Brooklyn stands up
The Nets tell Kyrie Irving he cannot be a part-time player. What now?
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
Ward in the Hospital in Arles, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
The Brooklyn Nets announced on Tuesday that Kyrie Irving won’t play for or practice with the team at all until he’s eligible to be a full participant, which means until he’s vaccinated or NYC lifts its workplace vaccination rules. (Or, I suppose, the rules are successfully dismantled in court, which seems unlikely based on what the media has reported about the legality of vaccine mandates.)
In the statement, GM Sean Marks made a point to note that he and team franchisee Joe Tsai made the decision that Kyrie could not be a part-time player in an attempt to take the heat off of Kevin Durant and James Harden, who were of course consulted in the matter.
The other unspoken reality here is that the Nets assuredly also went to Kyrie, probably multiple times in recent weeks, and let him know what their decision would be if he declined to get vaccinated. And still he declined, without ever really offering a public statement as to why.
This actually brings me back to the Andrew Wiggins situation, and how that was resolved. There’s been no reporting that I’ve seen on why Wiggins changed his mind, only that he said he felt “forced” to get the vaccination. We know that the league plans to withhold salary for home games missed due to non-eligibility due to local vaccination rules (a decision the players’ union appears to be fighting). We assume that the prospect of giving up 50% of his salary changed Wiggins’ mind after his attempt to get a religious exemption from Adam Silver failed. (Never thought I’d write a sentence like that.)
What we don’t know is whether the Warriors came to the same conclusion as the Nets a couple weeks earlier, that a part-time player available only on the road was completely untenable for a team with high-level competitive designs. Did the Warriors tell Wiggins weeks ago that he’d basically be off the team if he didn’t get vaccinated? Again, there’s been no reporting that I have seen to that effect. But that would make Wiggins’ comments make sense.
If that is what happened, one presume the Nets would know about it, especially given Nets coach Steve Nash’s close ties in Golden State. We have seen vaccine mandates largely work in other contexts: the share of employees of various companies, agencies and bodies mandating vaccines who reject the shot and get fired is really small. So it may be the case that the Nets decided a part-time point guard couldn’t work, that getting Kyrie vaccinated and available was the No. 1 goal here and tried it. Instead, for reasons still unspoken, he declined.
To be clear, I am not one of those observers who wants Kyrie to explain himself. The closest we have so far is this anonymous quote in Shams Charania’s piece in The Athletic:
Multiple sources with direct knowledge of Irving’s decision have told The Athletic that Irving is not anti-vaccine and that his stance is that he is upset that people are losing their jobs due to vaccine mandates. It’s a stance that Irving has explained to close teammates. To him, this is about a grander fight than the one on the court and Irving is challenging a perceived control of society and people’s livelihood, according to sources with knowledge of Irving’s mindset. It is a decision that he believes he is capable to make given his current life dynamics. “Kyrie wants to be a voice for the voiceless,” one source said.
Two things here:
A. In what universe are the vaccine hesitant in our society “voiceless” right now? That just does not pass the laugh test. The minority of American adults who are unvaccinated receive the lion’s share of attention. One example of that: THE NBA WORLD HAS SPENT AN INORDINATE AMOUNT OF TIME THIS PRESEASON TALKING ABOUT KYRIE IRVING, one of less than two dozen unvaccinated players in the NBA. No one on Kyrie’s side of this is particularly voiceless right now.
B. The other very obvious point is that Kyrie isn’t actually saying anything, so how can he be a voice for anything? Irving could change that by explaining himself, and again, that’s not something I desire. There are still some number of changeable minds on vaccine hesitancy out there, and I would prefer that the vaccine hesitant with nebulous or nonsensical statements aren’t given a microphone. My preference is that we escape this pandemic, and all the scientists say that mass vaccination is the key to that, so I would really like as many people as possible to get vaccinated. Call me basic if you’d like. If Kyrie explains himself and that convinces one person to remain unvaccinated, to me that’s bad.
Needless to say, this decision by the Nets — one worth applauding, in my opinion — doesn’t put the issue to rest. Durant and Harden are going to get asked about it, Kyrie might eventually say something, he might retire, we might get trade demands or rumors or something. This really does have wide-ranging impacts on Brooklyn and the NBA more broadly. Kyrie is becoming a cause célèbre in real-time for folks of a certain political inclination — a really wild development given Kyrie’s other political positions. And unfortunately, this means we’ll continue to talk about vaccine hesitancy in the NBA this season. Unless something changes quickly, it will have left a mark on this season.
Game 2 of the WNBA Finals, Sky at Mercury, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN.
Ben Simmons passed his physical and met briefly with the Sixers front office. He can’t clear COVID-19 protocols until Friday at the earliest. There’s been no word as to whether the Sixers want to put him in action in practices or games, whether Simmons is willing to meet with his teammates or what happens next other than the fines stopping.
The Atlanta Dream have a new head coach: longtime WNBA vet Tanisha Wright, who coached under Bill Laimbeer in Vegas the last two seasons.
A round of applause for Terance Mann, who has signed a two-year, $22 million extension with the Clippers, according to Marc Spears. A major second-round success story for L.A.
Athletes Unlimited, a fascinating women’s sports enterprise, is expanding into women’s basketball this January. I’m eager to see who plays.
Zach Lowe’s first set of League Pass rankings. I’ll say that there really isn’t a single team going into this season than I don’t want to watch. Except the Thunder.
And finally: in 2004, J.R. Smith was drafted by the Hornets. In 2021, he was stung by them.
Be excellent to each other.