an artless nine-point performance. He was unperturbed, adding blithely, "This is what I signed up for."
As the Celtics navigated a tumultuous regular season that threatened to derail their title aspirations, they often felt like the embodiment of NBA unhappiness. Myriad issues muddled Boston's chemistry: young players eager to prove themselves who were relegated to lesser roles, and the mental and physical travails of veteran Gordon Hayward. And there's the ever-changing psyche of the MVP talent Irving, whose journey of self-discovery resembled a dizzying amusement park ride that dipped and climbed with white-knuckle speed, the rest of the team in tow, with little choice but to strap in and hold tight.
Irving says his team was never as dolorous as it appeared, though, nor has its path to harmony been an instantaneous fix.
"Life isn't nearly as hard as we make it," he says.
IN EARLY MARCH, NBA commissioner Adam Silver could have chosen any number of topics as the featured speaker at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, but one question gnawed at him: Why aren't NBA players happier?
"To the outside world, they see the fame, the money, all of the trappings that go with it," Silver said. "[Our players] are the best in the world at what they do and people think, 'How is it even possible they could ever be complaining?' Some of these players come from difficult circumstances, and some of them are amazingly isolated."
The following week, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley blasted Silver's comments as "the stupidest thing I've ever heard any commissioner say. These guys are making $20 million, $30 million, $40 million a year. They work six, seven months a year. They stay in the best hotels in the world -- they ain't got no problems."
Au contraire, insists Rozier.
"More money, more problems."
Negativity seeps into locker rooms in many forms, social media chief among them these days.
"Kyrie was the first person who told me, 'No matter what [players] say, everyone looks,'" Rozier says. "'And when you look, you are going to see positive things and negative things from people who have never met you.' That's why Kyrie deleted all that stuff off his phone -- it was bothering him."
Boston's president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, wishes he could find a way to convince the players to eliminate social media from their basketball lives.
"I worry they run straight to their cellphones after the game," Ainge says. "Every time I'm in the training room, I see them glued to their phone, checking to see what people are saying.
"I don't understand it. And if that's one potential cause of unhappiness, then it's not worth it."
Another cause is an age-old conflict -- lack of playing time. Rozier, who was a postseason star in 2018 while Irving recovered from knee surgery, saw his minutes and his shots reduced in a season when he was approaching free agency.
"I felt like I went from the passenger seat to the trunk," Rozier says, with a wry smile. "Everybody tells you, 'Don't think about the contract, don't think about the money.' I always tell myself, 'I'll get what I deserve one day. Maybe not this day, but one day.'"
Jaylen Brown was also forced to adjust to a less prominent role. Count him among those who has tuned out the critics. In the past month and a half, he has been one of the most consistent and effective players for the Celtics. It has been the result, he says, of a season-long learning curve culminated by "re-centering" himself.
"You come to realize you shouldn't compare yourself to others and their situations," Brown says. "I started focusing on me. I tried not to let my emotions control me. That was hard sometimes, because the media puts so much pressure on us. They blow things out of proportion and people run with it."
Irving, an independent thinker who has freely expressed his opinions -- and occasionally paid the price for his unfiltered candidness -- says he's finished trying to explain himself.
"In order to find happiness, you have to find the balance in all this," Irving says. "So, I'm not going to keep talking about what works for me, or what I'm struggling with, knowing I'm not proving anything to anybody because the work is being done by me.
"I don't need to show anybody what I'm doing as a leader or as a person or as a basketball player. I'm going to miss shots in some games, I'm going to make some shots in games. It's the ups and downs of a season. I'm not investing in, 'Oh, this is his team, he needs to do more, he needs to step up.' It's just stupid."
KYRIE IRVING HAS never had to worry about playing time. He submitted the most complete season of his career, averaging 23.8 points, a career-high 6.9 assists and solid defensive metrics that should have left him ecstatic.
Yet, he confided to ESPN that being a leader was more complicated than he ever imagined. Early in the season, he adopted a passive-aggressive stance with the younger teammates, strikingly similar to the LeBron James tactics that infuriated Irving in Cleveland.
