Most NBA Players Support Personal Vaccine Choice, but for How Long?

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor ISeptember 28, 2021

Kevin Durant says superstar teammate Kyrie Irving's choice to remain unvaccinated is "his personal decision," and "what he does is not on us to speculate." Will that level of empathy carry over into the season when Irving's absence could cost his team wins?
Kevin Durant says superstar teammate Kyrie Irving's choice to remain unvaccinated is "his personal decision," and "what he does is not on us to speculate." Will that level of empathy carry over into the season when Irving's absence could cost his team wins?Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

When it comes to NBA media day, Kyrie Irving is no stranger to drawing a crowd.

But Monday's must-see moment didn't go as planned with Irving attending media day remotely because of health and safety protocols.

The Brooklyn Nets' All-Star was an in-person no-show because of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's executive order issued last month that requires all athletes in the city who practice or play indoors to show proof of having taken at least one vaccine shot.

Irving was repeatedly asked about his vaccine status and whether he will miss any games because of it.

"Obviously living in this public sphere, it's just a lot of questions about what's going on in the world of Kyrie," he told reporters. "I think I just would love to just keep that private, handle it the right way with my team and go forward together with the plan."

With 10 percent of NBA players unvaccinated, Irving's status is unique for a couple of reasons: He's a superstar, and he plays in one of two states where unvaccinated players aren't allowed to work. San Francisco and New York have instituted rules regarding unvaccinated players who compete indoors, and ESPN's Tim Bontemps noted there's a possibility that "similar vaccination requirements could come under consideration in other NBA markets," according to the league.

It's a complex merging of societal issues of race, religion and freedom of choice that have the potential to pit teammates against one another in a way we haven't seen before with this generation of players.

The issue has divided the country, but will it divide NBA locker rooms?

One of Irving's biggest supporters, teammate Kevin Durant, didn't seem overly concerned the Nets could potentially be without Irving for an extended period of time.

"That's on Kyrie," Durant told reporters. "It's his personal decision. What he does is not on us to speculate what may happen. But we trust in Kyrie, and I expect us to have our full team at some point."

Irving is just one of a number of high-profile NBA stars whose decision to not be vaccinated against the coronavirus has become a hot-button topic.

The Washington Wizards' Bradley Beal, who missed the 2021 Olympics after being forced to enter health and safety protocols in July, has no plans on getting the vaccine.

"If that's something that we are supposed to highly be protected from, like it's funny that it only reduces your chances of going to the hospital. It doesn't eliminate anybody from getting COVID, right?" Beal told reporters Monday.

When a reporter mentioned the vaccine decreases one's chances of death or hospitalization because of the virus, Beal replied, "OK, but you can still get COVID, right? And you can still pass it along with the vax, right? So I'm just asking the question."

Beal is not alone in his insistence on not getting the vaccine. And there's clear support among players—for now, at least—for those who decide to not get vaccinated.

"It's tough being told what you can and can't do with your own body," the Boston Celtics' Marcus Smart said. "I chose to get vaccinated because, quite frankly, I didn't feel like dealing with the BS that was revolving around it. That was my decision. I stand by anybody who makes their own decision to feel what they feel best for themselves."

Smart is well aware that not having the vaccine could result in missed games, which is also why he opted to get vaccinated.

"I didn't feel like causing my team any disparity when it comes to me not being available," he said. "I respect everyone's decision, pro or against."

The Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard got the vaccine for himself alongside his family members.

"They presented the opportunity, and I said, 'Can I bring my family too?' And they said, 'Yeah,' and that was it," Lillard told reporters. "I'm not mad at people for saying, 'I need to do my research.' They got to take the steps that make them comfortable."

He added: "I have a lot of people in my family that I'm tight with, I spend a lot of time around. I'm just not gonna put their health or their lives in danger because I want to hold a big research, when as a kid I had to get shots my whole life. Before I went to college, I had to get shots, and I couldn't tell you one thing about any of them. So if it's something that, you know, I've had people in my family actually die and people actually lose their lives to it, and it's a way for me to protect myself and the people that I love, I'm gonna do it. It's pretty simple."

Boston head coach Ime Udoka was not able to attend Monday's media day in person after suffering a breakthrough case of the virus that forced him into self-isolation 10 days prior. He is hoping to rejoin the team for practice Tuesday. Udoka is one of several NBA coaches with a roster that is not fully vaccinated.

"Guys have been informed and educated pretty vigorously on all of the vaccination benefits, and then it's a personal choice that guys have to make on their own," Udoka said.

He added, "There are repercussions if you're not vaccinated."

Those repercussions involve the players who choose not to get vaccinated but also their teams. And that has the potential to create problems inside the locker room.

"How are they gonna feel when guys miss games and they lose those games?" a former player who served on the players association's executive board told B/R. "Right now, those decisions to not be (vaccinated), it hasn't cost a single team one game.

"I'm curious to see how this is gonna impact locker rooms across the league. Because it's not that big a stretch to see something like this divide a locker room, especially when it's one of your go-to guys and you lose like two or three games as part of a homestand because you're undermanned."

The NBA's position is clear: It wants players to be vaccinated and is requiring most staff members around players to be fully vaccinated.

Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens has also talked about respecting the decision of those players who elect to not get the vaccine, but he added"Our hope is that we get as close to 100 percent vaccinated as soon as possible. That's our hope and our desire. We'll work on our end with what we can do and from an educational standpoint with our organization. But everyone has to make that decision for themselves."

The Golden State Warriors' Andrew Wiggins is among the NBA players who has refused to be vaccinated. He applied for a religious exemption, but that was denied by the league.

If fully healthy, the Warriors are considered championship contenders this season, but an unvaccinated Wiggins could jeopardize their chances. If current San Francisco mandates stand throughout the season and Wiggins remains unvaccinated, he could miss 41 regular-season home games, not to mention games in New York and other cities that could adopt similar rules.

There's also the public health risk that vaccinated players would be exposing themselves to if they are competing with and against those who are unvaccinated. And according to ESPN's Baxter Holmes, some staffers who work with players have concerns about their own safety if they have to interact with unvaccinated players.

Meanwhile, the Orlando Magic's Jonathan Isaac has talked about feeling "vilified" and "bullied" because he has chosen not to take the vaccine.

For Isaac, the decision to not get vaccinated is deeply rooted in his faith, which the 23-year-old has been open about since arriving in the NBA.

"At the end of the day, it's people," Isaac told Rolling Stone's Matt Sullivan, referencing scientists who develop vaccines. "And you can't always put your trust completely in people."

Therein lies part of the challenge facing the NBA, a league that touts 90 percent of its players have taken at least one shot. The league is dealing with people from a wide variety of backgrounds with varying levels of trust in others.

Trying to close the gap on that last 10 percent won't be easy.