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Kyrie Irving’s comments on his vaccine status leave little hope for change of heart ... for now

Brooklyn Nets v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It’s been roughly a year since the COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have been available. As of Wednesday, more than 245.3 million Americans had received at least one shot, 205.2 million were fully vaccinated and 72.1 million were both fully vaccinated and had received a booster shot.

Kyrie Irving is not one of them and based on his response to a question from ESPN’s Nick Friedell Wednesday night, it doesn’t appear that he plans to get the jab. That of course would permit him to play in every one of the team’s remaining 46 games, not just the 21 he’s currently eligible. And it would remove the possibility that the Nets would give up significant home court advantage in the playoffs.

Irving was vague, even evasive, in his response to Friedell’s question, the first time he’d been asked publicly about his vaccination status. Specifically, here’s what he said...

“Man, I’m just taking it one day at a time. Like I said earlier in the season, it’s not an ideal situation, and I’m always praying that things get figured out and we’re able to come to some collective agreement, whether it be with the league or just things that’s going on that could help kind of ease what we’re all dealing with COVID and the vaccine. I think everyone’s feeling it.

“I don’t want to make this simply about me and simply about someone lessening the rules for me. I know what the consequences were, I still know what they are. But right now, I’m going to take things one day at a time like I said and enjoy this time that I get to play with my guys. However it looks later in the season, then we’ll address it them.”

Before getting up from the podium, Irving smiled when Friedell asked if that meant getting the jab was still a possibility. “Oh come on, man,” Irving said with a smile. “Don’t hang onto me.”

Any reading of the quote would suggest that, at least for now, Irving would prefer a solution other than him getting the vaccine. He said he was taking things “one day at a time,” but otherwise, Irving’s comments were not about getting vaccinated but rather that some external forces — the league, the city — would make changes or that the virus will become less deadly, mitigating the need for the mandate on indoor venues. It’s that mandate that not only prohibit him from playing in the city but ban him from the arena premises unless he’s fully vaccinated. (Under the original city mandate, all he needed was one shot, but now, under revised regulations, he’d need to be fully vaccinated.)

Irving spoke about things getting “figured out” or “some collective agreement” that would change his situation. Those comments, in the passive voice, don’t suggest any willingness to get vaccinated, but rather a (misplaced?) hope for changes to the mandate. As numerous reporters, from Shams Charania to Matt Sullivan have written, the new mayor, Eric Adams, is not likely to make any changes in the regulations, particularly with the omicron variant raging. Indeed, the first official act of the Adams administration was an executive order extending the mandate. There have also been discussions about requiring not only full vaccination but a booster shot for entry into a venue like Barclays Center.

On the other hand, the Nets superstar said he had no interest in what some might call a celebrity carve-out, saying “I don’t want to make this simply about me and simply about someone lessening the rules for me,” adding, “I know what the consequences were, I still know what they are.” That latter line also doesn’t suggest a willingness to get vaccinated. He essentially said he remains steadfast in his willingness to accept his fate, meaning he won’t be able to play games in New York (or Canada where there is a blanket ban on unvaccinated visitors.)

Finally, in his comments last night, Irving had an opportunity to say that yes, he’s considering getting vaccinated. Friedell asked him a specific question about whether getting vaccinated was a possibility. He declined to answer, saying with a smile, “oh come on, man. Don’t hang onto me.” If he had told Friedell that vaccination was indeed possible, it would have given fans hope that he’d take the simplest road to playing at home.

Irving or his “circle” have offered a number of reasons why he has refused to get the shot. Early on, he tweeted that he and his family are protected by God. In his Instagram Live comments, he said he was opposed to mandates and wanted to be a voice for the voiceless. According to interviews with those close to him, he’s also concerned about the long-term effects of the vaccine.

Things of course could change. The best outcome — for everyone — would be for the virus to recede but that’s not likely in the short term. Mayor Adams is more pro-mandate than his predecessor and the omicron variant’s emergence is likely to make the city more resolute in its defenses, not less.

Some pundits and fans think it’s possible that the camaraderie he so enjoys with teammates could result in a change of heart. Or that his teammates, all of whom are fully vaccinated, will persuade him to get the jab, get back on the Barclays Center court. But the Nets have believed in the past that Irving would comply with city regulations only to be disappointed. And let’s face it, Irving has gotten a billionaire to back down and survived an encounter with the virus.

The larger picture, of course, is about public health, not how far the Nets can go this season. The city, state and federal governments are all still pushing for everyone to get vaccinated, noting that what we are now experiencing is a pandemic of the unvaccinated with people still dying at a rate of 1,000 or so a day. More than 90 percent of them are unvaxxed. Having Irving vaccinated would be a big help in getting others to do the same, save lives. Two of his teammates, Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown, have appeared in a city PSA urging New Yorkers to get the vaccine as have Sean Marks and Steve Nash. Brown has even appeared in a commercial for Pfizer. The organization has been in forefront of pushing vaccines, offering Barclays Center and other locations as vaccination and testing sites.

Bottom line, as it’s been for a year, is that the simplest and, yes, the best option would be for Irving to get the jab. But based on his post-game comments Wednesday, that doesn’t seem realistic.