Kyrie Irving took advantage of it – a crowd eager for his return and his belief that he had won the battle he fought this season against vaccination mandates. Asked about the game, after Sunday night’s 119-110 loss to the Charlotte Hornets, he smiled.
He called it “historic” – being able to play for the Nets in Brooklyn. He said he tried to stay grounded as he prepared for the warm reception he would receive.
“I don’t take what happened tonight for granted,” Irving said.
Just in time for baseball season and the NBA playoffs, New York City has created an exception to its private sector coronavirus vaccine mandate that allows local athletes and artists to work in the city regardless or their vaccination status. The announcement on Thursday meant that Irving, who had refused to be vaccinated against Covid-19, could finally play at home.
“Now we can move on,” Irving said. “Now that everyone can move on, especially in the locker room. Limited distractions, no fear. Next game we will be better.
His team, which started the season with championship expectations, is now fighting for a playoff spot. Irving’s return could give the Nets some stability, finally, after a season almost without him. But in their first game back at Barclays Center, the Nets lost and time is running out to build the cohesion they will need to succeed this post-season.
“That’s the situation we find ourselves in,” forward Kevin Durant said. “Let’s put our heads down and go to work. I mean, you know, it’s a challenge. Everyone is going through challenges this season as a team. This is what we have in front of us. »
It had been almost 10 months since Irving played in the Nets arena. On Sunday night, the crowd of 18,166 – a record number for a Nets game at Barclays Center – gave him a shout-out.
Before the game, a fan shown on the video card simply shouted “Kyrie”, stretching out the final vowel. Irving received the loudest cheers of any player when the starting lineups were presented.
Just before kickoff, he stood over the Nets logo midcourt with the dash cam fixed on him. The fans roared and Irving pointed at them, turning to recognize each side of the arena.
“It was great to see him there,” Durant said. “Good to see the fans excited for him.”
When Covid-19 vaccines became available, the NBA created separate protocols, making it much easier for vaccinated players to stay active and participate in team activities. Although New York law and the NBA’s insistence that teams follow local guidelines prevented Irving from playing at home, he was allowed to play on the road while observing stricter testing protocols.
The Nets initially said they weren’t interested in a part-time participant, but later changed their minds. Since Jan. 5, Irving has been a part-time player, dressing for road games.
His stance against getting a coronavirus vaccine is unusual in the league. The NBA and its players’ union now say 97% of players have been vaccinated and 75% have received a booster shot against the disease that has led to more than 40,000 reported deaths in New York.
Recently, as the city began to ease restrictions, Irving’s teammates began to crave his return for home games. Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, said the law didn’t make sense because it allowed unvaccinated players from visiting teams to play.
On Thursday, oddly close to the start of the baseball season, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced an exception for local athletes and entertainers, setting up Irving’s debut at Barclays.
“It’s not just Kyrie’s talent, the continuity he provides playing at home,” coach Steve Nash said. “But the amount of minutes and the burden of the roles guys have to take on when he’s not around.”
The date of his debut was not ideal. The Nets returned home shortly before dawn on Sunday after playing Saturday night in Miami.
Irving missed his first five shots and was 6 of 22, but that didn’t dampen the crowd’s vocal appreciation for him.
“You feel a kind of anticipation,” Irving said.
He had just two of his first 17 shots, but was more effective in the fourth quarter, shooting three in a row to tie the game at 104. He was fouled on his next attempt, and when he stood in the line, the crowd chanted his name.
Early this season, even without Irving, the Nets found themselves in the first quarter of the conference, Durant and James Harden contributing wins. But they lost Durant 21 straight games to a knee injury. Harden was traded to Philadelphia in February for Ben Simmons, who has yet to play for the Nets.
There are only seven regular season games left for the Nets. They are now tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference and would be ninth in the tiebreaker if the season ended today. It’s a seeded position that would require them to win two playoff games just to qualify for the playoffs.
It was noted to Nash that the Nets could now have a starting five they can rely on for the rest of the season. He smiled wryly at the suggestion.
“We’re very hesitant to pretend it’s going to be like this,” he said.
Their season has been too volatile for Nash to rely on.