All-Star Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving has defended his decision to not get vaccinated against the coronavirus as “what’s best” for him, after team officials said he would not be allowed to practice or play with the team without getting inoculated.
The Nets announced earlier this week that Irving, 29, would not be part of the team until he can “be a full participant”.
He is not eligible to play Nets home games in New York City, where a New York mandate requires professional athletes on one of the city’s teams to be vaccinated to practice or play in public venues.
Speaking on Instagram Live on Wednesday, Irving said he loved basketball and was not going to retire.
“I am doing what’s best for me. I know the consequences here and if it means that I’m judged and demonised for that, that’s just what it is,” he said. “That’s the role I play, but I never wanted to give up my passion, my love, my dream just over this mandate.”
Irving would have been able to practice with the Nets and play in road games outside New York. The Nets will pay him for those but he is giving up about half of his $35m salary by missing the home games.
“So what? It’s not about the money,” Irving said. “It’s not always about the money. It’s about choosing what’s best for you. You think I really want to lose money?”
“Do you think I really want to lose money? You think I really want to give up on my dream to go after a championship? You think I just really want to give up my job? You think I really just want to sit at home and not going after the things with my teammates…”
– Kyrie pic.twitter.com/gV6BDK357j
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) October 14, 2021
His comments come amid continued concerns over the spread of the Delta variant and persistent vaccine hesitancy among Americans. Local officials and the administration of President Joe Biden have in recent weeks responded with vaccine mandates.
The Biden administration on Wednesday said those mandates are working.
In a White House news briefing, officials said vaccination rates have risen by more than 20 percentage points after multiple institutions adopted vaccine requirements, while case numbers and deaths from the virus are down.
Officials said 77 percent of eligible Americans have received at least one jab to date and that rates went up thanks to mandates put into place by private businesses, healthcare systems, social institutions and state and local governments.
But resistance to vaccines remains a challenge, and institutions have put restrictions in place for those who insist on remaining unvaccinated.
NBA players who are not vaccinated will have to comply with a long list of restrictions to take part in the upcoming season, which is set to begin October 19.
On Wednesday, Irving said his ultimate decision on getting a vaccine would have nothing to do with the Nets – nor with the New York mandate. “This is not about the Nets, this is not about the organization, it’s not about the NBA, it’s not politics,” he said.
“It’s not any one thing. It’s just about the freedom of what I want to do.”
If he does not play this season, he could lose more than $17m in pay for the games that would have been played in Brooklyn and at Madison Square Garden.
In a statement on Tuesday announcing that Irving would not be able to participate with the team, Nets General Manager Sean Marks said, “Kyrie has made a personal choice and we respect his individual right to choose.”
“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,” Marks said.
Brooklyn is considered an NBA championship contender, with Irving filling out a strong Nets Top 3 alongside stars Kevin Durant and James Harden.
Harden said on Wednesday that he and Durant talked to the personnel involved in the Irving decision and that all parties see eye-to-eye.
“Kyrie believes in his beliefs, and he stands firm and strong on that. And for us, we respect it. We all love Ky. But as far as us, we have a job to do,” he said.
Nets coach Steve Nash also said the decision was “difficult”, but is “a sound one and one that makes complete sense to everyone”.
“We are just going to move on, and if things change, it would be incredible to have him back in the fold,” Nash said. “It was a tenuous situation to have a player in and out like that. There’s more clarity, and we can focus on the future and get going.”