Unvaxxed Kyrie Irving on return to Barclays Center: ‘I’m standing for freedom’

Kyrie Irving
Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving slaps hands with guard Seth Curry before the game against the Charlotte Hornets at Barclays Center.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Kyrie Irving’s decision not to get vaccinated may be one of the defining factors of the Nets’ 2021-22 season. But when it’s come to that divisive off-the-court decision, Irving has never changed his stance and he’s contested it was always about more than just himself.

That was the message that he tried to get across on Sunday night in Brooklyn after he appeared in his first game in over nine months at Barclays Center. While the private sector vaccine mandate was amended to allow Irving — along with other athletes and performers in the city — to play, it remains in place for all other employees in the five boroughs.

“Tonight, my presence out there was just bigger than the basketball game,” Irving said. “I was just representing a lot of individuals that are out there in a similar situation as me. And now that I can play, I think we should be opened up for everybody.”

The issue was clearly on his mind during the night and after he sat down with reporters in the bowels of Barclays Center. From a basketball standpoint, Irving’s decision to remain unvaccinated has caused the Nets headaches since the start of the year.

At first, the team opted not to have him around at all since he couldn’t play at home, which caused them to struggle to fill the gap left by his skillset. Even when they allowed him back in January on a part-time basis, it came with its own set of lineup headaches and questions.

Those only grew louder as the team dropped down to play-in round positioning while Kevin Durant was absent because of a sprained MCL.

“The point of this season for me was never to just take a stand,” Irving said.  “It was really to make sure that I’m standing on what I believe in, in freedom. Freedom. I don’t think that’s a word that gets defined enough in our society. About the freedom to make choices with your life without someone telling you what the f— to do. Whether that carries over to nuances of our society that politicians control, the government controls, or things people who are in power — the powers that may be — that control.

“I’m standing for freedom. So that’s in all facets of my life. There’s nobody that’s enslaving me, there’s nobody that’s telling me what I’m going to do with my life, and that’s just the way I am. If I get tarnished in terms of my image and people try to slander my name continuously, those aren’t things that I forget. I haven’t forgotten anything that anybody said. I don’t read everything, but I definitely read some things that put my family’s name in a certain position that I believe are unfair.”

Irving added later that he felt he had been “discriminated against” and that people that some people had been biased and gone against their own morals in their criticism of him.

If any of those people that Irving had been referring to were in Barclays Center, they were hard to spot on Sunday night. Call it the Kyrie effect, Barclays Center was sold out with a record 18,166 on hand to see his return and he received a warm reception from the “supporters” as he has come to call them.

On the court, it was far from the performance he had expected out of himself in Brooklyn’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets. Irving felt that was correctable before Tuesday’s matchup with Detroit at Barclays Center.

“Not the result we wanted,” Irving said. “I didn’t shoot as well as I wanted. Basically none of the things I had hoped for going well tonight, it just didn’t happen. And that’s just the flow of basketball. Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, it felt OK, but just the jump shot wasn’t falling tonight. We weren’t hitting shots. So not the result we wanted, but definitely grateful that we were part of history tonight and I got to do it here.”