The Kyrie Irving situation in Brooklyn reached its most logical conclusion—for now—on Tuesday, as the Nets announced Irving will not be permitted to practice or play with the team until he can participate on a full-time basis.
While Brooklyn was not explicit in its statement, the implication is clear: Until Irving is either vaccinated or local New York ordinances that restrict the unvaccinated from gathering indoors are lifted, he will not be a part of the team.
The Nets seemed to be entertaining the idea of letting Irving play in only some games this season. As recently as this week, coach Steve Nash said the team was preparing to have him available part-time. Currently, because he is not vaccinated, Irving would not be allowed to play in games in Brooklyn or Manhattan, practice at the team’s facility, or even attend home games. Allowing Irving to play under these special circumstances due to his refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccine—which are overwhelmingly safe, effective and instrumental to ending the pandemic that’s killed more than 700,000 people in the U.S. alone—would have been unprecedented, and ultimately unreasonable.
Team sports are not perfectly logical. Even in an era of “player empowerment” or whatever euphemism you want to give to labor recognizing their value, members of a team will never be fully individuals. Players are not only motivated to pursue their own goals. The bonds built with the people around you can often push you harder than anything intrinsic. Sometimes somebody sacrifices their body and dives on the floor for a loose ball or pushes extra hard on that defensive closeout not only because they want to win, but because they don’t want to let their teammates down.
Allowing Irving to play in only half the team’s games would have been a disservice to the rest of his teammates, and could easily begin to sow resentment in the locker room. Think of how hard Kevin Durant pushed his body in that thrilling Game 7 against Milwaukee over the summer, playing nearly every second until he was completely exhausted to keep his team alive, all while testing an Achilles that had given out two years beforehand. Now imagine he had to do that again this season, only Irving wasn’t playing not because of injury but because of a deeply misinformed “personal decision.”
And even if Irving’s teammates would have welcomed him on a part-time status, would they have wanted to deal with this distraction for an entire season? Every nationally televised Nets game would have turned into a discussion about Kyrie. Players would get asked about his absence at nearly every home game. Any big loss at home would have turned into a “What if?” about Irving. Fans on the road would be relentless in their jeers. And the final few weeks of the season would become an absolute circus once people started asking Nets players if they would consider purposely losing games to avoid securing home court advantage.
The Nets couldn’t put their organization in a position to answer for Irving on a daily basis. And setting a precedent that allows a player to be only available for 39 to 41 games a year could have had some other unintended consequence in the long term. It also would have been a frustration for a league that’s 95% vaccinated to see so much focus being put on one individual.
As for Irving, this is merely the latest step in what’s been an atypical career, to say the least. For better or worse, Irving has never fit into a box. His choices can’t really be summed up in any one way, and I think making assumptions about his motivations in most aspects are usually unfair. The pandemic is different. Like team sports, it means sometimes pushing past your discomforts for the people next to you. It’s deeply exhausting and mind-numbing for the vaccine to have become controversial or uncomfortable for people. Still, Irving has an opportunity to overcome his hesitations for the betterment of his teammates, the people around him, and society at large.
The Nets can still go far without Irving. They can go further once he makes the logical choice.
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