Basketball’s vaccine civil war was supposed to end before Christmas in primetime. Now, with Omicron, comes the coldest winter yet
The freezer-truck drivers had finally hauled off the last of the body bags by early autumn, from a makeshift Covid morgue in the city’s parking lot across the street. And by the time Kyrie Irving turned the corner last Friday evening to the Brooklyn Nets’ riverside practice facility in the neighborhood of Sunset Park, he was let right in.
But Omicron had grinched into town for the holidays, and the NBA’s rigorous testing once again provided early indicators of an unrelenting virus. On the 17th day of December, the league had sent its who’s-who to quarantine: eight Nets a-swabbing, seven Bulls secluding, six Sacramento Kings, five sick Knicks, four Lakers stars, three Boston forwards, two head coaches… and then came a pseudo-pardon for Kyrie.
The basketball superstar-turned-superhero of the anti-vaxxers entered a lab set up by the Nets a few steps from the private players’ garage. Two months after banishing him in response to his boycott of a New York City vaccine mandate for local entertainers, the franchise welcomed back Irving to play on the road and practice in Brooklyn. Nets executives maintained that the unvaccinated point guard, of all people, could bail out his vaccinated colleagues from a roster-shattering cluster of breakthrough cases. “It’s ridiculous,” a former Nets official familiar with how the team’s stars boss around the bosses tells Rolling Stone. “That’s what you sign up for, when you get those players.”
In came the results from Irving’s first of several tests required to return to the court, taken around the same time as the shockwave announcement of his comeback, and irony dunked on irony: “When Ky tested positive, it was meant to be,” one of several members of the Nets front office to get Covid over the past week texts RS from isolation. “But also part of me was glad that it shut up the anti-vaxxed hailing him.”
The conspiratorial crusade of Kyrie Irving — taken together with the NBA’s show-must-go-on response to Omicron amidst the frustrations of player life in quarantine — offers a microscope for another winter of our Covidized culture, through which politicians and basketball officials see multiple strains of celebrity chicanery: role-model athletes resisting boosters and enhanced testing, a sports league balancing player safety with profit, and union negotiations dropping dozens more player patients into a petri dish without a lid.
Brad Hoylman, the New York state senator who introduced legislation that would expand vaccine requirements to visiting players and performers, tells Rolling Stone that Irving’s reinstatement is “an outrage” that has already helped normalize vaccine denial and super-spreader events: “It makes my blood boil that celebrities and professional athletes are getting a pass. And the rest of us? Our health is endangered, and we’re sick and dying. It’s the ultimate F-you to fans.”
Hoylman went on: “They’re sending a mixed message. They are allowing the vaccine-hesistant players to dominate the news cycle, and they’re perpetuating conspiracy theories and other misunderstandings around vaccines. And at the end of the day, they’re putting lives at risk based on their foot-dragging.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver single-handedly suspended the basketball season after a single positive test in March 2020. The shadow of that panic now looms over a league that says 97 percent of players have been partially vaccinated but in which booster shots have been lagging. (Neither are required of athletes as they are for essential support staff.) As Rolling Stone uncovered last month, outbreaks of the Delta variant already collided with July’s NBA Finals. This week, Omicron is coming for a pro-science league precisely while it prepares for five marquee matchups on Christmas Day — a self-created sports holiday that has become its version of Thanksgiving football, with an estimated $25 to $30 million in advertising revenue already booked through Disney’s ABC and ESPN, according to an analysis by Sportico. On Tuesday, the NBA informed teams that potential outbreaks would not cancel Basketball Christmas; the league could simply rearrange the schedule to maximize for the most valuable network-television airtime.
In the span of six days beginning last Monday, Silver agreed to postpone seven games because so many teams could barely field the minimum eight players. Since then, more than 80 players have entered into the NBA protocols for a positive or inconclusive test or else close contact with a confirmed positive case. A growing number of fans think the league office should be moving faster to reschedule, or even reinstitute the NBA’s miraculously Covid-proof bubble of 2020. Players have publicly and privately called to pause this season until early 2022, though Silver said Tuesday on ESPN that the NBA isn’t planning on it: “We’re having trouble coming up with what the logic would be behind pausing right now.”
