Uncle Drew is a walking highlight reel. Lightning in a bottle. “Must-watch TV.” His ball-handling skills have broken more ankles than rollerblades — and he’s not done yet. The 28-year-old is heading into the prime of his career, albeit during an injury-prone period, but he won’t compete for championships alone. Co-star and longtime rival Kevin Durant will be the Robin to his Batman. Or is it the other way around?
Ever since being drafted by the Cavaliers in 2011, Kyrie Irving has dealt with the pressure of being the co-star of a franchise — the bridesmaid, but never the bride. In 2016, he was reportedly frustrated by the acclaim LeBron James received when he brought Cleveland its first-ever NBA championship — despite the fact that Irving sank the series winning three. He allegedly wanted to be showered with the same love as King James, but to do so, he needed his own team, his own city.
So on Aug. 22, 2017, Kyrie took his talents to Boston. The basketball world was in awe; why would a player want to leave the side of the league’s kingpin? But the idea is not as far-fetched as some may think.
Over in the soccer universe, just 19 days prior, Brazilian footballer Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior made a similar career move. On Aug. 3, Neymar left Barcelona to join Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). The superstar was tired of being number two to Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s number one. He wanted to prove he could carry his own team — that he could be the head honcho.
And why not? Neymar has the samba skills and dazzling tricks to split defenses and raise crowds, just as Irving does. His name garners the attention of millions of kids across the globe who want to replicate his “Jogo Bonito” (Beautiful Football). Like Irving, Neymar possesses the flair and agility to weave through defenses and break ankles. Their swagger is comparable across sports, on and off the pitch. But their play styles and personalities aren’t the only things that draw comparisons. Their common desire to be the best, to be loved, is what motivates them. Likewise, it’s what breaks them.
After leaving their world-class mentors, Messi and LeBron, Neymar and Irving have gone on to compete on their own teams, but things haven’t panned out the way they wanted, and their ex-teammates have overshadowed them.
In 2018, during his first season in Boston, Kyrie missed the Eastern Conference finals against his former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Friend-turned-foe LeBron James delivered his team a ticket to the finals in a seven-game spectacle — while Kyrie could only watch from the bench as his relatively inexperienced teammates took on the King in their own TD Garden. Although current teammate DeAndre Jordan has described Irving as emotionally unpredictable, there’s little doubt he must have been feeling at least some remorse during the series.
Similarly, in 2018 Neymar was knocked out of the Champions League in his first season. Paris Saint-Germain were defeated 5-2 by Real Madrid, a thrashing administered at the hands of arguably the world’s best soccer player, Cristiano Ronaldo.
But it’s the adulation that they both really yearn for. Surely they’d have the backing of their own fans? Not quite.
In May of 2019, Neymar fell out of favor with the PSG Ultras, the club’s most passionate and aggressive fanbase. At games, they held up signs telling him to “go away.” The once-beloved prince of Brazilian football was now hated, not just by PSG fans, but around the world. Neymar, who signed with PSG in 2018, has missed 42 matches due to injury the past two seasons. But his off-the-pitch antics suggest a lack of commitment. Frequent parties and delayed rehabilitation also made fans unhappy. It’s no wonder why PSG fans want to offload Neymar to recoup some of the $240 million the team spent for him.
But PSG isn’t the only club that Neymar has burned bridges with. In 2018, Neymar sued Barcelona for $26 million in unpaid bonuses. The lawsuit killed his legacy in the eyes of Barcelona fans, who dubbed him “Moneymar.” Facing hate from both clubs, the Brazilian has found himself in limbo.
Irving has a similar problem. Although his departure from the Boston Celtics was seemingly amicable, his disagreements with the team were hidden from the public eye.
DeAndre Jordan said it best: Irving’s “mood swings” drive him to scold his teammates and hog the ball during games. Similar to Kobe Bryant, who was told he couldn’t win without Shaquille O’Neal, Irving is trying to prove critics wrong. But in his case, the output isn’t there yet — and time is running out.
While Irving isn’t necessarily hated by fans, he has shifted his persona from a quiet, articulate, and well-kempt professional into an arrogant, outspoken critic of his teammates. Neymar underwent a similar fall-out with his former club, FC Barcelona.
In 2017, Neymar’s first with PSG, he took a penalty kick away from his teammate Edison Cavani, who was and still is the club’s leading goal-scorer. The fans booed Neymar, despite his incredible four-goal performance that day.
Irving and Neymar are similar in their diva personalities. They want all eyes on them and feed on the adulation of carrying their teams to victory. Their dribbling skills and flashy play draw crowds and their diminutive frames allow their agile, quick bodies to drift past opposing players with ease. But their lack of definitive success, mixed with their tendencies to showboat and reject teammates, make them luxury players who end up hurting their teams more than they help.
Also, taking into consideration the massive money moves they made to join these teams, it’s clear why fans may be upset with the supposed superstars.
Although Neymar has won with Brazil before, he suffered injuries that ruled him out of the 2019 Copa America in his home country. Brazil won that year without him. His frequent injuries, which have accumulated over the past three seasons, make him a financial liability to current and future suitors.
Similarly, Irving has also suffered injuries nearly every season. In 2015, he was ruled out of the NBA finals almost completely, leaving the Cavaliers to battle — and win — without him. These victories suggest Irving and Neymar may not be as valuable to their teams as they might think.
Time is ticking. Unless both deliver on their own, their legacies will be cemented with an asterisk — forever in the shadows of bigger, better superstars.