Eighteen months after the NBA was shuttered near the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the league continues to grapple with virus-related challenges as the Delta variant lingers and the push to get more players vaccinated intensifies.
Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens said Monday he is hopeful the team will be “close to 100 percent vaccinated” as quickly as possible, but he emphasized that ultimately the final decision will rest with the players.
“Obviously, we’ll continue to work from our end on what we can do and work from an educational standpoint within the organization and do everything we can,” Stevens said. “And at the same time, everybody’s got to make that decision for themselves.”
In a Rolling Stone story published last weekend, Celtics center Enes Kanter revealed that the Celtics still had several players who were unvaccinated and he called on players around the league to get shots.
Kanter pulled back from that stance slightly Monday, saying simply it is a personal choice. But Stevens and coach Ime Udoka acknowledged that the Celtics are not yet fully vaccinated, adding that there is still time to change that.
“Guys have been informed and educated pretty rigorously on all of the vaccination benefits, and it’s a personal choice that guys have to make on their own,” Udoka said. “We’d love to have close to 100 percent if possible and obviously avoid certain situations. But, like I said, guys have to make a choice.”
Udoka, who is vaccinated, tested positive for COVID-19 10 days ago and remained in isolation Monday, conducting his interview from his home via Zoom. He said that aside from some early headaches, he has been asymptomatic, and he is expected to be back at the Auerbach Center for the opening practice Tuesday.
According to local health guidelines, players in San Francisco and New York will be required to be vaccinated in order to play home games in those cities. There are currently exemptions for visiting players who face the Warriors, Knicks, and Nets, however.
While there is currently no such vaccination requirement in Boston, unvaccinated players would leave the Celtics vulnerable to more consistent absences. Last year, the Celtics had the most COVID-19-related absences in the NBA as they trudged to a 36-36 record.
TD Garden announced last week that in addition to fans, its rules regarding proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test would apply to players, referees, and coaches. That policy will not change for unvaccinated NBA players, as they will still be expected to complete a negative test before every game.
The Celtics’ preference, of course, is to have a fully vaccinated team.
“In general, they’ve been educated and it’s a choice they have to make,” Udoka said. “And there are repercussions if you’re not vaccinated. We all know that. It’s an individual choice. But the closer we can get to 100 percent, the better it’ll be for our team, knowing that it’s going to be something people have to deal with throughout the year.”
Celtics guard Marcus Smart was one of the first NBA players to test positive for COVID-19 in March 2020 and he later donated his plasma so it could be used for antibody therapies for others battling the virus. Smart said Monday that he has been vaccinated, but he was not ready to push his teammates to follow his lead.
“I chose to get vaccinated because I didn’t want to deal with the b.s., or I didn’t feel like causing my team any disparity when it comes to me not being available for whatever reason,” Smart said. “So, I respect everyone’s decision, either pro or against.”
All-Star forward Jayson Tatum contracted COVID-19 last season and has also been fully vaccinated. He said he also understands the reluctance of players who have thus far declined the shots.
Forward Josh Richardson missed time with the Mavericks last season after testing positive for COVID-19 and has spoken publicly about not taking the vaccine. He declined to provide further details of his status Monday, saying simply that the “subject is pretty personal.”
“I’ve kind of talked about what I’m going to do and what I’m not going to do with my family and my circle, so I’m not really sure,” Richardson said. “But I think it’s good that people are still educating themselves on the subject and going forward, I’m not sure.”