Kyrie Irving sits courtside as vaccine mandate saga takes new turn

Kyrie Irving Nets
Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) celebrates after the Nets take the lead against the New York Knicks in the fourth quarter at Barclays Center.
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Nets All-Star Kyrie Irving walked out of the tunnel behind the basket closest to the New York Knicks bench and walked through the stands as all eyes in Barclays Center turned to the superstar player. 

His entry came with about three and a half minutes left in the first half, and drew the focus of his teammates and fans alike. 

For the second time in less than 24 hours, Irving was inside the building that the Nets have called home since 2012 — but he wasn’t allowed to play, given his unvaccinated status, and the stringent laws New York City continues to enforce. 

The Nets fans inside the building cheered as he made his way to a courtside seat opposite the Nets bench, with some even chanting “Free Kyrie.”

Irving stopped to hug team owner Joe Tsai as a camera followed right behind him for the ABC audience at home to observe the moment. A few minutes later, the Barclays Center scoreboard showed Irving again prompting another round of cheers and chants.

It was another poignant moment in the ongoing saga of Irving’s refusal to be inoculated, and the impact it has had on his ability to play in Brooklyn. 

Despite the lifting of New York’s Key2NYC mandate, Irving is still prohibited from playing because of a private-sector mandate that requires all employees of New York City-based businesses to be vaccinated.

It’s a mandate that has confused and irked those around the NBA, including those in the Nets locker room.

“It’s ridiculous. I don’t understand it at all,” Kevin Durant said after scoring 53 points in the Nets win over the New York Knicks on Sunday. “It just feels like at this point now somebody is trying to make a statement or a point to flex their authority. Everybody out here 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, but it just didn’t make any sense.

“There’s (unvaccinated) people in this building already. We got a guy that can come into the building, I guess are they fearing our safety? Like I don’t get it. We’re all confused, pretty much everybody in the world is confused at this point. Early on in the season people did understand what was going on, but now it just looks stupid.”

Durant’s comments were by far the strongest yet from any member of the organization, but appeared to be a growing sentiment in NBA circles. Fans have taken to social media to express their frustration over the confusing nature of the current mandate, including Irving’s former teammate, superstar LeBron James, who expressed support for Irving on Twitter during Sunday’s game.

“It literally makes ABSOLUTELY ZERO SENSE!!! They say if common sense was common then we’d all have it. Ain’t that the truth,” LeBron said. 

amNewYork and The Brooklyn Game did reach out to the mayor’s office for a comment on Sunday’s events, but did not hear back by the time of publication.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has faced increasing criticism over the mandate as it pertains to Irving. While the Nets superstar has been kept from playing in Brooklyn and Manhattan, unvaccinated visiting players have been free to still play in both Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center.

Adams has remained steadfast in not making any accommodations for Irving to play despite the growing calls for the Mayor to do so. Earlier in the day on Sunday in Brooklyn during a press conference, a passer-by heckled the mayor over the Irving situation, but Adams had a quick retort.

“You’re right, sir you’re right,” Adams responded. “Listen, you’re right. Kyrie can play tomorrow. Get vaccinated.”

While Adams’ comments made the rounds on social media, Irving’s entrance to the Barclays Center was broadcasted to a nationally televised audience on ABC. Irving was also inside the Nets locker room during halftime and after the game, he embraced Durant following his herculean effort for Brooklyn, and the two left the court together smiling,

“That was dope to see him come to the game and sit courtside,” Andre Drummond said afterward. “It’s kind of like a —  you know there’s a word I want to use but I got to keep it to myself. … But it was really cool for him to come and watch the game and support the team.”

New York City has seen an average of just 518 new recorded cases of COVID per day between March 4 and March 10, when the most recent data is available. Meanwhile, just 14 people have been hospitalized for the virus during that time, and 6 people died, according to New York City Department of Health Statistics. 

Citywide, over 7,187,755 people have received at least one doses of the vaccine, which represents 86.2% of the New York City population.