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Kyrie Irving surprised at mandate’s effect, sees himself as a ‘martyr’ in vaccine fight

Brooklyn Nets v Sacramento Kings Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

In a discussion with Eddie Gonzalez on the Boardroom’s The ETCs podcast, Kyrie Irving said while the imposition of New York’s stringent vaccine mandate surprised him and while he understands he let people down, he still believes his refusal to get the shot was “the right thing for me. Irving at one point also described himself as a “martyr,” having suffered for a cause. The full podcast was released Wednesday.

“[The mandate] completely caught me off guard,” said Irving who wound up playing 29 games. “I didn’t expect to come into the season with all this put on my plate,” Irving said. “It was an ultimatum given to me, it’s either you work and get vaccinated just like this ultimatum was given to other people, or you sit at home and now we get to talk s—t about your decisions and me personally and make all these judgments and stuff.

“I had to deal with both ends of the spectrum. I sat right in the middle. I knew I was doing the right thing for me. And I had to stay rooted int that decision. And I’m grateful I had a great support system to get me through it because it wasn’t easy.”

He also admitted that he had let Nets fans and his teammates down.

“Not everybody understood my stance this year of being unvaccinated or remaining unvaccinated. I was asked in all different types of ways how I felt and whether or not I was going to waver, Did I feel like I was letting the world down or letting Nets fans down, letting my teammates down?” he asked aloud at one point. “Yeah, part of that letdown feeling definitely seeped in.”

Irving said his decision and the initial confusion over how and where he could play — even practice — admittedly put him in the “hot seat for a little bit” adding it’s part of being a “martyr” for a cause.

“I was not expecting a mandate to be brought down in a way where it wasn’t going to let me play at all,” Irving told Gonzalez. “I had the opportunity to play away games still but there was no plan in place, there was no vision of how it was going to work for our team. And I think that not only impacted not just me, but a lot of people. Just had to sit in that hot seat for a little bit and deal with it. The life of a martyr, bro.”

The venue mandate was put in effect on September 13. By September 27, the Nets held their Media Day with Irving on Zoom, asking for privacy when reporters questioned him about his vaccine status.

As the season progressed and his anxiety increased, Irving said he was on the phone trying to resolve the issue ... without getting vaccinated.

“I was approaching the team almost every day or every week. Like, ‘Hey, is there any progress?’” he told Gonzalez. “Trying to get in touch with the mayor’s office, trying to get in touch with our political figures, our political leaders, to figure out how do we work around this? I talked to scientists, I talked to health professionals. I went down the checklist of, ‘Hey, is there any way that I can work around this?”

He also admitted the ups-and-downs of the season left a toll on his readiness as the season wore on and he put up league leading minutes as the Nets struggled to make the play-in tournament.

“I had to play catch-up,” Irving said. “And playing catch-up in a league that’s only getting better, it’s not the position you’d like to be in.”

Irving spoke as well about his friendship with Kevin Durant and the decision not to include him among the NBA’s 75 greatest players. Both his teammates at the time, KD and James Harden, made the list.

“I’m used to this since 7th grade when I was called a weirdo and sat in the cafeteria by myself. I don’t mind it. Because along the way I’m going to find my authentic community that accepts me for my greatness.”

As for his and the Nets future, Irving made it clear he wants to create a delayed dynasty in Brooklyn.

“I’d like to put together four straight years of team dominance. Winning 60-plus games. Going deep in the playoffs and having fun building relationships that extend beyond the court.”