Andrew Wiggins made a sacrifice, setting aside his concerns and getting vaccinated against Covid. The Warriors couldn’t have won without it.
I threw my back out watching the Warriors game last week. Not playing a basketball game — not playing — but watching. Not playing the game I love, but sitting on my couch watching Steph Curry carry the team on his back and serve up his inimitable style of poetry in motion to the tune of 43 points on 14-of-26 shooting, 10 rebounds and 4 assists.
To be fair, it was a must-win game, so my level of animation, whilst semi-planted on my parents’ couch, was amped. Throughout the four quarters, my husband pleaded that I curb my frequent, play-by-play couch coaching to a minimum, as I shouted at Looney to box out, at Curry to protect the ball, at Wiggins to attack the paint, at Poole to pass the ball, all the while begging Klay to find his shot. They listened — and evened the series out 2-2 that night.
When it dawned on me after the game that I had thrown my back out, two realizations immediately struck me:
- I am firmly in the time of my life that would be considered middle-aged.
- I haven’t loved a team like this since the giddy heyday of the Magic and Kareem Lakers of my Southern California childhood.
The Covid pandemic has made it much more complicated to be a sports fan
The pandemic is put a new twist on being a sports fan. As a doctor, I have watched in horror as athletes with the biggest platforms imaginable have used their voices to sow distrust of vaccines, and flaunt basic health protections. I haven’t been able to separate the athlete from their off-court actions.
Take the tennis star and anti-vaxxer Novak Djokovic. He hid his Covid positive status and felt no qualms about exposing others during a photoshoot and interview when he knew he was positive. He’s a star who clearly felt that rules didn’t apply to him when he lied on travel documents, and when he hosted a super spreader tournament during a pandemic, where basic safety protocols like distancing and masking were eschewed. It was easy to root against Novak during the French Open a few weeks back, and extra sweet when Rafa dominated him and the clay on his way to the championship.
And then there is Aaron Rodgers, vocal anti-vaxxer and liar who plays football well. He admitted to “misleading” people by claiming he was “immunized.” Instead of owning up to being unvaccinated and then following the rules of masking during interviews under the protocols set up by his league, he pulled a Novak and decided that he would rather lie than have the rules apply to him. Having never been a big fan of racism and head injuries, I don’t follow the NFL. But one afternoon this past January, while sitting on the couch teaching my immigrant parents the intricacies of a new game called Wordle, I deigned, for the first time in my life, to check the score of a football game. I let out a big whoop when I saw that the Niners had routed Green Bay. I am from the Bay Area and I have never checked a Niners score before in my life. But it took a lying anti-vaxxer with a big platform to get me to care.
Which leads me to Kyrie Irving, an anti-vaxxer I could at least have a modicum of respect for because unlike Djokovic and Rodgers, he isn’t a liar. He stood by his anti-vax stance and followed the rules of his league. For those of us who love basketball, it is easy to love Kyrie’s style of play, his grace and athleticism on the court. Sure, there was the whole flat Earther thing that should have been an early tip-off to his fast and loose relationship with facts, but I was able to swat that away as just one of the weird oddities of the super rich. But then came Covid.
Kyrie refused to get vaccinated and held firm, never mind the cost to his team, a stance for which he now claims to be a “martyr.” Unable to play with his team for much of the season, the Brooklyn Nets, a super team that was forecast to reign supreme in the league and be crowned champions, got embarrassingly swept in the first round of the NBA playoffs. A team that plays much of the season missing one of its superstars is a team that invariably won’t find its rhythm during the high stress environment of the playoffs.
His teammate James Harden had the good sense to jump ship away from Kyrie’s selfishness and went farther with the 76ers than did the Nets, into the second round of the playoffs. With the Kyrie fiasco, you can’t help but feel for former Warrior Kevin Durant, who left the Bay to what he thought were the greener pastures of Brooklyn, only to come up against the chokehold of an anti-science zealot.
But the Warriors season didn’t commence without its own vaccine drama. Right before the pandemic kicked off, the Warriors acquired Andrew Wiggins, the first round pick of his draft class who spent years toiling in Minnesota with just one playoff appearance to show for it. Somehow, in the strength in numbers, next-man-up driven culture of the Warriors, Wiggins found footing in his role and shined, perhaps because the glare of the spotlight was off him. This past fall, when NBA teams were announcing their protocols around Covid and vaccinations in the context of local government regulations, Wiggins, like many other players, expressed his discomfort around the vaccine mandate and made it clear that he did not want to get vaccinated.
