The Sixers will play the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs and Matisse Thybulle will be unavailable for Games 3 and 4 (and 6 if necessary).
Those facts were confirmed Sunday night. The Sixers beat the Pistons at Wells Fargo Center to move to 51-31, finished the regular season fourth in the Eastern Conference, and drew the fifth-seeded Raptors.
Thybulle spoke after the game and his remarks were decidedly atypical for a sports setting. In some ways, the 25-year-old cleared important things up.
He confirmed that he is not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, which means he’ll be ineligible to play in Toronto. Since Jan. 15, athletes have needed to be fully vaccinated to enter Canada. When Thybulle was listed on the Sixers’ injury report as “ineligible to play” for their game Thursday, it was logical to link that mandate with his absence.
Still, Sixers head coach Doc Rivers and Thybulle’s teammates were not initially inclined to discuss the issue in detail. Thybulle did that for the first time Sunday and, in extended comments, clarified that he received one dose of the Pfizer vaccine during last year’s postseason.
“I’m not fully vaccinated,” Thybulle said. “This was a decision I made a long time ago. I thought a lot about what I’d say here. Essentially, I made this choice and I thought I could keep it to myself, I could keep it private, but people are always going to wonder why.
“I was raised in a holistic household where ‘anti-vax’ is not a term that was ever used. It’s a weird term that has kind of been thrown around to just label people. But we grew up with Chinese medicine and naturopathic doctors. With that upbringing, coming into this situation I felt like I had a solid foundation of medical resources that could serve me beyond what this vaccine could do for me.
“As things escalated and as this situation has played out, I’ve obviously had to reconsider and look at it differently. To that point, it got to the point last year during the playoffs where I did actually consider getting vaccinated and went through with getting the first shot, the first dose. At that point, I was under the impression that getting vaccinated meant that I could not get the disease and transmit it to other people. And I felt like if I’m going to be a part of society, in the position I’m in, I need to do what’s right for the greater good. That argument of the greater good held a lot of weight for me. As things progressed, as this virus has changed many different ways, it just showed through the science that that wasn’t the case anymore — that even while being vaccinated, you could still spread the disease.
“So for me and my reasoning, it felt like getting vaccinated was not something that I needed to do to protect other people. … With that being considered and the holistic background of my upbringing — and just the way I view medicine in general — it felt like I was secure in treating myself … not treating myself, but going to the doctors that I have to treat COVID if I did get it. And in the case that I did, I was able to go about it in my holistic way, and I’m able to sit here today healthy and OK because of it.”
To Thybulle’s remark that he thought vaccination ensured one couldn't “get the disease and transmit it to other people”: COVID-19 infections among fully vaccinated individuals are referred to as “breakthrough” cases. Tobias Harris talked at length about being one of these when he returned from a COVID infection in November.
COVID vaccines are not at all unique in this regard. Per the CDC, “COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing infection, serious illness, and death. Most people who get COVID-19 are unvaccinated. However, since vaccines are not 100% effective at preventing infection, some people who are fully vaccinated will still get COVID-19.”
Thybulle entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols in both November and January. He described his second stint as “confusing,” indicating he’d gotten varying test results — “inconclusive, negatives, a random positive” — and experienced no symptoms.
“Very frustrating, especially as the rule changes come and go on a whim, it feels like; it gets confusing,” he said on Jan. 7. “And for a recently recovered player to get tested so soon, the concern would be false positives. To draw positives and inconclusives and have to sit out for almost a week is a little frustrating.”
Again, frustrating is an appropriate word with Thybulle, an All-Defensive Second Team selection last year, now set to sit out playoff games.
“It sucks,” he said Sunday. “It was not the outcome that I wanted. It’s always hard not to be available, whether you’re injured or whatnot. It’s hard to watch your guys go out there and fight without you. But I believe in them without me just as much as I believe in them with me. I think we’ve got as good a chance as (anyone) to make a run to the championship. I trust these guys to take care of it when I can’t be on the court with them.”
Though it’s obvious the Sixers as a whole wish Thybulle could play in Toronto — NBA scoring title winner Joel Embiid called him a “big part of our team” on Saturday — they have not shifted his stance.
“It was more so suggested and offered to me,” Thybulle said. “It was never forced or required, just encouraged.”
Thvbulle explained that the specific circumstances of a Raptors playoff series were insufficient to change his outlook.
“That was really hard,” he said of discussions with teammates. “I made this decision a while ago where this situation I’m facing right now was not a factor. It wasn’t a part of any of the decision-making, because at the time I would be available for my team … and not restricted in any way to do my job. Having had the stance I’ve had for almost a year now, I just felt like it couldn’t be something that I could be forced to do because of rules or regulation changes. It just seemed like the right thing for me to just see it through.
“And unfortunately, the repercussions of that are going to be me missing games and not being there for my teammates. Yeah, I’ve talked to them. Obviously from fans to coaches to front office (members) to teammates, there are people that are upset and people who don’t understand. But ultimately, I’ve been lucky enough to have them voice that they may disagree, but they still support me in my decision-making. With that being said, I’m still going to be there and give 110 percent every time I’m available to be on the court.”
In addition to the short-term consequences, it's possible Thybulle’s vaccine status will be significant for his career beyond the playoffs. The Sixers in October exercised his fourth-year option of approximately $4.4 million for the 2022-23 season. He will be eligible for a contract extension this summer.
“One of the things my dad taught me growing up is you’re free to do whatever you want as long as you’re willing to accept the consequences of it,” Thybulle said. “Like I said, I considered deeply all the different avenues. And of course I’ve accepted that this could hurt money, contracts, reputation. But I felt like this was the right thing that I needed to do for myself.”
It's indeed indisputable that Thybulle’s choice is negative for him professionally. He’s accepted that reality for the time being, though. And it leads to a simple question: What does he see as the downsides of receiving a second vaccine dose (which would wipe away those repercussions)?
“My reasoning for getting it or not getting it wasn’t really the downsides,” Thybulle said. “I just didn’t feel like it would benefit me. I didn’t see any benefits outweighing what I could seek from alternative medicine.”