The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kyrie Irving breaks silence on decision to remain unvaccinated: ‘It’s bigger than the game’

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving said he believes he is “being utilized as an example” because he cannot play or practice with his teammates until he is vaccinated. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

One day after the Brooklyn Nets told Kyrie Irving that he could not play in games or participate in practices until he fulfilled the terms of New York City’s coronavirus vaccine mandate, the seven-time NBA all-star broke his silence, confirming that he remained unvaccinated and calling the decision a “personal choice” that was made without political motivations.

Irving, who went on Instagram’s video streaming service to deliver his first public comments in more than two weeks, repeatedly said he had no plans to retire and expressed hope that he would be able to rejoin Kevin Durant, James Harden and the rest of the Nets. But with Brooklyn’s season set to open Tuesday, he gave no indication that he plans to get vaccinated in the near future.

A guide to the most fun NBA teams to watch this season

“I never wanted to give up my passion, my love, my dream over this mandate and what’s going on in this world,” Irving said on an extended Instagram Live broadcast. “I love the game. Sometimes you really have to make choices that ultimately can affect that. It’s unfortunate, but that’s where we are in 2021. I am a bona fide hooper. My legacy will be written forever. I’m grateful to be given this talent to be able to perform on a high stage. But it’s not just about that at this point. It’s bigger than the game.”

The NBA does not have a vaccine mandate for players — the National Basketball Players Association opposed such efforts — but it is requiring its teams to comply with local mandates. Irving, 29, said he was caught off guard by New York City’s mandate and said that he was “uncomfortable” with the policy, which requires vaccination for members of the Nets and New York Knicks to be eligible to play in home games.

“What would you do if you felt uncomfortable going into the season when you were promised that you would have exemptions or that you didn’t have to be forced to get the vaccine? This wasn’t an issue before the season started,” Irving said. “This wasn’t something I foresaw coming, or I prepared for it, or I had a chance to strategize on what was best for me and my family. I came into the season thinking I was just going to be able to play ball. ... Why are you putting it on me?”

While Irving is the only member of the Nets who remains unvaccinated, he denied that he is anti-vaccine and expressed support for vaccinated citizens. He also repeatedly expressed sympathy toward employees who have lost their jobs because of vaccine mandates at their workplaces.

“I chose to be unvaccinated,” Irving said. “That was my choice. I would ask y’all to just respect that choice. I’m going to stay in shape, be ready to play and be ready to rock out with my teammates and be part of this whole thing. This is not a political thing here. It’s not about the NBA or any organization. It’s about my life and what I’m choosing to do.”

A Centers for Disease Control report found in September that Americans who were not fully vaccinated were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die of covid-19 than vaccinated people during a study that covered the spring and summer. CDC officials and public health experts have stressed that the vaccine is safe and effective at limiting the spread and deadly impacts of covid-19, which has killed more than 700,000 Americans.

Nets General Manager Sean Marks said Tuesday that Irving, who was eligible by league rules to play in road games in cities that do not have vaccine mandates, would be kept away from the team “until he is eligible to be a full participant.” Marks expressed respect for Irving’s choice but added that Brooklyn would “not permit any member of our team to participate with part-time availability” because Nets owner Joe Tsai and Marks believe “it is imperative that we continue to build chemistry as a team and remain true to our long-established values of togetherness and sacrifice.”

Perspective: Kyrie Irving wants to leave a legacy. With his stance on vaccination, he just might.

Irving said that he felt he was being “utilized as an example” for his decision and that he was willing to live with whatever criticism comes his way.

“We’ve got to stand together, not divided,” he said. “Now is not the time to be demonizing everybody for making a choice, for what’s best for their lives. ... I’m not an advocate for either side. I’m doing what’s best for me. I know the consequences here. If it means that I’m judged and demonized for that, that’s what it is.”

The NBA announced last month that unvaccinated players will be fined if they are unable to play in games because of vaccine mandates, which will cost Irving roughly $380,000 per game — or more than $16 million of his $34.9 million annual salary. The Nets will continue to pay Irving for road games, Marks said Tuesday, and that the “only salary that [Irving] loses is going to be for the home games.”

“It’s not about the money, baby,” 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? You think I really want to give up on my dream of going after a championship? You think I really want to just give up my job? ... Hopefully all this can be figured out in the future and I’m able to play the game that I love and go after a championship with my team and be with my teammates.”

Marks said that the Nets will “welcome [Irving] back with open arms” if he decides to get vaccinated. Per NBA rules, Irving would need to wait 14 days after receiving his final shot to be deemed fully vaccinated and cleared under the league’s health protocols.

Irving hasn’t conducted an interview with reporters since Brooklyn’s media day Sept. 27, but he participated in Nets training camp, which was held in San Diego, and attended — but did not play in — the team’s preseason opener against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center.

Though Irving had been barred from practicing with his teammates at the Nets’ HSS Training Center in Brooklyn, New York City authorities ruled Friday that the practice facility was a “private office building” and thus exempt from the mandate. Irving joined his teammates for an outdoor fan event Saturday and a practice Sunday before the Nets sent him home Tuesday.

“I had to stop running away from using my voice and using my platform to speak on what’s true and what’s mine,” Irving said. “Nobody is going to hijack my voice. Nobody is going to take the power away from me that I have speaking on these things. Don’t believe that I’m retiring. Don’t believe that I’m going to give up this game for a vaccine mandate or staying unvaccinated. Don’t believe any of that s---, man.”

Sign up for our weekly NBA newsletter to get the best basketball coverage in your inbox