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High-Profile Vaccine Refusals Force Tough Questions for NBA Teams

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor ISeptember 30, 2021

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) reacts against the Boston Celtics in the first half of Game 5 during an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Adam Hunger/Associated Press

Kyrie Irving's unwavering stance to withhold saying whether he's received the COVID-19 vaccine cast a pall over the start of an NBA season in which many expect the Brooklyn Nets to have a clear path to a championship. New York City ordinance requires at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to enter indoor dining, fitness and entertainment venues, which would render Irving ineligible to play in 41 home games at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, should he remain unvaccinated by opening night. 

One Nets official pointed out that, unlike San Francisco's fully vaccinated requirement, Irving does only need a first shot in order to rejoin his team. But at this juncture, Irving isn't just limited from eventually playing home games. He's currently barred from even setting foot inside the Nets' practice facilities, which explained his remote media day session with reporters.

His refusal to cooperate with health and safety protocols thus far has led some team executives to speculate the All-Star point guard is attempting to leverage a trade.

"He's just not acting like he loves this place and wants to be there," one assistant general manager said.

Multiple team officials B/R contacted mentioned the possibility of a Nets-76ers blockbuster that would swap Irving for the disgruntled Ben Simmons, citing a natural solution for the league's two buzziest controversies.

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Yet several league sources with knowledge of the situation strongly pushed back on the notion that either Irving or the Nets are looking to make such a move. "Kyrie came to Brooklyn to win a championship alongside Kevin Durant," one veteran executive told B/R. James Harden's confidants, sources said, have communicated they expect Irving to be part of Brooklyn for the foreseeable future.

And throughout Irving's tenure with the franchise, Nets officials have worked patiently with him behind closed doors, sources said. Whenever the electric ball-handler seemingly ruffles feathers inside the organization—such as missing seven games early last season in January because of "personal reasons"—management has worked through adversity with empathy.

"I'm sure Sean Marks and Steve Nash aren't thrilled with the situation, but despite all the s--t that goes on, they still treat him really well there," one league source with knowledge of the situation said. "They hear him out. They make the effort to try and communicate with him. That's why Brooklyn is a special place."

Recent history suggests that view holds water. Last season, when the Nets engaged in trade talks to acquire Harden during Irving's January hiatus, Houston inquired about Irving, but Brooklyn never entertained parting with him, sources told B/R.

Just as the Nets pursued Durant's fellow Texas Longhorn LaMarcus Aldridge, Brooklyn signed swingman DeAndre' Bembry this offseason. He attended the same high school as Irving, St. Patrick, in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Executives remain anxious to learn how players such as Irving missing games because of their vaccination status may impact that team's tax bill. If the league categorizes that absence as a suspension by Adam Silver's office, the collective bargaining agreement states that half the amount of the suspension would then be deducted from the team's luxury-tax bill.

On Wednesday, NBA spokesperson Mike Bass messaged reporters that "any player who elects not to comply with local vaccination mandates will not be paid for games that he misses." It would seem Brooklyn may actually benefit from significant financial relief if Irving is docked roughly $400,000 per game missed.

Several team officials observed that Irving being sidelined for 41 contests could even boost the Nets' title chase. Injuries prevented Irving, Durant and Harden from appearing in more than eight regular-season games together last season and hampered Brooklyn's effort to defeat the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the playoffs.

"The game that Brooklyn's playing is to literally survive and advance," one league source with knowledge of the situation said. "That's 41 less games Kyrie has a chance to get injured."

This year's postseason could also be played under different vaccine requirements than at present. The virus remains a critical public health crisis, yet only two NBA cities currently mandate vaccinations. What if the country is fortunate enough to slow the spreading delta variant and New York's local ordinance changes?

Perhaps by the playoffs, Nets officials would be able to lobby the local government to make an exemption for Irving, just as Los Angeles made an exemption to its indoor mask mandate for the Emmys in September.

