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Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant talk effects of vaccine mandate on Nets ... as Yankees, Mets face same issues

Brooklyn Nets v Orlando Magic Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

After dropping a franchise-record 60 points, Kyrie Irving expects to be along the sidelines again Wednesday when the Nets play the Dallas Mavericks at Barclays Center.

“Yeah. I’ll do what you guys do: probably wear a media pass, man. Start asking questions. Start doing other things around the game: having fun, bring a camera and stuff taking pictures on the sideline and start asking questions to you guys in the media. How you feel about tonight,” Irving joked. “Who knows man but tomorrow, we’ll see what happens.”

The unvaccinated Irving could be on the sidelines more than on the court if the city doesn’t change its policy on vaccine mandates. As of now, Irving will only be able to play in three of the Nets final 13 games — on March 23 at Memphis, March 26 at Miami and April 2 at Atlanta. The Hawks game might wind up being the only one of the team’s final eight games he’d be eligible to play.

Moreover, in comments Wednesday morning, New York Mayor Eric Adams took a hardline on the mandate, saying among other things that he’s focused on the city, not on “one individual,” in a less than veiled reference to Irving.

The City dropped the indoor venue mandate on March 7 but the private sector mandate remains. Under it, unvaccinated New Yorkers who work for companies with more than 100 employees cannot enter their workplace . So, Irving is not allowed to play at Barclays Center. He can enter the arena as a spectator, as he did Sunday, but is not eligible to sit on the Nets’ bench or enter the locker room. That’s his workplace. (HSS Training Center is a private fitness center.)

Irving admitted he didn’t think he would get fined ($50,000) for entering the team’s locker room against the New York Knicks on Sunday. Overall, the 29-year-old said it’s been an awkward feeling sitting courtside but the support from his teammates, the Nets organization, and from the outside has helped him with his situation.

“It’s not the best feeling in the world. It’s a little awkward but showing up with my family and getting a warm embrace from New York, Brooklyn, and just everybody there to support the Net, our organization, supporting me, and just supporting what’s going on out here,” Irving said. “We want to see a change and I’m grateful I’m not alone in this pursuit right now.

“My teammates have my back. The organization has my back so going there, I just feel like I’m a casual fan driving to the game and hopefully, I don’t have to feel like this as much anymore.”

The Nets guard’s confidence in the private sector mandate being flipped in the home stretch of the regular season hasn’t wavered a bit. He once again praised the ones around him for their support, mentioning that it’s been a tiresome process all season for his teammates and some members in the Nets organization to have to speak on his situation throughout the year.

“Absolutely. My faith in things turning around hasn’t changed. It hasn’t wavered,” Irving said. “I wouldn’t be able to sit up here and talk about it with you guys comfortably unless I had a big supporting group behind me,” Irving said. “They’ve been selfless this whole time. Who would’ve thought at the beginning of the season that we’d be dealing with the same questions over and over again every day?

“I know it was tiresome for my teammates and I know it was for some people in the organization. I just commend all of us for just really making a choice to come together and just deal with this,” Irving stated. “We’re dealing with it face on so whatever is going on outside of what we can control, that is what happens. When we can, it’s just showing up every day and knowing that we’re all sacrificing something to be here.”

Indeed things could change soon. Irving may not be so alone among unvaccinated New York’s sports stars affected by the mandate. According to reports out Tuesday, the private sector mandate will also affect New York Yankee and New York Met players, some of whom remain unvaxxed.

In his report, Stefan Bondy of the Daily News quoted a city spokesperson who cautioned that things could change by Opening Day, which is April 7. That’s also three days before the Nets final regular season game.

The spokesperson cautioned that mandates could shift with the state of the pandemic, but said that the city would not be carving out individual exceptions. The fact that the baseball teams play outside has no bearing on the mandate, the spokesperson said.

Bottom line: Unless the mandate changes, unvaccinated members of the Mets and Yankees would not be eligible to play home games, in addition to road games in Toronto.

“We have to worry about the health of almost 9 million people. No one is trying to hurt Kyrie Irving or a Yankees player,” the spokesperson said.

Among those ball players believed to be unvaccinated is Yankee slugger Aaron Judge. Judge has declined to comment on his vaccine status. While the mayor’s spokesman said pressure will not effect his decision, that it will be about the science, there are more baseball fans in New York than basketball fans and so pressure could mount. Moreover, the city changed medical directors on Tuesday with Dr. Dave Chokshi, a strong advocate of mandates, being replaced by Dr. Aswin Vasan. It’s long been assumed that once Dr. Vasan, an epidemiologist and mental health advocate, took over, he’d review the city’s COVID policies.

Of course, in his own public statements, Mayor Adams has said that the city remains steadfast in retaining the private sector mandate ... at least for now. The city’s death toll and caseload from COVID has dropped dramatically in the last two months.

At a press conference Wednesday morning, the mayor said that the situation with the Nets and potentially the Yankees and Mets are not his top concern. He did say that at one point the mandate would go away but not because of some sports schedule.

“We’re going to continue to peel back, but let’s be clear: Everyone that’s focusing on a sports area, they’re focusing on one person,” he said in response to a question about The Post’s Wednesday front page on the mandate’s effect on pro sports teams in the city.

“I’m focused on 9 million people,” Adams added. “And so, I am not looking at one person, I’m looking at my city not closing down again, not having to deal with this crisis again.”

“We’re going to peel back like we did with the Key to NYC, like we did with children, we are continuing to do so,” the mayor added. “But I’m not going to be rushed in based on a season schedule. I am going to do this right for the people of the city, and I’m not focusing on one individual; I’m focusing on nine million people.”

Three days ago, he responded to a heckler asking about the mandate this way: “Listen, you’re right. Kyrie can play tomorrow. Get vaccinated.”

In post-game comments Tuesday, Kevin Durant admitted he has had conversations about the COVID-19 vaccine with Irving. The conversations revolved around their personal beliefs on the vaccine from both sides. Durant reiterated that it’s Irving’s decision and that it isn’t his place to force him to get the vaccine.

“Me and Kyrie had conversations about the vaccine, and what it meant to him and what it meant to me. At the end of the day, I didn’t think it was my decision on what he wanted to do with the vaccine,” Durant said. “I gave him what I felt about it and we talked about it, but that’s ultimately his decision. I was never going to force anybody to do something with their bodies that they didn’t want to do. We passed all that right now. It’s just not making sense. I didn’t say anything about five-six months ago about how I was feeling but at this point, I felt like I just wanted to speak up.”

KD added that he doesn’t think Irving deserves any extra criticism because of his status. Irving is in a tiny minority of NBA players who haven’t gotten the shot.

“I don’t think so,” said Durant any extra criticism. “We all got a job to do. We all get to play this game that we love every single day regardless. We can’t let somebody else affect how we approach our jobs. That’s just anybody in life. Nah, I don’t think he let us down because at the same time, me as an individual, I got to bring my best and the rest of my teammates got to bring their best no matter what. From my perspective, nah.”

At the same time, the Nets will certainly need Irving the rest of the way and into the play-in tournament. Brooklyn currently sits in the eighth-seed, trailing the seventh-seeded Toronto Raptors by 2.5 games. Not far behind the Nets are the nine-seeded Atlanta Hawks (1.5 games back) and the 10th-seeded Charlotte Hornets (2.0 games back). Crunchtime is upon us.