On Saturday, the Philadelphia 76ers play the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The 76ers will be the home team because they have the better record. After the first two games, the series shifts back to Toronto. Now, anything can happen in those first two games.
One thing is certain for the third: The Sixers will be without All-Defensive guard Matisse Thybulle. He is not injured, nor was he called away for a personal reason. Well, not exactly. Thybulle has admitted to being only half-vaccinated and due to Canada’s vaccine laws, he is ineligible to play in those games.
Thybulle spoke about his choice in a clear way, stating that he grew up in a household that used alternative medicine and once it was determined that he could still contract and pass COVID, he decided to not go beyond getting the first jab.
Kyrie Irving has been the center of the great vax debate in basketball since the beginning of the season. A lot of proverbial ink has been spilled on his decision, this site included. This Thybulle situation fascinates me in a whole different way.
He does not have a wacky history of public statements. In fact, his greatest notoriety outside of basketball probably came during the bubble season when he had a YouTube series about that experience. (Another topic we covered.) It was awesome, I watched every episode. I found the young rookie charming, the access fascinating, and the production value impressive.
He is kinda screwing his teammates here.
It does not mean that the 76ers will lose the series. Or if they do, it is not like the finger will be solely pointed at Matisse. The Raptors are a nasty team. They are long, athletic, and skilled at every position. Pascal Siakam will probably make an All-NBA team, Fred VanVleet is the best underdog in the league and an absolute menace, Scottie Barnes might win Rookie of the Year and is one of the most unique players of any age right now.
On the other hand, James Harden is an enigma. Is he hurt, is he careening off the cliff into the downside of his career, or does he just prefer to have a shooting percentage that doubles as a credit optimization percentage? He has not been the superstar Philly fans have hoped for, or the basketball maestro the rest of the league was scared of.
Joel Embiid is a terrifying monster. No negatives there.
Thybulle was their most important wing defender, however, and against a team like Toronto where any guy can go off in any game, his role is important.
The question I have asked myself all season is, how do the teammates of unvaccinated players feel about this kind of decision? The NBA Players Association has said that it is a player’s right to make this decision for themselves and they do not have to talk about vaccination status.
Philadelphia is not the only team to have these types of questions swirling around them. While the Eastern Conference seeding was getting sorted towards the end of the season, the Boston Celtics faced a similar situation. Reports swirled that Al Horford and Jaylen Brown, two pretty important players, were unvaccinated and would not be able to play against the Raptors. Horford has since stated that he is fully vaccinated, while Brown is pulling an Aaron Rodgers and saying that he is “ready to play anyone.” As the Vice President of the NBAPA, he could just be toeing the company line… or not?
To return to my question, what do their peers think? I can see a wide range of possibilities. These men all spend a lot of time together and I can see them shaking it off as a personal decision. On the other hand, it’s a business. Livelihoods are often tied to success. Not to mention that these are some of the most competitive people in the world—one has to be to achieve this level of success.
Winning a title is not an individual accomplishment. We’ve seen injuries affect the outcome of playoff series again and again. To make a choice that causes you to miss games is a big deal because it impacts way more than yourself. To do so in the playoffs is also very different from sitting out a random game in November.
For the Sixers, this may feel like déjà vu. They just went through three-quarters of a season with a guy who was choosing not to play with them (Hi, Ben Simmons). Whether it was because of mental health, feeling betrayed by the organization, or some sort of back injury, choices were certainly made.
Same situation with the vaccine. Are Thybulle’s teammates publicly supporting him, but secretly thinking, “fuck this dude?” I don’t know. If I’m Tyrese Maxey, a candidate for Most Improved Player with a chance to make my mark on a national stage and the guy that probably has to chase VanVleet around now, I sure might be!
If I’m Joel Embiid, and I’m going to get second in the MVP and get bumped to All-NBA Second Team because of positional duplicity, then I might at least want my best wing defending counterpart for the first round of the playoffs. I just might, I don’t know. It is quite possible that these guys are more mature than me.
We have all reacted to this pandemic in our own way. For some, the vaccines were a no-brainer. Other folks needed convincing but eventually went along with it. Andrew Wiggins of Golden State was facing a situation where he would not have been able to play home games in San Francisco. He eventually decided to get the shot. He sure wouldn’t have made the All-Star team otherwise!
Kyrie was the most notable and staunch opponent of getting the vax, as I mentioned. Now that New York has changed its mandates, it may all work out for him—if the Nets avoid Toronto. That infuriated me all season and infuriates me now. Clearly, though, I am bringing my own biases and theories (and that of science) to the table.
I already had my issues with Irving, so do I feel the same frustration towards Thybulle or the other unannounced unvaccinated players? I admit that it is a different style of frustration, but both the fan in me and the father of a child not yet eligible to be vaxxed feel it. If I were a 76ers fan, I imagine I would also be perturbed. Philly fans might boo their own moms if things weren’t going their way, so I don’t think that is going out on a limb.
The one salve to all of this is simple: win. In sports, winning has trumped all else over and over again. Fan bases forgive most offenses far easier if the team has success. The same will be true of this story. If the Sixers beats the Raptors, this story will go extinct. The fans will move on, teammates who may have cared won’t anymore, and I will surely sound like a sore loser if I continue to harp on it.
But should winning be the deciding factor here? I will hop off the soapbox after this final thought. The situation I outlined exemplifies the problem with the United States’ COVID response. We have tied our arguments too closely to the results, and we’re only citing the results that prove our points.
Anti-vaxxers will point to lower hospitalization rates in areas that have developed immunity by having the virus. Pro-vax people will point to the high mortality rates and the overall staggering number of avoidable deaths. And Thybulle can point to the results if the 76ers win, while the detractors can be vindicated by loss. Unfortunately for all parties, confirmation bias does not factor into right or wrong.
I can confirm that, at the very least, I will be watching.