Kyrie Irving’s past 72 hours have been a tidy microcosm of his 2021-22 season. On Sunday, he showed up for a nationally televised Nets-Knicks game in Brooklyn as a visitor. The particulars of New York City’s vaccine mandate are such that Irving is allowed to attend Nets home games, but not play in them or even enter his team’s locker room without incurring a fine. This apparent paradox reinvigorated the grumblings towards new mayor Eric Adams and the continued existence of measures geared towards slowing the spread of a disease that will soon claim its one-millionth American life. These grumblings came from luminaries such as LeBron James and Ted Cruz. As that debate raged, Irving went down to Orlando, where he is allowed to play, and dropped 60 points on the poor Magic. Irving scored 41 of his 60 in the first half and showed off everything he can do. Irving was nailing threes, punishing switches, finishing with both hands in heavy traffic, and showing off his mastery as a three-level scorer with the finest handle in the NBA.
The Nets have been an odd entity lately, essentially an anti-basketball team. Off the court, Irving was keeping himself from playing home games, Kevin Durant was working his way back from injuries, and James Harden was engineering his trade to Philadelphia in exchange for Ben Simmons, who has yet to suit up for Brooklyn. Meanwhile, on the court, the Nets were fielding a bunch of puds and getting destroyed every night. The drama surrounding the team took precedent, correctly so since it involved the interlocking fates of four of the best 20 players in the game, though the closer we get to the playoffs, the more winning basketball games matters. Durant is back (he had 53 against the Knicks), so the Nets are no longer getting walloped all the time. Ben Simmons, at this point, still exists only in theory and can’t be relied upon to carry a huge load in the playoffs after taking a year off, so the Nets’ playoff hopes hinge on Irving.
That he scored 60 speaks to his abilities as a player. That he refuses to take the simple steps to put himself in a position to do so every night speaks not to some persecution by the authoritarian Adams regime, but to Irving’s personal priorities. After the Knicks game, Durant said it was “ridiculous” that unvaccinated opponents and fans can attend and play in Nets home games while unvaccinated Nets players cannot play but can attend home games as fans. This seems true, at least when one frames the issue of vaccine standards in public health terms. The risk posed to and by an unvaccinated fan, mingling with hundreds of other fans for three hours, is far greater than one unvaccinated player running around near a few dozen mostly vaccinated opponents and teammates. After the Knicks game, Durant said, “It just feels like at this point now, somebody’s trying to make a statement or a point to flex their authority. But everybody out here is looking for attention and that’s what I feel like the mayor wants right now, is some attention. But he’ll figure it out soon. He better.” Durant later had to walk this back ever so slightly, though the #FreeKyrie PR push is on.
The problem here is the allocation of fault. Irving is not being kept out of games as a political prisoner to vaccinate mandates so Eric Adams can score some clout. New York City’s patchwork of private and public vaccine rules are somewhat confusing, but to blame them for keeping Irving off the court elides the simple fact that Irving can go get vaccinated at any point and make his championship contending team whole again. Irving has no control over New York City law, though he does have the ability to get over himself and receive a shot. Let us accept Kyrie Irving’s premise, take him at his word when he says, “It’s just about the freedom of what I want to do.” If you are to meet Irving on his own terms, which posit that he is an individualized person exercising a freedom not to comply with society’s rules, then you can’t blame anyone besides Irving for this situation. If you are going to ground your anti-vaccine stance in personal freedom, you can’t write the consequences of those actions off as society’s fault.
Kevin Durant is in his 14th NBA season. Only five players from his draft class are even in the league anymore. He’s been hobbled all season, though has shown in flashes that he might still be the best player in the NBA. He will probably not have that many more great chances to win a championship, which makes Irving’s vaccine holdout so frustrating. Irving showed his greatness last night, but tonight he’ll be back in the Nets arena for their nationally televised date with the Mavericks as an observer, the same role he’ll occupy during critical home playoff games if nothing changes in the next month. As exhausting as this entire spectacle has been, Irving getting a front row seat to his own team losing in the playoffs because he refused to get vaccinated amidst a pandemic would be a fittingly stupid conclusion.