For the first time since his virtual appearance at media day three months ago, Kyrie Irving spoke to reporters on Wednesday. After practicing with the Brooklyn Nets, Irving — still unvaccinated against COVID-19 and thus ineligible to play in home games (or road games against the New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors) — repeatedly told reporters that he is grateful to be back.
Irving cleared health and safety protocols on Tuesday. Shortly after Irving’s media availability, Mark Levine, a New York City councilman who chairs the council’s health committee, tweeted that there were a record 39,591 new COVID cases in the city on Wednesday, and 770 new hospitalizations.
“Not going to lie, it’s been relatively tough to watch from the sideline, with everything going on in the world,” Irving said. “I know everybody’s feeling it, so, just praying for everybody to be healthy during these times. But if I get the opportunity to get on the court and play with some of my teammates, and even if it’s just on the road for away games, I’m just grateful for that opportunity.”
Earlier this month, the Nets reversed course on their decision to not let Irving be less than a full participant in the 2020-21 season. Brooklyn has recently had as many as 10 players sidelined because of health and safety protocols, and three of its games have been postponed. In this context, the organization decided it could use a part-time All-Star.
“I understood their (initial) decision and I respected it,” Irving said. “I really had to sit back and think and try to not 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, meaning the organization and my teammates.”
Irving said that teammates Kevin Durant and James Harden had “always been supportive,” and that he had stayed in shape in part by playing pickup games in middle school gyms and college gyms. He said he had tried to stay “connected with the team” throughout the season.
“I knew the consequences,” Irving said. “I wasn’t prepared for them, by no stretch of imagination.”
According to Irving, when the Nets told him they wanted him back, he didn’t hesitate: “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ This has always where I want to be. I’ve wanted to be playing with the team in whatever capacity I can do that.”
Brooklyn coach Steve Nash told reporters that Irving “looks great, considering he just came out of protocols and hasn’t played basketball.” Irving said he had missed the professional environment, and that “it was like riding a bike or being at your first day of school again.” There will be a ramp-up period, however, before he can make his season debut.
Now that his first regular-season practice is over, Irving said that it’s “time to turn the page” and focus on winning a championship.
“I don’t want to make it too much about me or what’s going on for the time that I’ve been away,” he said. “I’m just focused on putting the best foot forward for the team and just being available.”
Being fully available, though, will continue to be impossible, unless Irving gets vaccinated or the city loosens its regulations. Once he is in condition to play, his return will have to wait until the Nets are on the road. Next Wednesday, Jan. 5, they will visit the Indiana Pacers, and then they’ll be back at home until they visit the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 12. Their next multi-game road trip runs from Jan. 17 to Jan. 23 and will see them visit Cleveland, Washington, San Antonio and Minnesota.
Irving said that the team would “rely heavily on our coaching staff” when it comes to managing different rosters at home and on the road. He added that the Nets have “very high IQs,” and that “my job out there is just to make the game easier, whether that be point guard, shooting guard, filling in for 15 minutes off the bench, 20 minutes.” It will “take some patience,” he added, for the team to adjust to the “new situation.”