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Kyrie Irving: Brooklyn Nets star says he ‘respected’ team’s decision to ban him from playing due to vaccination status

<i>Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images</i><br/>
NBAE via Getty Images
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

By Homero De La Fuente and John Sinnott, CNN

Kyrie Irving says he’s “Incredibly grateful just to be back in the building” as he spoke to the media for the first time since it was announced he would rejoin the Brooklyn Nets after a mix of Covid-19 issues and injuries depleted the NBA team’s roster, resulting in three postponements of their games.

Unvaccinated against Covid-19, Irving had been away from the team after Nets General Manager Sean Marks announced in October he wouldn’t be allowed to play or practice “until he is eligible to be a full participant.”

However, the seven-time All-Star guard is only eligible to play in road games due to New York City’s vaccine mandate which prohibits him from playing at Barclays Center.

“Not gonna lie, it has been relatively tough to watch from the sideline with everything going on in the world,” Irving told reporters on Wednesday. “I know everybody is feeling it [Covid-19].

“Just praying for everybody to be healthy during these times. If I get the opportunity to get on the court and play with my teammates, even if it is just on the road for away games, I am grateful for the opportunity,” added Irving, who said he had been welcomed back with “open arms” by his teammates and “the whole organization.”

On Tuesday, the US reached a record-high seven-day average for new Covid-19 cases and it is still ticking up.

Tuesday’s number beat the previous record of 251,989 new cases, set on January 11, 2021. The seven-day average for new cases is now at 265,427.

Hospitalizations and deaths have not seen a similar increase in pace, but these are lagging indicators that may drag weeks behind case increases. The seven-day average of new deaths is currently 1,453, and 76,779 people are hospitalized in the US with Covid-19.

READ: LeBron James reaches 36,000 career points as Los Angeles Lakers beat the Houston Rockets

‘I wouldn’t really call it a change of heart’

During Wednesday’s media conference, Irving was asked what had changed from the October decision to the current rethink.

“I understood their decision and I respected it,” said Irving. “I really had to sit back and try not to become too emotionally attached to what they were deciding to do.

“I had to sit down and really evaluate things and see it from their perspective. I really empathized and I understood their choice to say if you are not going to be fully vaccinated, then you can’t be a full participant.

“I wouldn’t really call it a change of heart … either you’re all in or you’re going to have to wait on the sidelines until things either calm down with the mandate, with some of these cases.

“We just want everybody to remain safe and to remain healthy and that was the reasoning behind it and I understood that.”

Asked if knew the consequences of not being vaccinated, Irving said he did, but he hadn’t been “prepared for them, by no stretch of the imagination.”

“Coming into the season, I had my thought process of being able to be a full-time teammate and just go out and have fun and provide a great brand of basketball out there,” added Irving.

“But unfortunately, it didn’t happen like that. Things happen for a reason, and now we’re here and I’m just grateful for this.”

‘I’m praying that it works’

As well as matches at New York’s Barclays Center, Irving is also ineligible to play road games in Toronto and San Francisco due to those cities’ local policies.

“When you throw in a state mandate that everyone has to follow, it’s not up to them, it’s not up to the team, it’s really a state mandate,” said Irving of the juggling act he and the Nets now face.

“I didn’t put too much pressure on them, they didn’t put too much pressure on me and we just respected each other’s boundaries along with everyone else on the team and now we’re here and they were able to just be supportive of just allowing me to be available for the road games.

“That was the goal once the state mandate came in, it didn’t work in October but now that we’re here I’m praying that it works.”

Irving previously defended his decision to not get vaccinated in October, saying in an Instagram Live video that “nobody should be forced to do anything with their bodies,” adding that his decision was not politically motivated.

Irving, though, may have to wait a while before making his first appearance of the season.

The Nets have three straight home games ahead of them beginning on Thursday against Philadelphia. Irving’s first appearance could come on January 5 when the Nets travel to Indiana to face the Pacers.

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