Kyrie Irving: Availability stigma ‘really unfair’ after declining COVID-19 vaccine

Nets star Kyrie Irving doesn’t believe it’s a fair narrative that his decision not to be vaccinated – and what that ultimately cost him – makes him an unreliable teammate.

Yet that’s how the chips fell in contract negotiations and it – his status as unvaccinated in a city that didn’t create a vaccine exemption for pro athletes until the final weeks of the regular season – ultimately decided his fate.

“At the end of the season, we started to have some (conversations) that I felt were going in the right direction,” the seven-time All-Star said from the lectern at the HSS Training Center on Monday. “But it just didn’t end up well going into free agency, and what that looked like for the long-term, and I understood all the Nets’ points, and I respected it and I honored it, (but) I didn’t appreciate how me being vaccinated all of a sudden came to be a stigma within my career that I don’t want to play, or I’m willing to give up everything to be a voice for the voiceless. And which I will stand on here and say that, that wasn’t the only intent that I had, was to be the voice of the voiceless: It was to stand on something that was going to be bigger than myself.”

Irving was eligible for a four-year, $182M contract extension two summers ago when he and Nets GM Sean Marks began extension discussions – around the same time Marks said both Irving and James Harden would be “signed, sealed, and delivered” as franchise players for years to come. But shortly after that press conference, New York City instituted a COVID-19 vaccine mandate that did not have an exemption for professional athletes.

“Once the vaccine mandates came in, then you knew how that would affect playing home games,” Marks said. ‘That’s when contract talks stalled.”

“We were supposed to have all that figured out before training camp last year and it just didn’t happen because of the status of me being unvaccinated,” Irving added. “I understood their point and I just had to live with it. It was a tough pill to swallow, honestly.”

As a result of that mandate, Irving only appeared in only 29 regular-season games last season. The Nets also ruled him ineligible to play in road games until a league-wide COVID-19 outbreak forced them to reintegrate the All-Star guard back into the rotation after the first quarter of the season. Irving has totaled just 103 regular-season games in Brooklyn through his first three seasons, and his lack of games played is why he and the Nets ultimately could not find common ground on a contract extension this offseason.

The Nets did not offer Irving the full five-year guaranteed max extension worth $245M. He will be a free agent entering next season after opting into his $36.5M player option this summer

“I gave up four years, 100-and-something million deciding to be unvaccinated and that was the decision with the contract: get vaccinated or be unvaccinated and there’s a level of uncertainty of your future, whether you’re going to be in this league, whether you’re going to be on this team,” Irving said. “So I had to deal with that real-life circumstance of losing my job for this decision. So I was dealing with all of those emotions while trying to secure my future for my family, ultimately. So a lot of decisions that had to be made, but a lot of truthful conversations that gave me peace of mind to come back and really just be all in.”

Yet his co-star Kevin Durant points to examples of Irving being reliable in his absence. While Durant nursed an Achilles injury for the entire 2019-20 season, Irving suited up and got injured several times before the league went on hiatus, and then went into the Orlando Bubble.

In Year 2, Irving played in 54 games while Durant played in 55. He missed, however, a two-week stretch due to the insurrection at the nation’s capital and also suffered a series-shifting ankle injury in the second-round against the Milwaukee Bucks.

“You can say he was more reliable than us that first year,” Durant said. “Last year if it wasn’t for the vaccine he would have played. There’s not a vaccine mandate this year. The year I played with him before, he was very reliable, so once the mandate was gone, I figured he’s going to be here every day. And he loves to play. I shouldn’t have to say it. You all know that.”

Irving also said the stigma about his availability stemming from his decision not to get vaccinated also scared teams away from trading for him. He is universally heralded as one of the most gifted players in basketball – both a member of the 50-40-90 shooting efficiency club and the player who hit an NBA championship-clinching shot over Steph Curry in the 2016 NBA Finals – but few teams were interested in trading for him when he sought sign-and-trade options this offseason.

“There were options — but not many. I’ll tell you that,” he said. “Because again this stigma, whether or not I want to play, whether or not I’m going to be committed to the team — which I thought was really unfair at times but also the timing was ideal to be able to put that on me because I wasn’t available.”

Marks said he stands by Irving’s decision against the COVID-19 vaccine, and that even though Irving said he felt like there was an ultimatum being given – to either get vaccinated or not have a long-term contract – no ultimatum was actually given.

Marks echoed Durant’s call for accountability.

“It goes back to: You want people who are reliable, people who are here, and accountable. All of us: staff, players, coaches, you name it,” he said. “It’s not giving somebody an ultimatum to get a vaccine. That’s a completely personal choice. I stand by Kyrie. I think if he wants, he’s made that choice. That’s his prerogative completely.”

Irving will have the opportunity to prove this season that the stigma is inaccurate, and that his availability patterns and vaccination status are two separate things.