Following his first day back on the job, Kyrie Irving’s predominant feeling was one of humility to be welcomed back into the Nets’ fold. He went into exile on Oct. 12 when the Nets decided they didn’t want him to be a part-time player because he is in violation of New York City’s vaccine mandate, but he was welcomed back on Dec. 17 and then immediately entered the NBA's health and safety protocols for either a positive or inconclusive COVID-19 test.
But that was behind him after he returned to the practice floor at the Nets’ training facility on Wednesday. Irving said he barely could sleep the night before his return and he sounded almost giddy to rejoin his teammates.
"I’m incredibly grateful just to be back in the building, welcomed back with open arms by my teammates and the whole entire organization," Irving said. "I’m not going to lie, it’s been relatively tough to watch on the sideline with everything going on in the world. I know everybody’s feeling it, so I’m 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, even if it’s just on the road for away games, I’m grateful for the opportunity."
Irving admitted there were times he wondered if he would play at all this season. But after the Nets had a league-high 13 players enter health and safety protocols, they were encouraged by stars Kevin Durant and James Harden to allow Irving’s return.
"There was just a lot of uncertainty, a lot of what ifs, a lot of scenarios," Irving said. "It’s hard not to pay attention to what was being said about the circumstances that we’re under and everybody’s opinion on it.
"When the team approached me, we had a good conversation. They said, ‘We want you back,’ and I said, ‘Absolutely. This is always where I wanted to be.’ I wanted to be playing with the team in whatever capacity I can do that."
The Nets play their next three games at home starting against the 76ers Thursday night when Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge and rookie Cam Thomas all are expected to be available after clearing protocols.
The first road game for which Irving is eligible to play is Wednesday at Indiana and then not until a week later on Jan. 12 at Chicago. The Nets (23-9) are first in the Eastern Conference and have 50 games remaining, counting three that recently were postponed.
Because Irving is ineligible to play two road games against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and one in Toronto, which also has strict COVID guidelines, Irving has a maximum of 22 remaining road games, counting a game in Portland that was postponed and has not yet been rescheduled.
Asked how Irving looked during the Nets’ light practice, coach Steve Nash said, "He looks great considering he just came out of protocols and hasn’t played basketball. … He looked as well as you could expect considering everything that’s happened in the last few weeks."
Certainly, Irving understood his anti-vaccination stance was controversial, especially since all other Nets are vaccinated. "I understood their decision, and I respected it and tried not to become too emotionally attached to what they were deciding to do," Irving said of the Nets’ original decision. "I had to sit down and really evaluate things and see it from their perspective, meaning the organization and my teammates.
"I just really empathized and understood their choice to say, ‘If you’re not going to be fully vaccinated, then you can’t be a full participant.’ I knew the consequences. I wasn’t prepared for them by no stretch of the imagination. … Things happen for a reason, and now we’re here and I’m just grateful for this."