As a Warriors fan and doctor who had spent the summer’s delta surge counseling sick patients and trying to get as many patients vaccinated as possible while we were losing thousands of Americans per day to Covid, I was livid. Furious that a millionaire like Andrew Wiggins, who played in an arena that is a literal stones throw from one of the greatest academic medical centers in the world, a place where he could easily waltz in and have access to foremost experts in immunology and infectious disease — would take his doubts public instead of using all the resources at his disposal to educate himself.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to root for him. There was no way I could get behind Wiggins, or for that matter, the Warriors. I wouldn’t know how I was going to back the Warriors if Wiggins pulled a Kyrie, especially because it was clear he would be needed for a chance at the championship. Wiggins applied for a religious exemption from the NBA, and thankfully it was denied. When it was announced that he ultimately did get vaccinated, he stated he felt “forced” to do it, but still he found a way.
Sometimes we make sacrifices for the greater good. Kyrie didn’t and got first round swept. Wiggins did and became an All-Star and has now been crowned an NBA champion, something nobody can ever take away from him. Sometimes when we do things for the greater good, in putting your team, or your community, ahead of yourself, you end up on top too.
Andrew Wiggins put the Warriors first
Once Wiggins was vaccinated, I shook off my concerns and commenced Warriors fandom in earnest: depression spiraling when Draymond was out and we skidded through that losing streak, celebrating as Jordan Poole matured before our eyes, somehow transforming into another brother in the Splash fraternity, watching Klay and his dog Rocco updates from Klay’s boat on the bay, holding my breath with dread and anxiety till Klay came back and showed us that he is truly back, seeing the maturity of Looney coming through in the clutch, reveling in the Cinderella story that is GP2, enjoying Iguodala back on the team and his role as honorary coach and mentor to the young guys, and on top of it all, basking in the glory that is Steph Curry. Feeling his joy radiate across the screen, the on-court shimmies and shenanigans, the selfless play, the way he makes everyone around him better, more gleeful, more willing to share the spotlight, the confidence and humility, all that swag with ego still in check—few things were as joyful as witnessing him silence the haters with shots that seemed to emanate from as far away as the Oracle, our beloved former arena.
It made me feel the magic of the Magic and Kareem Showtime Lakers.
I am a newer Warriors fan. I can’t claim the agony of the lean years, those seasons rife with defeat and disappointment, the heartache of best friends who are native Warrior fans who watched the organization pick Todd Fuller over Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, the fans who suffered through the decades of drought with the brief oasis of the We Believe team. Draymond Green recently recalled his rookie year as a Warrior, walking through downtown Oakland giving tickets away while teammates were sent to the BART trains to do the same. “I remember that, it wasn’t that long ago,” he reminisced.
I don’t know the full extent of the pain from the disbelief and betrayal of moving the team out of Oakland just when they were peaking, taking the roar out of the Roaracle, a special place where Steph Curry waxed nostalgic about “the haze in the building if you know what I mean.” I don’t have that in-the-marrow Warrior trauma of a native fan, but I feel privileged to have ridden the highs alongside these loyal, die-hard fans over the past period, and last night’s fourth championship has a sweetness and exhilaration that is all its own.
Sometimes life is just a series of little stitched together moments of something to look forward to in between all the hard and steep. Such has been the case for my parents, both cancer patients on chemotherapy, who have effectively had to become shut-ins over the past few years because of Covid. These Warriors have given them something to root for, a reason to keep track of the days of the week, a vehicle for evenings filled with electric joy and excitement beamed safely into their living room.
It would have been impossible for me to root for a vaccine-less Wiggins and a team that countenanced it. But in a world of Novaks and Aarons and Kyries, Andrew Wiggins found a way to put the I in vaccine and the me in team, and ultimately became an integral piece of this Warriors team. For that, I am thankful.
I am thankful that this team is led by the stellar Steve Kerr, a human being first, a coach second. Coach Kerr spoke out after Uvalde with the passion and outrage and moral authority that so called leaders lacked in that moment of profound rage and grief. I was proud of my adopted team more than ever.
I am thankful for Klay Thompson, who showed us that you can fall, get back up, fall yet again and get back up all over again. And that sometimes it isn’t pretty. That recovery can sometimes look like a lone man, sitting on a bench, long after the game is over and the crowds disperse, bowed head draped in a towel. I am thankful for Klay for showing us his vulnerability, revealing for all to see that in fact, there is no strength without it.
I am thankful for the moment at the gas station that one afternoon before a playoff game. I made friends with Evelyn and her mom, Debra, both Warriors fans, as we pumped gas in our cars. They were sporting the blue and gold, and we belly laughed as we talked about our love for Draymond and his need for anger management. For those few brief moments, we could focus on our shared joy instead of the gouging at the gas station.
The wretchedness of the past few years has only made this Warriors ride even sweeter, even more meaningful.
Last night, we witnessed the depth of the brotherhood between the Warriors, with Steph, Draymond, Iggy and Klay each claiming four rings apiece, winning a championship with absolutely no asterisks next to it, and making this Warriors team an indisputably dynastic one. This championship cements the undeniable greatness of one Wardell Stephen Curry II, for those daft enough to have been questioning this in 2022.
In the end, when Wiggins finally made the choice to get the vaccine, he shared that it was prompted by the thought, “We got a chance to do something special here.”
And last night, the Warriors did.