Nets guard Kyrie Irving looks on against the Charlotte Hornets...

Nets guard Kyrie Irving looks on against the Charlotte Hornets in the second half of an NBA basketball game at Barclays Center on Sunday, March 27, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Kyrie Irving has always described his decision to remain unvaccinated, and as a result miss nearly two-thirds of the season, as a personal choice. But on Sunday night, after his first game at Barclays Center this season, his comments about that decision expanded beyond the personal — to the public and even, at times, the philosophical.

“The point of this season for me was never to just take a stance,” he said three days after Mayor Eric Adams created an exception in the city’s private-sector mandate that now allows unvaccinated New York-based athletes and entertainers to perform at home. “It was really to make sure that I’m standing in what I believe in, in freedom. Freedom — I don’t think that’s a word that gets defined enough in our society, about the freedom to make choices with your life without someone telling you what the [expletive] to do .  .  . There’s nobody that’s enslaving me.”

He added: “Tonight my presence out there was bigger than a basketball game — just representing a lot of individuals that are out there in a similar situation as me, and now that I can play, I think we should be opened up for everybody.”

That, of course, currently is the focus of controversy. Originally, Irving could not play because of a since-repealed mandate that dictated that people entering indoor entertainment venues had to be vaccinated. After that ended on March 7, a different mandate came into focus: a private-sector mandate that had gone into effect on Dec. 27 and stated that all those who do in-person work or interact with the public in their employment also need to be vaccinated.

As a result, nearly 1,500 city workers were fired in February. It’s not clear how many private workers also were fired.

Though COVID numbers are rising in the city, Adams announced on Thursday that Irving, along with unvaccinated Mets and Yankees, would be allowed a special dispensation. It was, he said, in reaction to visiting athletes and entertainers not being required to be vaccinated.

In statements provided to Newsday last week, labor unions of municipal workers said the exception could lead to litigation challenging the mandate.

Unvaccinated individuals in the city are nearly six times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19, according to the city’s Department of Health, and nearly six times more likely to die, though the numbers are low. The New York Times’ database reported a daily average of 2,778 cases in the state Sunday, a 69% increase since two weeks ago, but a 39% drop in deaths.

Irving has since stated twice that the mandate should be repealed for everyone. He said he’s looking to take “progressive action” to help those who lost their jobs as a result of their choice.

In all, it’s part of a bigger narrative that he’s constructed this season, one that indicated his decision would not be swayed by external pressures. The Nets, among the preseason favorites to win the championship, went into Monday tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference, and Irving has been able to play in only 22 of their 75 games. They have seven games left in the regular season to create a cohesive unit built for a deep run.

Kevin Durant said Sunday that they’ve long stopped thinking about what could have been had Irving changed his mind.

“This is the situation we’re in,” he said. They have to “put our heads down and go to work. It’s a challenge, and everybody is going through challenges this year as a team. This is what we got in front of us and we got to lock in. I’m excited about what’s ahead.”

Irving is aware that his decision has changed the way some people view him, adding he took exception to a few of the things that have been said about him.

“I get tarnished in terms of my image and people slandering my name continually, [and] those aren’t things that I forget,” he said. “I don’t read everything but I definitely read some things that put my family’s name in a position that I believe is unfair. I’ve been discriminated against, people have said things that have been biased. I have such a strong moral code of just being honest, being truthful, following God’s guidance and just living with the results. In terms of that, I’m a servant. So I’m comfortable being in that position.”

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