Kyrie Irving is back, or at least half-back.
The Brooklyn Nets guard practiced with his team for the first time in a while on Wednesday, a return made possible by the Nets' decision to allow him to play road games and delayed by his entry into the NBA's health and safety protocols.
Irving is still barred from playing in Barclays Center due to his refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and New York's vaccine mandate for indoor venues, but enough on-court concerns mounted for the Nets that he was suddenly useful as a part-time player.
With all that hanging over him, Irving spoke with the media after Wednesday's practice. When asked about the Nets' initial decision to sideline him for all games, he said he understood but had trouble handling it:
"I understood their decision and I respected it. I really had to sit back and think and try not to become too emotionally attached. To what they were deciding to do, I had to sit down and really evaluate things and see it from their perspective, meaning the organization and my teammates. I just really empathized and understood their choice to say, 'If you're not going to be fully vaccinated, then you can't be a full participant.'
"I knew the consequences. I wasn't prepared for them, by no stretch of the imagination. Coming into the season, I had my thought process on being able to be a full-time teammate and go out and have fun and provide a sense of a great brand of basketball out there. But unfortunately, it didn't happen like that."
During the standoff via Instagram Live, Irving said he still wanted to play but would not be getting the vaccine. There was some thought that New York City mayor-elect Eric Adams would lift the mandate, allowing Irving to pay, but Adams quickly shot that down after his election.
So Irving waited, and the Nets eventually changed their minds. During that time, Irving mentioned that he stayed in shape with pick-up games at middle school and college gyms:
"This was my first time being with other pros on one floor again, playing pick-up or just working out. I'm thankful to everyone that helped me stay in shape during the time playing in middle school gyms, playing in some college gyms, trying to keep things as private as possible, but also just with the intent to get the most that I can out of some of these pick-up games.
"So it was tough and I was resilient, but it's nothing like being in this environment and playing with the best of the best. This is where I belong, this is where I've worked my entire life to be. It was like being at your first day of school again, just going back out there and I missed it."
It remains to be seen when Irving makes his season debut. Brooklyn's next three games are all at home, so his first opportunity to play will be against the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 5. He indicated he may need more time than that to reach game shape.
Kyrie Irving on when he’ll play: “I’m at peace with the ramp up but I can’t sugarcoat it — I’m just looking forward to that first game, whether it be the 5th or some time after that.”
Kyrie said he wants to get back into optimal shape.
— Kristian Winfield (@Krisplashed) December 29, 2021
In the meantime, the Nets are at least getting healthier after being rocked by a COVID-19 outbreak. In addition to Irving, Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge were activated from the health and safety protocols Tuesday.