In January, Brown called Irving on it, wondering aloud why only the young players were being singled out for uneven play.
"It wasn't really a pushback," Brown says. "In reality, I agreed with what Kyrie said. I just thought it was unfair to single out the young guys. We all needed to do better."
Irving's attempt to navigate the unrelenting scrutiny was, and is, a work in progress.
"There's been a lot of emphasis on the wrong things," Irving explained to ESPN. "People make it as if basketball is the most important thing in our lives. So, you [deal with] the money and expectations and all the things that come with being in a professional environment.
"I fought all that this season. It's not about having everything if you don't have the happiness of playing the game."
Al Horford suspects his perspective is different as he was born in the Dominican Republic, without the comforts afforded his American counterparts. He's so grateful for his NBA opportunity, the center with a player's option this summer claims he'd play basketball for free.
"Everyone wants everything," Horford notes. "Hey, I want to be first team All-NBA. But I was very fortunate that when I was [at Florida] under Billy Donovan, I quickly learned that if I play for the team, it's going to bring me more joy and more success than if I just concentrate on myself."
Brown tried to heed Horford's advice, but when he faltered early in the season, he began pressing, forcing his offense, further compounding his woes. He lost his starting job, a crushing blow for a third-year player with grand aspirations.
"Sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves," Brown admits. "You expect things to go a certain way, and when they don't, that voice in the back of your head starts getting louder and louder."
Irving watched his young teammates chafe at their designated roles, yearning for more. He pushed them, but, he said, also sympathized with their frustrations.
"I think this whole business is flawed, by the way the draft is set up, by the way the coaches and the GMs are set up, the way people get fired and traded," Irving says.
"When you think about putting a leather basketball in a rim, and how many other complicated things happen because of that one simple thing, with our families and our lives, you can understand why people are struggling."
ROZIER IDOLIZED IRVING long before they became teammates, but he had trouble understanding why the future Hall of Famer, who seemingly had everything, was scuffling.
"I love Kyrie," Rozier says. "But there were times this year when I wanted to say to him, 'Listen, you don't have reason to stress. You're Kyrie Irving. I'm the one that has reasons to stress.'"
Money and stature had nothing to do with it. Irving hates to be defined merely in basketball terms. He's as passionate about his support of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which traces back to his late mother's roots, as he is his brilliant handle.
"I felt by being so invested in basketball, it did me a disservice because it made me pay attention to the wrong things," Irving said. "Like people's opinions, and things going with other people on that don't have anything to do with me.
"Everyone falls prey to it. The rankings, the top players, the trade rumors, all the fake basketball analysts, and coaches that know everything. I'm not going to let anyone else dictate my happiness."
Celtics players concede that earlier in the season Irving's mood swings often left them treading lightly in the locker room. Coach Brad Stevens and Ainge addressed it with their best player, and he promised to be more aware. "His positive outlook lately has made a huge difference," Rozier says.
Horford noticed a shift from all of his teammates. The angst over shots and minutes receded as the postseason approached. As Rozier notes: "The playoffs are like a reset button. It's all about the Celtics now -- not about getting paid, or whether it's a contract year, or whether you're at the end of the bench."
Granted, all of this renewed solidarity begs a question: Couldn't that united commitment have existed all along?
"In hindsight, we could have been a lot better," Brown admits. "We were trying to figure this out. Not just us in the locker room, but Brad and the front office, too.
"Maybe we did a little too much talking in the media, and then we read it, and it separated us in some sense. But there's no bad blood in our locker room. There never has been."
Irving cautioned it's a mistake to put too much stock in one win or one loss. For some, NBA happiness will always be day-to-day, depending on the box score stats and the bank account dollar signs and the team's place in the NBA standings and the court of public opinion.
"I've been playing basketball a lot longer than some of these people analyzing the game," Irving says. "I'm an actual genius when it comes to this game.
"If you ask me about basketball, I will talk all day. If you ask me about spacing at the 3:33 mark of the second quarter, I will gladly explain it. I'll tell you what plays worked, about adjustments we make. But when it comes to personal things, or comparing myself to my NBA brothers, like, 'Do you think you are better than this guy?' I'm out."