NEW YORK • Kyrie Irving, the National Basketball Association (NBA) star who has been indefinitely barred from practising or playing with the Brooklyn Nets because of his refusal to get the Covid-19 vaccine, spoke out publicly on Wednesday night for the first time since the team decided to keep him off the court.
He insisted that his refusal to be vaccinated was a matter of personal freedom.
"You think I really want to lose money?" Irving, 29, who is set to lose US$380,000 (S$512,335) for each game he misses this season, said on his Instagram feed.
"You think I really want to give up on my dream to go after a championship? You think I really just want to give up my job? You think I really want to sit at home?
"The financial consequences, I know I do not want to even do that. But it is the reality that in order to be in New York City, in order to be on a team, I have to be vaccinated.
"I chose to be unvaccinated and that was my choice and I would ask you all to just respect that choice."
More than 95 per cent of players in the NBA are vaccinated, and those who are not will have to comply with a long list of restrictions to take part in the upcoming season that starts on Tuesday.
The league is not forcing players to get vaccinated, but it will withhold pay for any player who misses games due to local mandates.
New York City implemented rules that do not allow unvaccinated athletes to take part in practices and games at public arenas - including the Nets' Barclays Centre home and Madison Square Garden, home of rivals the Knicks.
Similar rules are in place in San Francisco and will go into effect in Los Angeles on Nov 29.
Irving is due US$35.3 million this season in the third year of a four-year, US$136.5-million deal he signed in July 2019.
It had previously appeared that he could train with the team at their private practice facility and be available for road games, but the Nets said on Tuesday that he would not play or practise with the team "until he is eligible to be a full participant".
The highly contagious Delta variant has spread quickly in areas with low vaccination rates. And hospitals in those areas have been overrun with unvaccinated patients, leaving few beds and staff members to treat other patients.
NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 74, was outspoken in his advocacy for the vaccine, saying: "Lives are at stake... People are dying.
"The information that you need is not that hard to get. And you'll see that the vaccines are safe and they're effective."
He was joined by another legend, Michael Jordan, who said he is a "firm believer in science" and that he backed the NBA's stance on Covid-19 vaccinations.
But Irving added that he would not bow to pressure to be vaccinated, while insisting he was neither anti-nor pro-vaccines.
"Do what's best for you, but I am not an advocate for either side. I am doing what's best for me," he said.
A day after the Nets confirmed that the guard will not participate in team activities, head coach Steve Nash called the decision "difficult".
"Everyone had their say," he told reporters after the Nets' practice on Wednesday.
"It takes time to make decisions like that. This is a difficult decision. But I think it was a sound one and one that makes complete sense to everyone."
He also addressed the team on Wednesday.
"We are just going to move on, and if things change, it would be incredible to have him (Irving) back in the fold," he said.
"It was a tenuous situation to have a player in and out like that. There's more clarity, and we can focus on the future and get going."
Star guard James Harden also said it is time to proceed without Irving, but he and Nash said they would happily welcome him back.
He added he and star forward Kevin Durant, who form the Nets' "Big Three" with Irving, talked with the personnel involved in the Irving decision and that all parties see eye-to-eye.
"Sean (Marks, Nets executive), Steve, me, KD, Kyrie, we all had conversations," Harden said. "Kyrie believes in his beliefs, and he stands firm and strong on that.
"And for us, we respect it. We all love Ky. But as far as us, we have a job to do. Individually, myself, I am still wanting to set myself up for a championship.
"And I feel like the entire organisation is on the same path and we are all in this as a collective unit."
The Nets, who lost to the eventual NBA champions Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semi-finals last season, are scheduled to open the regular season at Milwaukee on Tuesday.
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS