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Kyrie Irving’s return to the Nets was 3 months in the making: ‘This is where I belong’

On the night before his return to practice at the HSS Training Facility in Industry City, Kyrie Irving couldn’t get any sleep.

“It’s felt like days have just been slowly being crossed off the calendar while I’m sitting at home,” the unvaccinated and maskless Irving said after Nets practice on Wednesday, his first time speaking to local reporters since he remotely attended Media Day from home. “I’m like, ‘Man, I just don’t want to come out and not be who I know I am to be as a player’ and just getting up and down, my heart racing and nervous and touching the basketball again.”

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Three months felt like three years for Irving, who hadn’t played basketball with other pros since the Nets ruled him ineligible for road games and home practices shortly after New York City instituted a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for professional indoor athletes.

There was uncertainty that Irving and the Nets would ever reach this moment. It wasn’t their decision, after all, that Irving can’t play in home games this season. That’s a mandate handed down from the city. It wasn’t the Nets’ decision, either, that Irving refused the COVID-19 vaccine. That, as he said, is a personal decision.

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“I knew the consequences,” Irving said Wednesday.

Kyrie Irving could find himself back in Nets uniform as early as Jan. 5 in Indiana.

Irving said there were “a lot of what-if scenarios” that were hard to avoid when thinking about whether he’d ever suit up for the Nets again. His longtime friend DeAndre’ Bembry also had those thoughts.

“You never know with all the protocols, us being in New York, it was multiple times where I was like, ‘Damn, when the hell is Kyrie playing?” Bembry said after Wednesday’s practice. Bembry and Irving are both St. Patrick’s High School in New Jersey (now “The Patrick School”) alums: “But it was more so out of my control and out of his control. I’m just happy to see him back and be in good spirits because I know he actually wants to be out here with us and help us win games and win a championship.”

Yet here Irving is, red tape and all. He has cleared the health and safety protocols with his All-Star teammates Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge. While Durant and Aldridge are expected to play Thursday against the Philadelphia 76ers, Irving has two target dates for a season debut: Jan. 5 in Indiana against the Pacers and Jan. 12 in Chicago against the Bulls.

“When the team approached me, we had a good conversation,” Irving said. “They said, ‘We want you back,’ and I said, ‘Absolutely. This is always where I wanted to be.’ I wanted to be playing with the team in whatever capacity I can do that.

“That was the goal once this state mandate came in. It didn’t work in October, but now that we’re here, I’m praying that it works.”

Nash had insisted on a one-to-two-week ramp-up conditioning period for Irving. If he is ready to play on Jan. 5, he will play. But if he’s not, Nash said, the Nets are not going to rush him back.

“I’m just looking forward to that first game,” Irving said, “whether it be on the fifth or whether it be somewhere after that however I can get back in shape on an optimum level and be able to be productive that’s where I’m aiming for.”

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Irving’s ramp-up began on Wednesday. He played with the Nets’ stay-ready group in a game, Bembry said, that also featured Durant and James Harden. Bembry also said “some of the younger guys” played pickup with Irving, as expected, since the stay-ready group traditionally includes younger players at the end of the rotation.

“I’ve never seen Kyrie not be Kyrie, so for the most part he looks good,” Bembry said of Irving in practice. “Getting up and down the floor, he didn’t look too tired. I know he was probably working out while he was out, somewhere, most likely, but he looked good today. Same Kyrie.”

Nash said it’s difficult to assess Irving’s conditioning.

“He looks great considering he just came out of protocols and hasn’t played basketball,” Nash said. “How does he recover from today? How many high-intensity (practices) does he need to feel comfortable, confident from a personal standpoint? For Kyrie, for the performance team and all those different measures, it’s still a shifting landscape.

“I couldn’t give you an answer but as far as seeing him in the flesh today he looked as well as you could expect considering everything that’s happened in the last few weeks.”

Irving said he feels great. He bounced around middle school, high school and college gyms trying to stay in shape while away from his team. Nothing compares to practice against other NBA players, and nothing tests your cardio like getting up and down a basketball court, playing both ends of the floor and, in Irving’s case, carrying a team’s offensive load for spurts at a time.

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Assuming the postponed game in Portland against the Trail Blazers is rescheduled, Irving will be eligible for 22 of the Nets’ 25 remaining road games. He will not be able to play at either of the games at Madison Square Garden, nor will he be able to travel with the team to Toronto for their game against the Raptors due to Canada’s vaccine mandate.

The Nets will take those 22 games, plus however many road games they see in the playoffs. They have welcomed Irving back with open arms, and even though it took longer than he expected, the All-Star guard is happy to be back where he belongs: Alongside Durant and Harden on a Nets team boasting the No. 1 seed in the East, but has its sights set on bigger goals. It’s why he couldn’t get any sleep the night before his grand return.

“This is where I belong, this is where I’ve worked my entire life to be, so it was like riding a bike, or being at the first day of school again, just going back out there and I missed it,” Irving said. “With us (the Big 3) getting together at this time in our careers, we wanted to take advantage of it. We have a lot more left in the tank but obviously our age between us three, us being at a certain level of mastery in this game is only gonna last for a certain amount of time, so we want to strike while the iron is hot.”


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