As Kyrie Irving returns, Nets owners Joe and Clara Tsai plan to continue equity collaboration

With Kyrie Irving on the verge of making his 2021-22 season debut, Brooklyn Nets and New York Liberty owners Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai are looking forward to the star point guard joining the team on the court.

"I'm glad that we were able to reach a decision together," Wu Tsai told ESPN about Irving returning as a part-time player; New York City's vaccine mandate precludes him from playing in home games. "I'm excited to see him bring his artistry back to the court."

The Nets and Irving had been apart since Oct. 12, but that did not stop Wu Tsai and Irving from texting. The two have bonded the past couple of years over their passion for equality.

As one of four majority owners of color in the NBA, Tsai and Wu Tsai have been active with the NBA and WNBA players' push for the awareness and advancement of social justice, race and gender issues.

"Joe and Clara have taken a leadership role in advocating for social justice," NBA commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN. "Through their family foundation, the REFORM Alliance and other efforts, they have dedicated themselves to combating discrimination of any kind. The work they are doing locally through their Social Justice Fund will go a long way in driving greater economic empowerment for communities of color in Brooklyn."

Wu Tsai has advocated for criminal justice reform as a board member with artists Jay-Z and Meek Mill and Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin on the REFORM Alliance while Tsai helped establish The Asian American Foundation (TAAF) to combat discrimination and prejudice.

"It's wonderful that there is a convergence between my own personal ambition to work toward equity, racial and social justice and the collective desire of minority communities and some NBA athletes to achieve the same outcome," Wu Tsai said. "As stewards of NBA and WNBA teams, our megaphone to call attention to issues is powerful, and it is our responsibility to highlight injustices and to help create momentum for change."

After the murder of George Floyd and shooting of Jacob Blake in 2020, NBA and WNBA players spoke out against police brutality and racial inequality. Many players wanted to see the league and its team owners support them and join the fight.

"I can only speak for myself, [but players] want authenticity," New Orleans Pelicans guard and National Basketball Players Association vice president Garrett Temple told ESPN. "If our values are aligned ... with their resources, they can be people that make that happen. See some actual things get done and not just have the lip service.

"I have had many conversations with Clara. She has come to me for advice about the best ways to attack certain issues."

The Tsais, who took controlling interest in the Nets in August 2019, donated $50 million in 2020 through their foundation to launch the Social Justice Fund, which focuses on helping communities of color in the Brooklyn borough.

The Tsais are among the NBA board of governors who provide $300 million in initial funding to the NBA Foundation to drive economic opportunity in the Black community.

Like many Black players passionate about Black Lives Matter, Tsai's experience as a person of color in the U.S. shaped his involvement with the Stop Asian Hate movement. He is the co-founder of the Alibaba Group and is the company's executive vice chairman. He moved from Taiwan to New Jersey for school when he was 13.

In April 2020, Tsai was on an afternoon jog outside San Diego where he noticed a gray pickup truck come to a stop about 20 feet ahead of him. He saw a male driver and female passenger both staring at him in the rearview and side mirrors.

Tsai, 57, said he had "never felt physically threatened" in the U.S. until that moment. With the coronavirus spreading throughout the country, discrimination against Asians was growing.

"Should I just run by and pretend nothing happened?" Tsai told ESPN. "What's the worst that could happen? He could yell at me. Maybe he'll spit at me through the window. Then I thought, 'Wait a minute, this is a country where people are allowed to carry guns. What if he has a gun and tries to attack me?'"

Tsai turned around and jogged back home. The truck didn't follow, but the Nets owner said he could not shake the feeling.

Inspired to do something, Tsai helped launch TAAF, formed to provide the infrastructure to advocate for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Tsai and other board members also contributed $125 million to support the AAPI community.

In a show of support, Portland's Damian Lillard wore a "Stop Asian Hate" shirt at a game last March. Hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders increased by 73% in 2020, according to the FBI. Between March 2020 and September 2021, 10,370 incidents against Asians were reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition launched to track and respond to incidents against Asians and Pacific Islanders.

"All the anti-Asian hate sentiments were the direct result of [former President Donald] Trump calling COVID 'the Wuhan virus,' 'the Chinese virus,'" Tsai said. "... And 23 million Asian Americans as a result have suffered because of that. You don't even have to be Chinese. It could be Korean, Thai, Filipino, Japanese, you're getting attacked, and especially old people. It's just atrocious. So we have to do something about it."

Wu Tsai has spent the past few years helping players with issues like voting laws and criminal justice. She organized a showing of "Just Mercy" with Bryan Stevenson -- the lawyer and social justice activist depicted in the film -- for the Nets in 2019, which inspired Temple to pursue a law degree and Irving to have more dialogue with her.

"Clara is one of the smartest and most strategic executives that I've been around," Mill told ESPN. "When it comes to fighting for criminal justice reform, she isn't afraid to ask tough questions -- to solve the even tougher problems. Her leadership inspires me."

As an Asian American woman and NBA owner, Wu Tsai understands her impact in the male-dominated sports world.

"I hope that my presence will reshape how women in sports are seen," Wu Tsai said in regard to her ownership with both the Nets and Liberty. "And as a result, reshape the way women and girls see themselves."

With Irving nearing his return to the court, Wu Tsai will continue her conversations on gender equality with the NBPA vice president.

"He's quite a supporter of the WNBA," she said, "because he also funded women's salaries who lost it because they didn't go to the bubble. We talked a lot about that."

Wu Tsai said she and Irving will continue fighting for change with athletes, even as he returns to the court.

"We are stronger together," she said.

ESPN's Andrew Lopez contributed to this report.