According to a person with direct knowledge of Silver’s thinking, the commissioner has confronted this month’s 100-plus new cases — and counting — by trying not to make up precedents on the fly. Silver, this high-level source tells Rolling Stone, knows he could be criticized even more for inventing parameters for a return-to-play than for believing in a vaccine mandate: “Just as there’s no magic playbook to when you shut down the season, there’s no playbook for when you come back. He has a rulebook right now, and his rulebook says that if you have eight players, you play.”
“That doesn’t mean things won’t change in two days,” the source adds, citing Silver’s adaptive deliberations over an emergency work stoppage. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It was an easier call when nobody really knew what Covid was and people were dying — but Adam is not going to jeopardize his players for a quick buck.”
This source says Silver has been closely observing the NHL, which on Monday night suspended the hockey season for a week. The NFL, after negotiations with its players’ union to address its own December spike in cases and rescheduled games, injected a don’t-tread-on-me protocol: Asymptomatic, vaccinated football players will no longer be subject to regular testing. Such “targeted” swabbing establishes a largely voluntary policy — players can raise their hands if they’re showing symptoms, but epidemiologists worry about a silent spread of breakthrough cases. “In terms of whether in essence we can treat this as endemic and people begin to move on and we only test those who are symptomatic and deal with those, we’re not quite there yet,” Silver said on ESPN.
The primary scramble between NBA owners and union executives, meanwhile, has been to shore up rosters in time for Christmas, even if they look more like junior-varsity squads. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, whose team had four players in Covid protocols as of Tuesday night, says a competitive disadvantage did not factor into negotiations about playing on. “The NBA doesn’t care who wins or loses,” Cuban tells Rolling Stone. “The teams certainly care, but I don’t see it as an emphasis that outweighs the health of players…. Leadership is a result of following the science.”
According to an internal memo sent from league doctors to teams on Thursday and obtained by RS, both sides have also agreed to increased masking and a temporary reinstatement of mandatory daily testing for vaccinated but unboosted players between Dec. 26 and Jan. 8. This annoys basketball players, who have been swabbed more than perhaps any industry’s employees throughout the pandemic, and sources suggested that the union is almost certain to let the policy lapse following the holidays.
“I tend to agree with the NFL now,” the New Orleans Pelicans guard Garrett Temple, who serves on the union’s executive committee and has been involved in emergency negotiations, tells Rolling Stone. “The fact that people don’t have any symptoms but can’t play is kind of tough, especially now that we’re two years removed and we understand a little more about the virus.”
Like any strong, unionized workforce, NBA players refused this off-season to allow their employer to set a precedent for mandating personal health decisions. But sources close to some non-fully vaccinated players suggested that many franchises hurried up to get stars a single dose during pre-season training camp, only to leave the extra jab up to the players. “I do think there will be hesitancy, but if we don’t mandate it and show the numbers again, more than you think will get it,” says Temple, of the booster shot. “Everyone that is eligible on our team has it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we haven’t had a case yet.”
The union reaffirmed its support for boosters on Tuesday night, and league sources told RS that more and more NBA players eligible for booster shots were receiving them by the day, from 60 percent a week ago, to 63 on Monday, and 65 on Tuesday.
“But saying what the right thing to do is and actually convincing everyone to do it are two different things,” says Andy Slavitt, the former advisor to President Biden’s Covid response team, in an interview with RS. Slavitt, who helped fast-track an NBA-tested saliva test for public use in 2020, hopes the league’s role can evolve from preventing panic and providing data to publicizing an Omicron-shielded case study of how boosters and rapid tests can make for a short-term game of Whack-a-Mole.
“If we fully boosted the league like the rest of society, we’d have a lot less to worry about,” Slavitt continued. “Would it be nice if LeBron James was a role model here, like he is in so many other things? It would be great — but you can’t ask people to lead. Then they’re by definition not leaders.”
Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vučević had barely finished reading his email on Nov. 11 — the word positive was enough — before he started kicking several members of his very large – and very large – Montenegrin family out of his house. He would be forced to miss a big West Coast road trip for the Bulls, but a Thanksgiving surge of Covid cases was expected to arrive, the team doctors had told him, so he got the Vučević clan packed up for a vacation to Florida without him. And he was just about to get his booster shot.
Alone at his very large condo, the two-time NBA All-Star — all six feet, ten inches and 280 pounds of him — pulled a box of Legos from an ignored drawer and began to build the Batmobile. And a Star Wars battleship. A bust of Darth Vader, too. Vučević responded to some emails and waited out a breakthrough.
Not long after he returned to the floor in late November, the NBA instituted temporary daily testing for players’ return from Thanksgiving gatherings, and Vučević’s Chicago teammates started dropping like flies: A shooting guard on Dec. 1. A fellow Montenegrin two days later. Down went the Bulls’ leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan, and, before a week had passed, seven more teammates had come down with Covid. The NBA postponed short-handed Chicago’s next two games, but Vučević still texted the team group chat about switching to three-on-three. “At least we’ll have herd immunity for the rest of the season,” he tweeted.
“Everybody was more on the kind of joking side,” Vučević tells Rolling Stone. “What else can you do? Most of our guys have the booster and are vaccinated. Nobody had any bad symptoms. It happened to us, and there’s no use complaining about it.”
LeBron James had complained after a positive post-Thanksgiving test briefly landed him in NBA quarantine in early December, saying he was “angered” by the lack of follow-up tests — he received eight within 24 hours — and refusing to answer direct questions about whether he had received a booster shot or would consider one. After the Lakers were able to avoid postponements despite an outbreak last week, one top Bulls official questioned how quickly James’ teammates Russell Westbrook and Malik Monk had hopped from protocols into a private plane to their next game, half-joking to Rolling Stone: “Whatever meds those guys are taking, we want some.”
If it weren’t for all the extra testing that James and Co. had been forced into, the double-vaxxed Denver Nuggets guard Austin Rivers might have been Patient Zero in another outbreak. Between games in Miami and Orlando three weeks ago, Rivers tested positive. “It’s hard to tell guys who are single just to be at home alone,” Rivers tells Rolling Stone. All of a sudden, he was doing just that at his mansion in nearby Winter Park, as body aches, headaches, and chills revealed themselves.
Rivers, too, was just about to get boosted. As a family man with his team’s lone case, though, he wasn’t about to scold teammates or friends around the league. The smartest people in the world were encouraging vaccination on CNN at the Nuggets practice facility. And the anti-vax ignorance in the comments of his Instagram posts wasn’t worth the time. “Trump just got a booster shot,” Rivers says, “and he’s the epitome of that whole group of people who just think in their own way.”
Rivers rolls his eyes when he hears conspiracy theories in the locker room – “fucking wild theories”: the one about Moderna mind control again, and then the fake news about Joe Biden and Big Pharma in bed with the Illuminati for millions.
“It’s all for money,” Rivers recalls hearing a fellow player say.
“How’s it for money? It’s fucking free!”
This week, conversation in team group chats and delayed charter flights has turned to outbreak theories: “A lot of people just believe they’re trying to get through the Christmas games — that’s a big day for the NBA, a lotta money there — and after that no one knows what’s going to happen,” Rivers tells RS. There is talk of a month-long break. Of another bubble, even though that won’t happen. Of banning fans from arenas and locking players in their hotel rooms on the road. There is talk of standardized testing — perhaps twice daily — and that is something Rivers can get behind.
“That’s why this is getting out of hand: We’re not testing. We don’t even know who has it! I don’t even know if anybody on our team has it right now,” Rivers says. “Even if it’s annoying and guys gotta come back twice a day — and everybody’s gonna do it, because at the end of the day, everybody wants to get paid. Everyone wants to play.”
