On Tuesday, December 21, Charlie Brown Jr. saw his friend Zylan Cheatham looking cheerful as he walked through the lobby of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.
Just by looking at him, Brown could tell he had good news to share.
Earlier that day, Cheatham had learned that the Miami Heat wanted to sign him on a 10-day contract. He started screaming, jumping and running in his hotel room to compete in a showcase of the best teams in the G League, the NBA’s development league. Cheatham canceled plans to go home to Phoenix for Christmas, and when she called her mother to let her know, she jumped out too.
Soon after, Brown heard that another friend was getting a call from the G League. And then one of Brown’s teammates in the G League’s Delaware Blue Coats did, too.
“It was slowly happening around me,” Brown said.
It happened to him a few hours later. Brown’s manager called him while warming up for a match at the G League Showcase. The Dallas Mavericks wanted to sign him.
Brown and Cheatham are two of more than 80 players to sign 10-day contracts with NBA teams this season. Their opportunity has come because NBA players, like everyone else, are facing the latest wave of coronavirus. The virus, especially the Omicron variant, has depleted several NBA squads in recent weeks. A recent decision to shorten the isolation time required for some infected players could help teams get their regular stars back sooner.
The league and players association agreed to grant difficulty exceptions to allow teams to temporarily sign players to fill, even if they don’t have a roster or salary cap. Difficulty exceptions and short-term deals existed before the pandemic, but until at least January 19, teams can sign 10-day contracts with players to replace anyone who has tested positive for coronavirus whenever they need to. The league also requires more than one player from 30 teams to sign substitutes if they have a coronavirus infection.
These supplements, with dozens of players testing positive each week, are helping the NBA avoid delaying more games when teams don’t have enough healthy players—it has already done it nine times.
For some basketball pros, this meant the phone call they’ve been waiting for, the opportunity to be seen, or a second chance they’ve never had.
“A dream come true to say the least,” Cheatham said. “It’s every hoop’s dream. You work for it, especially when you compete in the G League for years. It’s kind of like your Super Bowl or NBA finals.”
Players who signed a 10-day contract this month included younger players like Cheatham, 26, who was just a few years out of college; Older players who have spent years hoping for a chance in the G League; and NBA veterans who are out of the league and hoping for a comeback – players like Lance Stephenson, Isaiah Thomas and 40-year-old Joe Johnson.
This time, Johnson’s teenage son is part of the fun.
“About a month ago I was like, ‘Daddy, what was I doing while you were playing?’ she asked. “You were playing in the game room in the back,” I said.
On Monday, out of all their regular starts, the Minnesota Timberwolves used the difficulty exception to sign Greg Monroe, a 31-year-old former lottery draft who was the last to play in the NBA in 2019.
Monroe woke up at 4 a.m. Monday morning to fly from Washington DC to Minneapolis. His first flight was canceled and he got in at around 11am to be tested for coronavirus so he could finally play.
Hours later, Monroe played 25 minutes against the Boston Celtics and scored 11 points with 9 rebounds and 6 assists in the Timberwolves’ win.
“I’ve traveled the world and literally come back,” Monroe, who has played in Germany and Russia for the past two years, told reporters. “But it felt great to be there. It’s just a pleasure to be there.”
A 10-day contract was typically like a trial run for the players, with a few signers on longer deals to stay with their teams for the rest of the season and beyond. Former players Kurt Rambis, Raja Bell and Bruce Bowen have turned these short deals into notable careers.
A recent example is Gary Payton II, who played on 10-day contracts for several teams before signing a contract with Golden State last year. This year Payton played a critical role in Golden State’s revival. At 29, it looks like he’s finally found an NBA home.
At Christmas, Golden State needed 14 minutes from Quinndary Weatherspoon, whom they signed from the G League members Santa Cruz Warriors on Thursday. While the 25-year-old Weatherspoon healed his wounds in Santa Cruz, he was highly recommended by Klay Thompson, who was guarded by Weatherspoon during the preparations. Weatherspoon came home from the G League Showcase and left again hours later to join Golden State.
“It was crazy,” Payton said. “The children have been waiting for this moment.”
Weatherspoon benefited from playing on the development team affiliated with the team that signed him. That makes it much more familiar – staff, system, facilities.
Called up for the Atlanta Hawks from the College Park Skyhawks G League team, Cat Barber was similarly familiar with her new surroundings. He spent five years rapping in the NBA’s development league and never thought of giving up on that dream.
“It’s just the love of basketball I have,” Barber said. “A lot of people were telling me I was right there, that close, and I just stuck with it.”
Barber played in the Hawks’ 2 minute loss to the Knicks and 4 minutes to the Bulls at Christmas.
“I’ve accomplished something that not many guys do,” Barber said. “I am proud of myself.”
There’s also a financial benefit that could mean a lot. The typical salary for a G League player is $37,000 per year. Most 10-day contracts are signed for a proportional portion of the league’s minimum salary; This means that most players who sign 10-day contracts double their G League annual salaries in just 10 days in the NBA.
“Growing up, you always hear people say, ‘Oh, you gotta play basketball for the love of the game. The money will come. Don’t worry about it,'” said Cheatham. “But at the same time, anyone who has real problems or real situations dealing with family or people knows that having money is definitely helpful.”
Brown traveled to Dallas on Wednesday and was bombarded with group chats (from his old and current team), playbook, and instructions for the next few days. He estimated that he stayed awake until 3 or 4 am with a wake-up call before 8 am on Thursday.
At Christmas, six of the Mavericks’ players were unavailable due to the virus. This was the first game Brown was able to play for Dallas. At one point, four of the five Mavericks on the field were replaced. Brown said NBA veteran Brandon Knight, who was signed as a backup quarterback, helped keep things running smoothly.
“The best thing you can do is prepare for any situation,” Brown said. “It could be any day, any hour. Standing helps you in a way because you’re so well prepared for that moment.”
Brown hadn’t played at all for Christmas, the day he highlighted the NBA’s top teams and biggest stars. His father in Philadelphia, Charles Brown Sr. He used to watch the Christmas games with him.
“Dad texted me that day. Nothing was more important to him than seeing me play at Christmas,” said Brown, “because I always talked about it.”
But the specter of the virus remains present for all.
Cheatham, who played in just four NBA games before being called up for duty, arrived in Miami on a day off for the Heat last week. They were due to play for the Pistons the next day, and on game day he found himself introducing himself to his teammates. He didn’t play in that game but said Tuesday he was confident he could help if needed.
He also acknowledged the dangerous nature of his position.
“To say you’re not worried about catching Covid would be blasphemous at this point,” Cheatham said. “Every time you pick up your phone, you see a new case. And then you see the men get vaccinated and do everything you do and still get Covid.”
On Tuesday, he spoke about avoiding contact with others whenever possible and making wise decisions despite the unpredictability of the virus.
On Wednesday morning, the Heat added Cheatham to their roster due to the league’s health and safety protocols.