The Nets will allow Kyrie Irving, whom they barred from the team until he received a Covid-19 vaccination, to rejoin the team part time, the Nets said in a statement on Friday, despite Irving’s still being unvaccinated and cases skyrocketing in New York City.
The announcement was a surprising about-face for a franchise that had said in no uncertain terms that it was not open to Irving’s working part time. As a result of a New York City edict from the summer mandating that employees and patrons of indoor dining, gyms and other similar establishments be vaccinated, Irving is still barred from playing home games at Barclays Center without a valid medical or religious exemption.
The Nets, who are 21-8 and are in the top spot in the Eastern Conference, cited their high number of players in the N.B.A.’s Covid-19 health and safety protocols as justification for bringing back Irving. On Friday evening, the team listed a dozen players as unable to take the court against the Orlando Magic on Saturday at Barclays Center, leaving the team in danger of not having enough players to compete. Seven of those players were listed as being held out because of the Covid-19 protocols — part of a recent leaguewide spike.
“After discussions with our coaches, players and staff, the organization has decided to have Kyrie Irving rejoin the team for games and practices in which he is eligible to participate,” Sean Marks, the Nets’ general manager, said.
Marks said the decision had the “full support of our players” and came after “careful consideration of our current circumstances.” In addition, Marks said, “We believe that the addition of Kyrie will not only make us a better team but allow us to more optimally balance the physical demand on the entire roster.”
Before the Nets’ announcement, Irving posted a video on his Instagram story showing himself wearing basketball shoes.
Last month, Mayor-elect Eric Adams said that the city would not change its vaccine requirements once he takes office next month. A spokesperson for Adams didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry about whether there had been a change in plans.
Irving will be eligible to play in all road games for the Nets except for those against the crosstown Knicks and the Toronto Raptors. The Canadian government, beginning next month, will bar unvaccinated athletes from entering the country. If Irving takes the floor for the Nets’ next road game, Dec. 23 against the Portland Trailblazers, he will be allowed to play in 24 remaining games in the regular season. Irving is slated to lose half of his salary this year as a result of not playing at Barclays, unless he gets vaccinated.
Irving’s return to the Nets is, at least outwardly, an awkward visual for the Nets and the N.B.A. In New York City, the pandemic has continued to rage with the arrival of the Omicron variant, with long lines surrounding testing sites as a result of a surge in cases.
In recent weeks, multiple N.B.A. teams have had to cancel practices, postpone games and place dozens of players in protocols as a result of rising cases. On Friday, the N.F.L. postponed three games as a result of outbreaks. Medical experts say the unvaccinated, like Irving, remain the most at risk from the coronavirus.
While 97 percent of N.B.A. players are vaccinated and the league has run advertisements promoting vaccines’ use, Irving is one of the league’s top stars and most visible vaccine holdout. His stance has made him a particular cause célèbre of conservatives in the United States, such as Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who publicly praised Irving for holding out, and those who have spread vaccine misinformation.
The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know
A new U.S. surge. The C.D.C said that the Omicron variant’s rapid spread in the U.S. may portend a surge in infections as soon as January, but cases are already spiking, leading offices to cancel holiday parties, Broadway performances to be shuttered and college finals to be moved online.
The Omicron variant. The new Covid variant has been detected in dozens of countries. While Omicron appears to be able to partially evade antibodies, it could be less severe than other forms of the virus, and new laboratory studies indicate that vaccines, and especially boosters, may offer protection against severe disease.
Pfizer vaccine in younger children. The company said that a low dose of its coronavirus vaccine did not produce an adequate immune response in 2- to 5-year-olds in ongoing clinical trials. The setback threatens to keep the vaccine from younger children for longer than many had hoped.
U.S. surpasses 800,000 deaths. This past week, Covid deaths in the United States surpassed 800,000 — the highest known number of any country. About 75 percent of those deaths have involved people 65 or older. One in 100 older Americans has died from the virus.
Irving has not publicly discussed his unwillingness to receive the vaccine. He has developed a penchant for dipping into controversy throughout his career, such as suggesting a serious belief that the Earth is flat.
When Irving was signed by Brooklyn in the summer of 2019, he was made a key face of the franchise along with his close friend Kevin Durant. Two years later, the anti-vaccine movement did the same, even protesting on his behalf in front of Barclays before this season’s home opener.
Both Marks and the Nets owner Joe Tsai were publicly steadfast in saying Irving would not be allowed to take the floor part time for the Nets unless he was vaccinated to comply with the city’s mandate. Tsai told ESPN in October, “It is just not tenable for us to have a team with a player that comes in and out, no home games, only away games.”
That same month, Marks told reporters, “Our focus, our coaches’ focus and our organization’s focus needs to be on those players that are going to be involved here and participating fully,” adding, “This is a choice that Kyrie had, and he was aware of that.”
On Friday, Marks changed his tune, saying, “We look forward to Kyrie’s return to the lineup, as well as getting our entire roster back together on the court.”