Excitement quickly turned to panic among the thousands of fans gathered in Oklahoma City’s Paycom Arena to watch an NBA matchup between the local Thunder and Utah Jazz last March.
Just minutes before tip off, Utah center Rudy Gobert became the first professional athlete to test positive for COVID-19.
The NBA immediately suspended the game — and later, the season.
Eighteen months later, the world we live in has changed in ways we could have never imagined.
Masks, tests and quarantining have all become a part of our daily lives. As the world opens up again, the NBA is kicking off a full, 82-game schedule and is attempting to return to full arenas.
The key factor in a normal return?
The Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have all been credited with saving countless lives around the world and allowing the U.S. to reopen.
The NBA has gone from full stoppage to fans back in the stands — thanks to a vaccine.
The league hasn’t mandated that its players and fans get vaccinated. But a combination of the vaccine’s effectiveness and a number of clever incentives has resulted in 95% of players receiving both shots.
But not everyone has obliged.
At the forefront of the league’s anti-vaccine movement is Brooklyn Nets star point guard Kyrie Irving.
Irving, a seven-time All-Star and 2016 NBA Champion with the Cleveland Cavaliers, has never been one to shy away from expressing his beliefs. Irving took a stand last year after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, WI, when he supported the league’s decision to suspend play following the incident.
Irving is an advocate for social and racial justice, and is known around the league for his activism.
He is also a “conspiracy theorist,” having argued in the past that the Earth isn’t round.
But here’s the thing: while Irving’s flat-Earth comments don’t impact anyone, his vaccine comments do. And not just the unvaccinated people around him, but also his teammates.
On Sept. 13, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced professional athletes must show proof of at least one dose of vaccination to play in home games.
For Irving, this means not being able to attend any of the Nets’ 41 home games this season. He will also forfeit his salary for every game he misses, which is roughly $400,000 per game.
Irving previously missed the NBA’s in-person Media Day, instead answering questions over Zoom and interacting with fans over Instagram Live.
Irving’s absence from his team will have ripples all year.
Brooklyn is currently the title favorite, according to multiple Vegas sportsbooks. The Nets have never won a championship, and with three All-Stars — Kevin Durant, James Harden and Irving — this is easily their best opportunity to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the season.
Brooklyn cannot afford to lose Irving for this season, especially with their three superstars getting older every year.
If Irving is not willing to get vaccinated, Brooklyn should move him.
There is no sense in keeping a player who can’t play under league rules.
Getting rid of Irving will save the Nets the massive headache. It will also free up cap space, as Irving is currently on a maximum deal and will not need to be re-signed in 2023.
For Irving himself, it’s time to decide how serious he is about the game.
It’s not just analysts calling Irving out; it’s also personalities like Stephen A. Smith and legends like Shaquille O’Neal.
Even Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabaar has weighed in: “The NBA should insist that all players and staff are vaccinated or remove them from the team.
“There is no room for players who are willing to risk the health and lives of their teammates, the staff and the fans simply because they are unable to grasp the seriousness of the situation or do the necessary research,” Abdul-Jabbar said in an interview with CNN.
By all means, Irving does not have to get the vaccine.
That is his choice, as the NBA hasn’t mandated it.
But he better be prepared for the consequences.
Irving will not only lose millions of dollars and a valuable playing season, but his chances at a championship with Brooklyn will also greatly diminish.
Irving must decide how committed he is to the game. If the vaccine is truly such a problem for him, maybe he should take his $200 million-plus career earnings and retire from the sport.
Either way, this saga has lasted too long.
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