UPDATED: New York Nets superstar Kyrie Irving spoke to the media today for the first time since it would be announced he would rejoin the team, which benched him in October after he refused to get a Covid vaccination, which is required for home games under New York City guidelines. Irving could have played away games in cities that didn’t have such a mandate.
Irving said he understood the team’s decision and “respected it” after he looked at it from their perspective.
“I knew the consequences,” he said. “I wasn’t prepared for them by any stretch of the imagination.” He also said he was grateful to be able to return, even in the limited capacity of playing only road games.
Irving is, without a doubt, a box office draw for the NBA, whether at the turnstiles or on TV, and the league has a string of high-profile national TV games coming up February, and after that the playoffs. It’s a sure bet the league and the Nets would like to have him back during this injury-plagued season.
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Irving said he was “incredibly grateful just to be back in the building, welcomed back with open arms by my teammates, the whole entire organization. Not gonna lie. it’s been relatively tough to watch from the sideline with everything going on in the world.”
During his months off, the all-star guard said he tried to stay in shape working out in college and middle school gyms. Irving said he went out of his way on his first day back to reconnect with teammates.
“I’m really, really looking at just being myself at a empathetic level. You know, how is everybody else doing?”
Irving said he was ready to “turn the page” and refocus on the season.
“But now it’s time to turn the page and this first day is over. And now we just get back to collaborating on what our goal is, and that’s just winning a championship.”
As part of that, he said he didn’t want the focus to be on him or his absence.
“So I don’t want to make it too much about me or what’s [been] going on for the time that I’ve been away. I’m just focused on putting the best foot forward for the team, just being available.”
PREVIOUSLY on October 12: The Brooklyn Nets have benched All-Star guard Kyrie Irving indefinitely due to his decision not to get the Covid vaccine.
New York City’s vaccine mandate, which covers indoor venues including the Nets’ arena, Barclays Center, requires all people entering to have had at least one vaccine dose. Along with San Francisco and LA, the New York’s mandate had put the squeeze on NBA players as the league prepares to begin its season next week. Had the Nets not acted, they would have lost Irving’s services for at least half of their games. Pressed by reporters during the preseason about how he intended to handle being able to play only half of the time, Irving repeatedly requested “privacy,” calling his decision a personal matter.
About 95% of NBA players were vaccinated as of the end of September, ESPN reported. Several of them have faced scrutiny over their murky stances, including LeBron James, who finally revealed having had the shot after refusing for months to specify his status. Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors received the vaccine earlier this month, after initially vowing not to. Money, of course, plays a significant role in the decision-making. Irving was slated to make almost $35 million this season under his four-year deal with the Nets. He could still wind up collecting checks for more than half that amount even if he doesn’t end up on the court, given that he would technically be eligible to play.
“Kyrie has made a personal choice, and we respect his individual right to choose,” Nets general manager Sean Marks said in a statement. “Currently the choice restricts his ability to be a full-time member of the team, and we will not permit any member of our team to participate with part-time availability. It is imperative that we continue to build chemistry as a team and remain true to our long-established values of togetherness and sacrifice.”
With Irving and fellow superstars Kevin Durant and James Harden having all arrived at the Nets over the past couple of seasons, the team has become a heavy favorite to win the NBA title. Even without Irving, it is still considered a top contender.
“Our championship goals for the season have not changed, and to achieve these goals each member of our organization must pull in the same direction,” Marks added.
In a press briefing, Marks said he viewed the situation straightforwardly and did not express concern about potential blowback from the players’ union or Irving himself.
“This is a choice Kyrie had and he was well aware it it,” Marks said. “We had many conversations about it.”
Legally, neither the Nets nor city officials are permitted to disclose Irving’s vaccine status, and the player has never outright declared his opposition to it. But he had liked posts on Instagram from a conspiracy theorist who deems them the work of “secret societies” looking to exert control. Asked directly during the press briefing whether Irving had been inoculated against Covid, Marks said, “If he was vaccinated, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”
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