When Irving went public in late September with his decision — first extensively reported by Rolling Stone — to flout New York’s vaccine law by refusing to play in Nets home games, he wasn’t merely staging the most prominent anti-vax protest this side of an Eric Clapton show. He refused to play by the rules of what he has described as “a global agenda” to profit off entertainers at any cost. During a rambling Instagram Live session on Oct. 12 after the Nets kicked him off the team, Irving asked: “You telling me what to do with my body? … Entertainment’s like a religion to people.” He claimed to be supportive of both the vaccinated and those risking their jobs to resist vaccines, and said he respects “all the doctors.”
“Couple that with his bad experiences with medicine — with Western medicine, with NBA medicine — and he’s conflicted about next steps,” says the NBA journalist Brandon Robinson, whose New Jersey upbringing keeps him tight with Irving’s inner circle. “But he stuck to his guns.”
Irving’s world shrank: He gained time with his infant son, Kyrie Jr., while giving up $380,000 in NBA salary for each game in Brooklyn. He launched a Shopify store for hoodies and T-shirts with his sister, even as the latest edition of his signature sneaker from an $11-million-a-year Nike deal languished without a holiday launch campaign. “He stopped by the studio, maybe a few bars,” Jerry Green, a high-school friend and owner of New Jersey’s GreenHouse recording studios, tells RS. “He’s very much a principled guy but also gracious with his time when he doesn’t have time — even though he had a little more time.”
But Irving’s influence did not flatten: His jersey remained a top-seller. Conspiracy theorists co-opted his strike for freedom across social media — at least until Facebook deleted their Instagram accounts following a report by Rolling Stone. New York City was forced to take out a major ad campaign at the beginning of local Nets-game broadcasts, encouraging vaccination and discouraging disinformation.
And then there was the STAND WITH KYRIE protest outside Barclays Center, which had been the site of so many peaceful protests following the murder of George Floyd but which, on Oct. 24, turned violent in the name of the anti-vaccine movement’s first basketball totem. During video footage taken outside the Nets arena, former American Idol contestant Jimmy Levy can be seen joining a wave of protesters, American flag and microphone in hand, as they push past metal barriers toward the entrance. While Levy attempts to evade a security guard, a mob chanting “Let Kyrie play!” makes a rush for the front doors, and several young people shove crowd-control gates at arena workers.
“It does feel kinda like the Jan. 6 thing, only because of the breaking-in-the-barriers part, but one is more political, and this was more about human rights,” Levy acknowledges to Rolling Stone. “Trump is geared more toward the right. Kyrie’s more outside of politics — this is more about humans and what they’re putting in their body.”
As Irving continues to test his way back toward Brooklyn Nets HQ this week, “it’s been pretty intense with safety protocols,” a team staffer who will be on the court with him tells RS. Irving is putting himself at risk, after all, and none of the dozen-plus sources contacted for this story indicated that Irving has any plans to get vaccinated, ever. The Nets did not immediately respond to a detailed list of questions, and Irving’s managers did not respond to multiple voicemails this week. The office of the mayor-elect Eric Adams maintains that the city’s new leader does not expect to reverse the law against home-team vaccine deniers. If anything, Covid variants could beget more local ordinances encouraging performer safety; a regulation unveiled this week in Boston, where Irving doubled down on his flat-Earth conspiracy theory while playing for the Celtics, exempts athletes from the indoor-arena vaccine mandate.
Fans’ endorsement of Irving’s personal choice in a public-health crisis “is another example of the flawed system of hero-worship in our society,” says Hoyman, the New York politician who believes Omicron may embolden the state senate to pass his proposal for closing the visiting-entertainer vaccine loophole. In the meantime, he thinks the league should suspend Irving, before his influence becomes any more dangerous. “Athletes and celebrities have a special responsibility because, for better or for worse, the American public emulates them, and it’s unfortunate that some of them don’t take their role terribly seriously, clearly. That’s where I think the NBA and ownership should be stepping in to fix this. Now.”
Matt Sullivan is the author of Can’t Knock the Hustle: Inside the Season of Protest, Pandemic and Progress with the Brooklyn Nets’ Superstars of Tomorrow. He has been an editor at “The New York Times,” “The Atlantic,” “The Guardian,” “Esquire,” and Bleacher Report.
© 2022 PMC. All rights reserved.