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Post: How a late tweak to NYC’s vaccine mandate changed everything

Boston Celtics Vs. Brooklyn Nets At Barclays Center Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Post’s Brian Lewis and Josh Kosman report that a surprising tweak to the language of New York City’s vaccine mandate last August may have changed the Nets fortunes as well ... and not just for last season.

The two report that sometime between August 16 and 20, without the Nets knowledge, Mayor Bill deBlasio’s administration made a subtle yet important change in the wording of the “Key to the City” policy that included vaccine mandates for city employees and “artists” a designation that included players on the city’s professional sports:

This train first went off the rails not during the season but in the preseason; in August 2021 when Mayor Bill de Blasio issued an emergency executive order allowing unvaccinated local athletes who lived outside the city to play home games, then switched the city mandate just four days later to bar them as well.

De Blasio’s initial executive order on Aug. 16 initially specified among the exemptions, “A nonresident professional athlete/sports team who enters a covered premises as part of their regular employment for purposes of competing.”

In other words, Irving who lives in West Orange, N.J. would not have been covered under the original language and would have been allowed to play at Barclays Center. But by the time the final wording was promulgated on August 20, Lewis and Kosman report the mandate covered Irving and every other player on the city’s nine pro teams whether they lived inside or outside city limits.

Because Irving wasn’t vaccinated, he couldn’t play in home games and Joe Tsai and Sean Marks originally banned him from the Nets altogether in large part because they believed having a part-time player would hurt team chemistry. With Kevin Durant out with a sprained MCL and COVID ravaging the roster, they relented and by January 5, Irving was permitted to play on the road. It took until March 24 for the city, then under Mayor Eric Adams, to lift the mandate and play in every game. By then, the Nets were fighting just to make the play-in tournament.

Lewis and Kosman don’t suggest why the mandate changed or who was involved, but apparently it caught everyone by surprise.

There was chatter that de Blasio might tweak the original language somewhat, and Nets owner Joe Tsai is not believed to have lobbied city hall in the immediate aftermath to keep the executive order the same.

But the Nets say they were as stunned as everybody else when the change happened. As it turns out, the lightning-quick four-day time frame didn’t allow the Alibaba co-founder — who spends much of his time in Hong Kong — time to act; and a source close to Irving felt it unlikely to have made a difference if he had.

“[Tsai’s] hands were tied,” said a source close to Irving.

While one of the Post’s source said the Nets owner might have lobbied to keep the original language, Mandy Gutmann, the Nets spokesperson, told the Post that Tsai was as unaware of the change as anyone.

“Mr. Tsai had no knowledge that Mayor de Blasio’s office was going to change the original Key to NYC mandate making vaccines required for home team players who were non-residents of New York City,” said Gutmann.

“No one was expecting the mandate the way in which he wouldn’t be able to play. No one expected it,” a source close to Irving told the Post. “The entire thing was that vaccination was absolutely going to be a choice and not anything that was forced.

“There were conversations around that whole artist component, so if you were an artist visiting from outside — also if you didn’t live in New York City — you’d be allowed to play. When the mandate came down everybody was confused because no one expected for it to take on that tone … everybody was a little surprised.”

At the time the mandate promulgated, not all the Nets players were vaxxed, according to sources. The mandate, which went into effect on September 13, drove the recalcitrant Nets players to get the shot. Everyone but Irving, that is.

The change in wording also explains why Irving has repeatedly stated that he was surprised by the city’s hardline approach.

“There was a time where I got my hopes really, really high and all the air was just let out. And it’s just a level of disappointment,” Irving had said during the season, never spelling out specifics.

After deBlasio was replaced by Adams in January, a subsidiary of the Nets parent company did lobby for the mandate to be pulled in its entirety. On February 8, the company agreed to pay Corey Johnson, the former president of the City Council, $18,000 a month for 18 months, a total of $324,000, plus expenses, to lobby the city on “health care policy,” specifically the mayor’s executive order on the mandate. (Ironically or not, February 8 was the same day James Harden asked to be traded.)

Of course, the real “lobbying” came from the city’s two MLB teams, the Mets and Yankees who were about to open spring training and had numerous players, including stars, unvaccinated.

It all could’ve been avoided if Irving had agreed to get vaccinated. By the time the Nets held their Media Day on September 28 and the subsequent training camp in San Diego, Irving understood the situation was dire. During a reception at the Tsais’ home that week, Irving resisted Tsai’s pleas to get vaccinated.

“It was more of a process of having multiple conversations with him about our perspective on the vaccine,” said Tsai in an interview with NetsDaily a month later. “What I told him was the facts that we know about the vaccine. So what I tried to present to Kyrie — I wasn’t trying to evangelize one thing or another.”

Of course, now things have escalated. Irving, presented with a contract offer less than the max, opted to accept his $36.5 million player option ... and Kevin Durant asked for a trade.