That also highlights another noteworthy element of Irving's vaccine status. To sign minimum-salary players and other roster hopefuls to Exhibit 10 deals, general managers pressed agents on those clients' vaccine details. However, star players such as Irving and Bradley Beal—along with the Golden State Warriors' handsomely paid swingman Andrew Wiggins—have far less incentive from a business perspective to break from their "personal reasons" to avoid getting the shot, which medical experts and scientific evidence suggests significantly decreases a person's chances of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19, let alone contracting the virus.

Warriors officials are hopeful Andrew Wiggins will eventually take the vaccine after the NBA and San Francisco denied his efforts for a religious exemption.
Warriors officials are hopeful Andrew Wiggins will eventually take the vaccine after the NBA and San Francisco denied his efforts for a religious exemption.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

"But if you're Kyrie Irving, you can throw some weight around," one league office figure said. "He's that talented."

Wiggins is not in the same tier when it comes to off-court endorsement dollars, but he's a key piece to a possible championship contender. For that, Warriors officials remain hopeful he will eventually take the vaccine after the NBA and San Francisco denied his efforts for a religious exemption.

Short of a mandate, the NBA is doing everything in its power to encourage vaccination among its players. In a memo sent to general managers Tuesday, which Bleacher Report obtained, the league made it clear how restrictive its health and safety protocols will be for non-vaccinated players.

Unvaccinated players will be stationed at lockers as far from teammates as possible. They will be prohibited from dining indoors in the same room as teammates and other staffers. They will be required to socially distance at least six feet during meetings and medical treatments.

Unvaccinated players must also remain distanced from teammates during flights and will be barred from leaving their home residence or team hotel outside of essential activities. Meanwhile, teams that are fully vaccinated, like the Utah Jazz, aren't required to wear face masks in their facilities, providing a glimpse of real normalcy some team personnel are viewing as a legitimate competitive advantage, along with the health and safety benefits. Non-player team personnel are required to be vaccinated, with very few exceptions.

With over 90 percent of NBA players vaccinated already, a significant number of teams that are not quite at full vaccination do expect their entire 17-man rosters to have at least one dose of the shot prior to opening night.

"I know it's a choice. I get it," another assistant general manager said. "But aside from the public health aspect, that's a lot of money to give up. And you're basically going to be on lockdown all the time. They got to get it done. There's only one option."

"You work with them. You just try to communicate and educate, and at the end of the day, they have to make a decision they think is best for them and their family," one general manager told B/R. "It's their life, it's their bodies. If there's a fear or concern, we're trying to have them talk to the most educated people we can, because if you see the numbers behind those who've been hospitalized getting the virus, in terms of those who survived and don't survive, it does seem like a no-brainer."

The current draft of the NBA's health and safety protocols sent to teams Tuesday and obtained by B/R is 65 pages, but there are other particulars for the league and players union to iron out. For instance, what happens if a non-vaccinated player contracts COVID and then misses games while under the document's mandatory quarantine of seven days? Will they not be paid for those games too?

"Logic would dictate they're just not performing the duties of their contract," another high-ranking team executive said.

The union and league each consult leading epidemiologists and medical professionals to finalize these protocols. While the NBA has urged the NBPA to require a vaccine, the union remains steadfast in its refusal. Lingering in the background of these conversations is the reality that both the players union and the league can opt out of the current CBA by December 2022, when teams will assuredly fight for various concessions from the players' side, such as requiring each prospect to attend the annual draft combine to undergo medical testing.

For now, all eyes remain on the players who've yet to receive the vaccine, and Irving in particular. Not only for his stature in the league, and expected role on Brooklyn's juggernaut, but also his history of outspoken contrarian beliefs. League observers are curious how long he holds his ground and if it will detract from the Nets' run for the championship. What if, in the worst-case scenario, Irving catches the virus and spreads the disease to fellow Nets personnel?

"The league is in a staring contest with Kyrie," one Western Conference official said. "And hopefully the league wins."  

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