Oft-criticized-but-now-vindicated Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving made his New York debut Sunday in a 119-110 loss to the Charlotte Hornets.

“I was just trying to ground myself as much as possible today,” Irving said. “And just prepare for the warm reception from a lot of supporters of the organization, of me, just the journey thus far. So I don’t take it for granted what happened tonight; it was historic. I’m grateful I got a chance to be out there with my brothers and just leave it all out there.”

Irving, of course, made news this season when he refused to get the Covid-19 vaccination—which led to him being unable to play at home at the Barclays Center due to New York City’s mandate. Last week, Mayor Eric Adams ixnayed the mandate last week for athletes and performers.

The 30-year-old received an ovation from the sold-out crowd (18,166) during introductions.

“Tonight, my presence out there was just bigger than the basketball game,” Irving said. “I was just representing a lot of individuals that are out there in a similar situation as me. And now that I can play, I think we should be opened up for everybody.”

Irving ended the night 6-for-22 (16 points, 11 assists, 1-for-9 from three-point land) in 40-plus minutes on the business end of a back-to-back.

“It was great to see him out there,” the Nets’ Kevin Durant said. “Good to see the fans excited for him. Unfortunately, we took the L, though. But we move forward knowing that we have him here. Build on what we have and try to get a win next game.”

“I made it very clear it was never just about me,” Irving said. “I think for my own legacy, that’s to be written by all those that I impact and all those that impact me, and it’s far bigger than just a basketball game. But when I’m in this locker room, I get a chance to perform with a bunch of guys that are selfless and are sacrificing just as much as I am. It makes it worthwhile.

“The point of this season for me was never to just take a stand. It was really to make sure that I’m standing on what I believe in, in freedom. Freedom. I don’t think that’s a word that gets defined enough in our society. About the freedom to make choices with your life without someone telling you what the f— to do.”

Irving was originally told to sit out the season, but a Covid-19 outbreak forced him into the lineup for road games only. He made his season debut on January 5, and Sunday was his first as an active player in the Barclays Center since June 7, 2001’s Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks.

“I’ve been discriminated against,” Irving said. “People have said things that have been biased. They’ve gone against their own morals. And where we’re living today, I have such a strong moral code of just being honest, being truthful, following God’s guidance and just living with the results. But in terms of that, I’m a servant. I’m comfortable being in that position.”

The loss dropped Brooklyn to 39-36 and into ninth place in the Eastern Conference.

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