Nets guard Kyrie Irving walks on the court after the...

Nets guard Kyrie Irving walks on the court after the Nets 119-110 loss to the Charlotte Hornets in an NBA basketball game at Barclays Center on Sunday, March 27, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It had been 293 days since Kyrie Irving stepped on the court at Barclays Center, played with his teammates on his home turf, got to salute the fans who buy his jersey and chant his name.

And so, when he walked through the bowels of the arena Sunday getting ready to play there for the first time in nearly 10 months, there was only one refrain that seemed appropriate. “Oh, it feels good to be home,” he told the cameras. And then, again: “Oh, it feels good to be home.”

It might have felt a lot better, however, if the Nets could have celebrated his return with a victory. After getting back to New York at 4 a.m. from their game in Miami on Saturday, they looked thoroughly gassed, relinquishing a double-digit lead and falling to the Hornets, 119-110, in front of 18,166 fans. It was the biggest crowd at Barclays Center in Nets history.

It was only the Nets’ third loss in their last 10 games, but it was an important one. The Hornets tied the Nets for eighth place in the Eastern Conference at 39-36, and Charlotte has a tiebreaker advantage.

Afterward, Irving spoke of his decision to remain unvaccinated and what these last few months have meant to him: “The point of this season for me was never to just take a stand. It was really to make sure I’m standing up for what I believe in, in freedom . . .

“Tonight, my presence out there is bigger than a basketball game — represented a lot of individuals that are out there in a similar situation as me.”

In all, it was the end to one of the NBA’s messiest sagas: Irving refusing to get vaccinated, the Nets refusing to let him play part-time, and the team then relenting when multiple players went down with COVID-19 in December. When one vaccine mandate was rescinded -– the one stating that one needed to be vaccinated to be in an indoor entertainment venue -– another took its place. This one stated that private-sector workers in New York City need to be vaccinated in order to perform in-person work.

Irving and other athletes earned an exception last week when Mayor Eric Adams said he would extend local performers the same courtesy afforded to visiting athletes and entertainment acts, who do not have to be vaccinated. That, too, was bathed in controversy, as nearly 1,500 city workers were fired in February for not adhering to the mandate, and an untold number of private-sector workers faced the same fate.

“Now that I can play, I think it should be opened up for everybody,” Irving said.

And in all this, there was a basketball game.

Down by eight with 6:57 left, the Nets scored eight straight points, with the final six from Irving, including a falling, sprawling pull-up jumper with 4:05 left to tie the score at 104. Miles Bridges made one of his two free throws to put the Hornets ahead, but with the crowd chanting his name, Irving hit two free throws to give the Nets their first lead since early in the third quarter.

The Hornets scored the next five points, but Seth Curry’s layup drew the Nets to 110-108 with 1:33 to go. Cody Martin’s corner three-pointer helped create distance, though, and Terry Rozier’s three-pointer with 47.3 seconds to go sealed it.

Kevin Durant scored 27 points as all five starters were in double digits. Irving scored 16 points and matched a season high with 11 assists. LaMelo Ball led the Hornets with 33 points and Bridges added 24.

The Nets led by 14 in the second quarter but relinquished the lead in the third, when the Hornets outscored them 37-29.

Before that, there was a celebratory mood at Barclays.

Irving took his home court for warm-ups for the first time since June 7 and immediately was greeted with chants of “Ky-rie Irv-ing!” When he finally was introduced before tipoff, the crowd first rumbled and then roared for its star point guard.

Seconds before the game, Irving pointed at the fans, crouched low to dribble between his legs and bounced the ball high into the air as the crowd cheered.

He went 0-for-4 from the field with two assists in the first quarter. With fans chanting “Kyrie’s home!” he scored his first point with 10:15 left in the second quarter — missing one free throw, causing the crowd to cheer him on, and making the second. He tacked on a step-back, right-wing three-pointer a minute later as the arena exploded.

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