NEW YORK – Kyrie Irving was supposed to be the starting point guard of the NBA’s next dynasty. He was going to use his superb ball-handling skills to dish passes to Kevin Durant and James Harden, and together this Big Three would turn the Brooklyn Nets into champions season after season for years to come.
Sure, Irving had suggested that the Earth was flat. But he had also delivered a championship to Cleveland alongside LeBron James, and he was a perennial All-Star. The Nets could stand a little quirkiness in pursuit of greatness.
The COVID-19 vaccine, and Irving’s refusal to take it, could turn all of that upside down.
As vaccine mandates roil workplaces across the country, a high-stakes stalemate in the NBA took a dramatic turn on Tuesday when the Nets issued Irving an ultimatum: Get the shot, or stay home. In the process, the team has drawn a stark line over the issue of the vaccine with one of the more high-profile sports celebrities who has refused to get it.
“Without a doubt, losing a player of Kyrie’s caliber hurts,” Sean Marks, the Nets’ general manager, said at a news conference. “I’m not going to deny that. But at the end of the day, our focus, our coaches’ focus and our organization’s focus needs to be on those players that are going to be involved here and participating fully.”
Irving, 29, had faced the prospect of being able to play only on the road with the Nets this season because of local coronavirus ordinances in New York that require most individuals to be at least partially vaccinated to enter facilities such as sports arenas. The Nets play their home games at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Marks said the decision to keep Irving away from the team had been made by himself and by Joe Tsai, the Nets’ owner.
“Will there be pushback from Kyrie and his camp? I’m sure that this is not a decision that they like,” Marks said. “Kyrie loves to play basketball, wants to be out there, wants to be participating with his teammates. But again, this is a choice that Kyrie had, and he was aware of that.”
The team also said Irving would be barred from practices as long as he remained unvaccinated.
The Nets’ decision to sit Irving for the road games that he is eligible to play in sets the stage for a potential battle between the team and the players’ union, which had already been pushing back on the league’s plan to dock the pay of unvaccinated players for games they miss because of ordinances in their home cities.
Irving, a union vice president, is due to lose about $380,000, or around 1% of his base pay for the 2021-22 season, for every home game he misses. Marks said Irving would still be paid for road games this season.
Irving has not spoken publicly about his vaccination status, asking instead for privacy, and the Nets danced around the topic for weeks until Tuesday. In response to a question from The New York Times about whether Irving was vaccinated, Marks said: “If he was vaccinated, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I think that’s probably pretty clear.”
Although the union said last week that 96% of players had been vaccinated, a few have expressed hesitancy and most have not actively campaigned for others to be vaccinated. In late September, LeBron James, the game’s most famous player, said that he had gotten vaccinated after months of skepticism.
“I think everyone has their own choice to do what they feel is right for themselves and their family,” James said.
In his most recent public comments, Irving insisted that getting the shot was a matter of privacy.
“Everything will be released at a due date and once we get this cleared up,” Irving said during a virtual meeting with reporters on Sept. 27, adding: “I’m a human being first. Obviously, living in this public sphere, it’s just a lot of questions about what’s going on in the world of Kyrie. I think I just would love to just keep that private, handle it the right way with my team and go forward together with the plan.”
Irving has long been known as one of the league’s more mercurial figures, expressing unconventional opinions on a variety of topics since he joined the Cleveland Cavaliers as the top overall draft pick in 2011.
But he also has outsize influence within the league, and he led a bloc of players who disagreed with the NBA’s decision to resume the 2019-20 season in a Florida bubble because of the pandemic, expressing concern that the move would limit the players’ social justice efforts after the police killing of George Floyd.
Last season, Irving missed several games for unspecified personal reasons. During one of the stints when he was away from the team, video surfaced of him attending his sister’s birthday park without a mask, in violation of the league’s health and safety protocols. A few days later, while his teammates were preparing to play against the Denver Nuggets, he appeared on a Zoom call for supporters of the Manhattan district attorney candidate Tahanie Aboushi.
Still, Irving’s talents seemed to overshadow any distraction. Despite having little time to develop on-court chemistry because of injuries and other absences last season, the Nets appeared primed for a deep playoff run. But injuries to Irving and Harden hindered the Nets’ postseason hopes, and they lost to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Nets are still contenders this season — with or without Irving — though his presence would clearly help.
But Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden, where the New York Knicks play, require all employees and guests 12 and older to show proof of having received at least one vaccine dose, to comply with a city mandate, unless they have a religious or medical exemption. San Francisco has a similar requirement that applies to Chase Center, where the Golden State Warriors play. The mandates in both cities mean that the players from the Knicks, Nets and Golden State cannot play in their teams’ 41 home games during the regular season without being vaccinated.
The ordinances in New York and San Francisco do not apply to players from visiting teams. Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic and Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards, for example, have been vocal about their refusals to be vaccinated.
Either way, unvaccinated players face a host of rules and restrictions this season. With limited exceptions, they are required to remain at home or at the team hotel when they are not at games or practices. They also are not permitted to eat with vaccinated teammates, who have far more freedom to dine out and interact with the public.
Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins was unvaccinated when he arrived for training camp but relented when he was faced with the local ordinances that would have barred him from games and cost him a great deal of money.
“The only options were to get vaccinated or not play in the NBA,” Wiggins said after Golden State’s preseason opener this month. “It was a tough decision. Hopefully, it works out in the long run and in 10 years I’m still healthy.”
For now, Irving has remained steadfast. In the past, he stated that he wants his legacy to be about service rather than his work as a basketball player. He has gone to great efforts in that regard, although many of his inroads are outside any media spotlight.
Irving purchased a home for Floyd’s family, according to the former NBA player Stephen Jackson. During the WNBA’s bubble season, Irving started an initiative to provide $1.5 million to players who did not participate and would not be paid. His KAI Family Foundation also teamed with City Harvest to donate 250,000 meals in New York.
On Tuesday, Marks said he would be willing to welcome Irving’s return to the team “under a different set of circumstances.”
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