Brooklyn Nets: Kyrie Irving is banned from the team until he gets vaccinated

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Congrats to Irving on instantly becoming the highest-profile anti-vaxxer in America. Assuming he wasn’t already.

He’s in the same bind that Andrew Wiggins was. The NBA hasn’t mandated vaccines, although it does require unvaccinated players to follow special safety protocols. Wiggins plays for Golden State, however, and that team’s hometown of San Francisco requires vaccination as a condition of participating in large indoor events like basketball games. New York, the home of the Brooklyn Nets, follows a similar rule in which you need to have had at least one dose of the vaccine to enter an indoor gym. Which means so long as Irving refuses to get vaccinated, he’s ineligible to play in home games. That’s half the schedule. Actually, more than half since the Nets would also play games at Golden State and in L.A. against the Lakers and Clippers at some point. Los Angeles is also under a mandate.

Wiggins resolved his conundrum by getting vaccinated, albeit reluctantly. Irving won’t do it. The Nets had to figure out how to move forward and reportedly looped in his superstar teammates, Kevin Durant and James Harden, on the decision-making process. Do they bench Irving for home games but let him play on the road? Or do they twist his arm by benching him until he follows Wiggins’s lead and get his shots?

They announced their verdict this morning. They’re playing hardball.

Wiggins was a sympathetic resister inasmuch as he was petrified of potential health effects from the vaccine. Irving’s objections to the shot are reportedly more … nuanced:

Irving, who serves as a vice president on the executive committee of the players’ union, recently started following and liking Instagram posts from a conspiracy theorist who claims that “secret societies” are implanting vaccines in a plot to connect Black people to a master computer for “a plan of Satan.” This Moderna microchip misinformation campaign has spread across multiple NBA locker rooms and group chats, according to several of the dozen-plus current players, Hall-of-Famers, league executives, arena workers and virologists interviewed for this story over the past week.

Irving has also toyed with the belief that Earth is actually flat, to give you a sense of where he’s coming from psychologically. But he’s also a seven-time all-star, one of the most talented players in the league. He’s currently in year two of a four-year, $136 million contract. This isn’t some scrub whom the Nets are telling to get lost. On the contrary, they’ve only indulged him in his holdout this long because he’s borderline irreplaceable and they were counting on him to deliver a championship this season.

Irving was allowed to practice with the team thanks to a recent city ruling that the Nets’ practice facility is a private office building, not an indoor gym, and therefore not subject to the city’s vaccine mandate. That seems to have been New York’s way of trying to accommodate the Nets on a part-time role for Irving, at least. But Durant and head coach Steve Nash hinted at why being able to practice with a guy every day but play games alongside him less than 50 percent of the time just wouldn’t work:

“At least he can practice,” Kevin Durant told reporters when asked about Irving following the Nets’ preseason game against Milwaukee on Friday night. “But we want him here for the whole thing. We want him for games, home games, practices, away games, shootarounds, all of it. So hopefully we can figure this thing out.”…

Asked about the potential for Irving playing Monday, and whether it was like checking in on an injured player to see where they’re at given the time Irving has spent away from the team, Nash agreed with the comparison.

“Yeah, more or less, because when someone is able to resume full activity on the court,” Nash said, they still need “a certain amount of high-intensity work before you’d put them in a game. I think even if you’re not injured you still have to reach those thresholds, and if you are injured once you are healthy, quote unquote, you have to reach those thresholds as well.”

You’re not going to have the same flow on the court with a teammate who’s there only half the time, even if he’s eligible for practice. So the Nets decided that, from now on, he won’t be. He’s effectively off the team until he gets vaccinated.

What now?

Irving could sit out the season and hope New York City relents in its mandate. He could retire, which is a nonzero possibility. Irving reportedly wanted to boycott the end of the 2019-20 season in solidarity with Black Lives Matter but was overruled by other players; he’s willing to miss time in the name of his beliefs.

He could also request a trade to any team except the Warriors, Lakers, or Clippers, as that would allow him to play all home games and most road games apart from New York, L.A., and San Francisco. Would a team be willing to gamble on him, though, knowing that his value would implode if their own home city suddenly slapped a vaccine mandate on indoor arenas? Or would Irving’s arrival in town make it less likely that a city without a mandate would impose one knowing that it would force the local basketball team to bench him? I can imagine Irving being traded to the 76ers (for Ben Simmons?) and Philly, an otherwise Democratic pro-restriction town, suddenly deciding that vaccine mandates are off the table.

At least until the Sixers win a title.

One other question: Do fans side with or against Irving in this matter? On the one hand, Brooklynites won’t like having management deprive them of their star guard during a season when they thought they might win it all. On the other hand…

Nearly two-thirds of New York State residents are vaccinated. “If I could get my shots,” fans may wonder, “why can’t this mega-rich celebrity athlete?” Especially since virtually all of Irving’s NBA peers have been immunized.

Exit quotation from Michael Jordan: “I’m a firm believer in science and, you know, I’m going to stick with that and hopefully everybody abides by whatever the league sets the rules. I think once everybody buys in, we’re going to be fine.”