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Kyrie Irving Is Not Above New York City’s Vaccine Mandate

Brooklyn wants Mayor Eric Adams to cave and let Irving play. He is showing no signs that he is going to.

Admittedly, it was an awkward sight. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn’s All-Star guard, nay, the Nets’ healthy All-Star guard, sitting courtside at Barclays Center, watching Brooklyn squeeze out a win over the Knicks on Sunday. Irving was there because New York lifted its vaccine mandate, freeing the unvaccinated player to attend a game at Barclays. He wasn’t in uniform because the city’s private sector mandate, still in effect, prevented it.

It’s goofy, right? Irving can breathe the same air as 17,000 fans but not play in front of them? On the ABC broadcast Doris Burke called the sight of Irving sitting courtside “visual absurdity.” On social media LeBron James blasted out a tweet of support. After the game Kevin Durant, visibly frustrated, said Irving being forced to sit out “looks stupid” and called on New York City Mayor Eric Adams to “figure this out.”

“I don’t get it,” Durant said. “I just feels like at this point now somebody’s trying to make a statement or a point to flex their authority. But everybody’s looking for attention, and that’s what I feel like the mayor wants right now, some attention.”

Except it’s not goofy. And Durant does get it. Certainly times have changed since the city mandate went into effect in October. COVID-19 cases have declined. Hospitalizations have, too. America has largely declared the pandemic—which has claimed nearly a million lives in the U.S.—to be over. Nowadays the average American can walk around mask-less everywhere but airports.

And it's true, the mandate itself is flawed. Because he is unvaccinated, Irving can’t play in New York, either at Barclays Center or at Madison Square Garden. Yet unvaccinated players from visiting teams are free to. It’s a point NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who is loathe to wade too deeply into city business, emphasized last month. Said Silver: “The oddity of it to me is that it only applies to home players. If ultimately, that rule is about protecting the people in the arena, it just doesn’t make sense to me that an away player who’s unvaccinated can play in Barclays while the home player can’t.”

But Adams can’t drop the mandate. Not now, anyway. Maybe not ever. Last month, New York fired 1,430 city workers for failing to comply with the vaccine mandate. That’s roughly 1% of all city workers and reportedly the largest mass termination in the U.S. The number grows when you consider how many employees private sector businesses pink-slipped. Adams has phased out some mandates. Students no longer have to wear masks in schools. Proof of vaccination is no longer required at restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues—like Barclays Center.

But ending a mandate for businesses or creating an exception for Irving? Not going to happen.

Adams appeared to suggest as much Sunday. Appearing at an event in New York, a heckler shouted “let Kyrie play” as Adams finished his remarks. Addressing the heckler, Adams said, “You’re right, sir. Kyrie can play tomorrow. Get vaccinated.”

Look: It’s easy to understand the Nets frustration. In recent games, Irving has been brilliant. He needed just 19 shots to score 50 points in a win over Charlotte last Tuesday. In a nationally televised blowout over Philadelphia, Irving chipped in 22. With Irving, the Nets are dynamic. Without him, Brooklyn needs Herculean efforts from Durant to win. Consider: Durant scored 53 points against the Knicks on Sunday. And Brooklyn needed every one of them to come away with a 110–107 win.

With Irving, the Nets are a title contender.

Without him, they are a Durant off-night away from being eliminated in the play-in tournament.

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) celebrates after the Nets take the lead against the New York Knicks in the fourth quarter.

The Nets are trying to crank the heat up on Adams. Durant is, publicly. Irving is, passive-aggressively. Make no mistake: Irving’s appearance in courtside seats on Sunday—as well as his attendance at Barclays a day earlier, to support Duke—was done to highlight what his supporters see as the absurdity of Irving being allowed into a building but not allowed to play in a building. Brooklyn wants Adams to cave. The mayor is showing no signs that he is going to.

Any pressure on Adams, though, is misplaced. It should be directed at Irving. It has been well over a year since the COVID-19 vaccines have been introduced to the public. They aren’t dangerous. Hundreds of millions of doses have been administered. Evidence of serious side effects is largely anecdotal. Irving, as Adams said, can get back on the court whenever he wants. For whatever reason, Irving has chosen not to do so.

This is an important season in Brooklyn. Durant is playing at an MVP level. Seth Curry has added shooting. Ben Simmons and a dose of high-level defense are on the way. With a fully committed Irving, the Nets are among the top title contenders, regardless of seeding. But they need Irving to commit. Not for Adams to find a way for him.

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