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Why NBA star Kyrie Irving was burning sage before a game with the Celtics

NBA star Kyrie Irving, who has Native American roots, burned sage during a warmup in a practice known as smudging.

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving burns sage around the court before a preseason NBA game against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden Arena, Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, in Boston. Video screengrab

(RN­­S) — Before a recent preseason NBA game with the Boston Celtics, All-Star Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets took to the floor for his pre-game warmups.

Irving did some stretching, shot some layups and hit a few three-pointers. He also burned sage in a Native American practice known as smudging.

Irving had a tumultuous two-year stint with the Celtics, where he first promised to re-sign with the team when his contract expired only to bolt for the Nets. And burning the sage was a way for him to “cleanse the energy” of the stadium he once called home.

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The practice also holds personal significance to the basketball player, who has connections to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, with which his mother, grandparents and great-grandparents have ties. He revealed those roots in 2016, when he also expressed solidarity with Indigenous efforts to oppose the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. Two years later, Irving and his sister, Asia Irving, were honored by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe with a naming ceremony.

Some NBA fans wondered if he was “cursing” the Celtics with the ritual, but as Anishinaabe knowledge-keeper Debra Courchene explained in an “Ask an Elder” video by CBC News, smudging is done “to clean the air around us.”

Smudging can be done with plants considered sacred medicines in many Indigenous cultures: sage, sweetgrass, cedar and tobacco. The practice involves burning the plants and fanning the smoke over a person or space, Courchene told CBC News.

“What it does is it allows for me to be able to get rid of anything negative that I may have picked up and then it replaces that with that positive energy,” she added.

Sage in particular is used for “releasing what is troubling the mind and for removing negative energy,” according to Northern College in Ontario, Canada.

Burning sage is a regular practice for Irving, according to his teammates, and he has said that he wants to smudge before every game where it is allowed, both at home and on the road.

Irving said this weekend he smudged to cleanse the energy and because he wanted “to make sure that we’re all balanced.”

“It’s for us to stay connected and for us to feel good about coming to work,” he added.