Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving claimed he "gave up" a more than $100 million extension prior to the 2021-22 season to remain unvaccinated against COVID-19.
"I gave up four years, 100-and-something million deciding to be unvaccinated and that was the decision," Irving said during Nets media day on Monday (September 26) via ESPN. "[Get this] contract, get vaccinated or be unvaccinated and there's a level of uncertainty of your future, whether you're going to be in this league, whether you're going to be on this team, so I had to deal with that real-life circumstance of losing my job for this decision.
Irving, who has publicly stated his skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine, was forced to miss the majority of the Nets' home games last season due to a New York City vaccination mandate, which was changed in late March.
The guard said he felt he was facing "an ultimatum" from the Nets regarding his contract due to his vaccination status, which led to him eventually opting into the final year of his contract, a player option worth $36.5 million, after negotiations once again stalled this past summer.
"We were supposed to have all that figured out before training camp last year," Irving said. "And it just didn't happen because of the status of me being vaccinated, unvaccinated. So, I understood their point and I just had to live with it. It was a tough pill to swallow, honestly."
Nets general manager Sean Marks denied the team gave Irving an "ultimatum" regarding a long-term extension.
"There's no ultimatum being given here," Marks said via ESPN. "Again, it goes back to you want people who are reliable, people who are here, and accountable. All of us: staff, players, coaches, you name it. It's not giving somebody an ultimatum to get a vaccine. That's a completely personal choice. I stand by Kyrie. I think if he wants, he's made that choice. That's his prerogative completely."
Marks did, however, acknowledge that New York City's vaccination mandate, as well as Irving's firm anti-vaccination stance, stalled negotiations on a long-term deal.
"So two summers ago, that was pre-citywide, statewide mandates that went in," Marks said. "So once the vaccine mandates came in, and we knew how that would affect [Irving] playing home games and so forth, that's when contract talks stalled. So it didn't get to [a point], 'Here's the deal, now take it back.' That never happened."
Marks clarified that he's confident in Irving being fully committed to the organization.
"At the end of the day, we're happy that Kyrie is back here," Marks said via ESPN. "I'm listening to the press conference he had this morning and my takeaway from that is that he's committed. He understands that in order for him to be a free agent and get what he rightfully wants, he's going to have to show commitment out there. We're happy to support him in any possible way throughout the season to make sure that he's healthy and ready to go."
Irving said he understood the team's perspective and acknowledged his frustration that his vaccination status "came to be a stigma within my career."
"I understood all the Nets' points," Irving said. "And I respected it and I honored it, and I didn't appreciate how me being vaccinated, all of a sudden, came to be a stigma within my career that I don't want to play, or I'm willing to give up everything to be a voice for the voiceless. And which I will stand on here and say that, that wasn't the only intent that I had, was to be the voice of the voiceless, it was to stand on something that was going to be bigger than myself.
"And I was going to understand probably far into the future ... there was a level of uncertainty of what this was going to look like of me coming back. And I had questions, they were answered truthfully. And that's all I needed. And now it's just having the support around me and giving the support to my teammates."
Irving averaged 27.4 points, 5.8 assists, and 4.4 rebounds in 29 games during the 2021-22 season.
The Nets were eliminated by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2022 NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs