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Commentary: NBA's vaccination problem could be overcome with stars doing easy, right thing

·6 min read
Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, middle, gathers with guard James Harden (13) and forward Kevin Durant (7) during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) will not be able to practice or play games with teammates James Harden (13) and forward Kevin Durant in New York if he is not fully vaccinated. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

David Letterman, the legendary former late-night talk-show host, pretended to be a reporter from a made-up publication and asked Kevin Durant why people called him “KD”?

Durant, without cracking much of a smile, explained the concept of initials in what turned out to be the second-easiest question NBA stars were asked in the first round of media days Monday.

The easiest, of course, was “are you vaccinated?” — one that more than 90% of players in the NBA has answered privately by receiving either two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna shot or one dose of the vaccine from Johnson & Johnson.

It should be an easy “Yes” — the vaccines are safe, effective and provided NBA players with a pathway to as much normalcy as possible since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the first day of the preseason made it clear — things won’t be as easy as they could, and should, be.

The vaccine is mandated for coaches and team employees. It’s mandated for NBA officials and for the journalists who want to cover players face to face. It is, however, still a matter of personal choice for players — some of whom vocalized their stances Monday.

Kyrie Irving, the subject of an article of this past weekend that reported he would consider sitting out Nets games in Brooklyn to protest a New York City rule demanding athletes in indoor sports, such as those in the NBA, be vaccinated, couldn’t physically attend his media day.

Speaking with reporters from a darkly lit room in between sips from a mug, Irving said he wouldn’t answer questions about his vaccination status because, after all, he’s a human being first and his privacy must be respected.

“Obviously living in this public sphere, there's just a lot of questions about what's going on in the world of Kyrie,” Irving said. “And I think I would just love to keep that private and handle it the right way with my team and go forward together with a plan. Obviously, I'm not able to be present there today. But that doesn't mean I'm putting any limits on the future on my being able to join the team. And I just want to keep it that way.”

He wasn’t alone. Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal announced he was unvaccinated before questioning the merits of the shot like he was reading from a group of Facebook comments. Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins said he believed he was doing what’s “right” by not getting vaccinated. Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac said he was pro-choice — at least about not taking the shot — and that decision should come without ridicule.

Plenty of stars said they took the vaccine — Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo and Portland's Damian Lillard among them.

Still, others like former Laker Kyle Kuzma, declined to share whether or not they’d taken it, citing personal privacy.

Yet this is a very public issue in a very public league that has allowed players like Irving to become very publicly lauded and compensated. And vaccine refusal, at least from a basketball sense, is relevant because of the potential effects it could have on a team.

None of this even addresses the morality in protecting your earthly neighbors from an ever-evolving virus.

The NBA hasn’t issued final protocols for the upcoming season, pending review by the players' union. In a recent draft sent to teams, unvaccinated players were subject to more strict protocols, including more frequent testing and lengthy isolation periods after exposures, than vaccinated teammates. League insiders expect the final guidelines to be issued this week.

While the incentives are there, they’ve not been enough to get everyone vaccinated.

Beal’s comments left some NBA officials particularly concerned because it became clear that he had ignored the advice given to him by team and league medical officials in their vaccination campaign.

After saying he had “personal reasons” for not taking the vaccine, he asked the media in Washington about their status.

“I would like an explanation [from] people with vaccines, why are they still getting COVID? If that's something we're supposed to be highly protected from,” Beal said. “I know it reduces your chances of going to the hospital. It doesn't eliminate anybody from getting COVID. Right? Is everyone in here vaxxed? I would assume, right? So, you all can still get COVID, right?”

He later said no one talks about the vaccine mishaps — puzzlingly right before he said the reason why is because they hardly happen.

“I understand that there's a percentage of people who can get very sick. I didn't get sick. I didn't get sick at all. I lost my smell," he said. "But, that was it for me. Everyone is going to react differently. Everyone is going to take it differently. Some people have bad reactions to the vaccine. Nobody likes to talk about that. What happens if one of our players gets the vaccine and they can't play after that or they have complications after that? Because there are cases like that. But I feel like we don't talk about those as heavily because they're so minute, maybe. But they are existent.”

NBA insiders say they’re not aware of any games being missed because of a reaction to the vaccine. Beal, though, did miss time. His case of COVID cost him a spot in the Olympics and the chance to compete for a gold medal.

The first full-fledged approval of the COVID-19 vaccine came more than a month ago, though multiple vaccines had been approved for emergency use. The NBA has had multiple members of its extended family afflicted with the virus, including the deaths of Karl Anthony-Towns’ mother and NBA reporter Sekou Smith.

While vaccine acceptance in the NBA is widespread — at least half of the NBA’s 30 teams are expecting to be at 100% vaccination by opening night — the critics are prominent and steering most of the conversation.

A surprise injury to Zion Williamson (foot surgery over the summer), the possible return of Klay Thompson, stars in new uniforms and, yes, even Letterman, couldn’t keep Beal and Irving from being the biggest story Monday, a pair of superstars unwilling to do the easy, right thing.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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