Stephen A. Smith is a big fan of Kyrie Irving on the court, but off the court, he might be the NBA superstar’s biggest critic.

News broke Wednesday night that despite refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Irving will now be eligible to play in Brooklyn Nets home games thanks to New York City mayor Eric Adams carving out an exemption to the city’s vaccine mandates for athletes and performers. The NBA boasts a 97 percent vaccination rate among its more than 450 players, but Irving remains one of the few holdouts.

Irving has been barred from playing in home games this season because of New York City’s vaccine mandates. The Nets initially stated they wouldn’t let Irving join the team until he’s compliant with local vaccine mandates, but when the team was ravaged by COVID and injuries late last year, Brooklyn reneged on their stance and began using him as a part-time player.

Earlier this month, New York City dropped its indoor vaccine rule, which only sparked more controversy when it allowed Irving to sit courtside for home games, despite the private-sector mandate still preventing him from actually playing.

But with the law also threatening Opening Day for unvaccinated New York Mets and Yankees players, Adams officially announced this new exemption Thursday. The executive order reeks of favoritism for famous people, but nonetheless, it will be celebrated by many New York sports fans.

Thursday morning on ESPN’s First Take, Smith said he was in favor of the exemption issued by Adams, but that doesn’t mean Irving should be treated as a hero for controversially eluding the vaccine.

“If we utter a syllable against Kyrie Irving, we’re haters. We don’t appreciate him at all, god forbid we call it like we see it,” Smith said of the criticism he receives for speaking honestly about the Nets point guard.

“The reality of the situation that cannot be escaped is that with a championship season on the line, [Irving] sat up there and said ‘y’all on your own, this is what I’m doing.’ It was about him, it wasn’t about the team. And thank god the mandate was lifted, but it don’t make him some damn hero.”

Smith has been a strong supporter of getting vaccinated and even attributed the COVID vaccine to saving his own life earlier this year. But the ESPN host was against the optic of Irving sitting courtside despite being barred from playing with the Nets.

Irving will likely be cheered for when he steps on the Barclays Center court this weekend, but Smith’s rant serves as a reminder of the controversy and difficult situation the seven-time All-Star dragged his team through over the last six months.


About Brandon Contes

Brandon Contes is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously helped carve the sports vertical for Mediaite and spent more than three years with Barrett Sports Media. Send tips/comments/complaints to