Charlie Brown Jr. was walking through the lobby of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas on Dec. 21 when he saw his friend Zylan Cheatham looking joyous.

Brown could tell just by looking at him that he had good news to share.

Earlier that day, Cheatham had found out that the Miami Heat wanted to sign him to a 10-day contract. He started screaming, jumping and running around his hotel room, where he had been staying to compete in a showcase of the best teams in the NBA’s developmental league, the G League. Cheatham canceled plans to go home to Phoenix for Christmas, and when he called his mother to tell her, she jumped around, too.

Soon after, Brown heard that another friend had gotten a call-up from the G League. And then one of Brown’s teammates on the G League’s Delaware Blue Coats did, too.

“It was slowly happening around me,” Brown said.

A few hours later it happened to him. Brown’s agent called him as he was warming up for a game at the G League Showcase. The Dallas Mavericks wanted to sign him.

Brown and Cheatham are two of more than 80 players who have signed 10-day contracts with NBA teams this season. Their opportunity has come because NBA players, like everyone else, are facing the latest wave of the coronavirus. The virus, especially the omicron variant, has depleted several NBA rosters in recent weeks. A recent decision to shorten required isolation time for some infected players could help teams get their usual stars back sooner.

The league and players union have agreed to grant hardship exceptions to allow teams to temporarily sign players to fill in, even if they wouldn’t otherwise have the roster or salary cap space. Hardship exceptions and short-term deals existed before the pandemic, but until at least Jan. 19, teams can sign players to 10-day contracts to replace anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus as soon as they need them. The league is also requiring its 30 teams to sign replacement players if they have more than one player out with a coronavirus infection.

Minnesota Timberwolves center Greg Monroe (55) goes for a rebound over New York Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley (5) on Tuesday. | BRUCE KLUCKHOHN / USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS
Minnesota Timberwolves center Greg Monroe (55) goes for a rebound over New York Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley (5) on Tuesday. | BRUCE KLUCKHOHN / USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS

With dozens of players testing positive every week, these reinforcements help the NBA avoid postponing more games — it has already done so nine times — when teams don’t have enough healthy players.

For some basketball pros, that has meant getting a call they’ve been waiting for their whole lives, an opportunity to be seen or a second chance they never saw coming.

“A dream come true to say the least,” Cheatham said. “It’s every hooper’s dream. It’s what you work for, especially competing in the G League for multiple years. This is kind of your Super Bowl or NBA Finals.”

The players signing 10-day contracts this month have included younger players like Cheatham, 26, who is just a few years out of college; older players who have spent years in the G League hoping for a chance; and NBA veterans who had been out of the league and hoping for a comeback — players like Lance Stephenson, Isaiah Thomas and 40-year-old Joe Johnson.

On Monday, with all their regular starters out, the Minnesota Timberwolves used the hardship exception to sign Greg Monroe, a 31-year-old former lottery draft pick who last played in the NBA in 2019.

Monroe woke up at 4 a.m. Monday to fly to Minneapolis from Washington, D.C. His first flight got canceled, and he finally got in around 11 a.m. to be tested for the coronavirus so he could play.

Hours later, Monroe played 25 minutes against the Boston Celtics, scoring 11 points to go with 9 rebounds and 6 assists in the Timberwolves’ win.

“I’ve been around the world and back, literally,” Monroe, who played in Germany and Russia in the past two years, told reporters. “But it felt great to be out there. Just a joy to be out there.”

A 10-day contract has typically been like a tryout for players, with several signees getting longer deals to stay with their teams for the rest of the season and beyond. Former players Kurt Rambis, Raja Bell and Bruce Bowen all turned these short deals into notable careers.

One recent example is Gary Payton II, who played on 10-day contracts for several teams before signing one with Golden State last year. This year, Payton has been critical to the Warriors’ resurgence. At 29 years old, he seems finally to have found an NBA home.

On Christmas, Golden State needed 14 minutes from Quinndary Weatherspoon, whom the team signed Thursday from its G League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors. Weatherspoon, 25, came highly recommended by Klay Thompson, who had been guarded by Weatherspoon during scrimmages as he rehabbed his injuries with Santa Cruz. Weatherspoon came home from the G League Showcase and hours later left again to join Golden State.

“It’s been crazy,” Payton said. “Guys been waiting for this moment.”

There’s a financial benefit that can mean a lot, too. The typical salary for a G League player is $37,000 a year. Most 10-day contracts are signed for a prorated portion of the league’s minimum salary, which means most players signing 10-day contracts are making double their yearly G League salary in just 10 days in the NBA.

Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II (0) moments after shooting a three-point basket during a game versus the Memphis Grizzlies at Chase Center on Dec 23. | NEVILLE E. GUARD / USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS
Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II (0) moments after shooting a three-point basket during a game versus the Memphis Grizzlies at Chase Center on Dec 23. | NEVILLE E. GUARD / USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS

“Growing up you hear people always say: ‘Oh, you got to play basketball for the love of the game. The money will come. You don’t worry about that,’ ” Cheatham said. “But at the same time, anybody who has real problems or real situations with family or taking care of people knows having money is definitely beneficial.”

But the specter of the virus remains present for all of them.

Cheatham, who had appeared in just four NBA games before his call-up, arrived in Miami on an off day for the Heat last week. They were set to play the Pistons next day, and he found himself introducing himself to his teammates on game day. He didn’t play in that game, but Tuesday, he said he felt confident he could help if needed.

He also acknowledged the precarious nature of his position.

“To say you don’t worry about catching COVID would be blasphemy at this point,” Cheatham said. “Every time you open your phone you see a new case. And then you see guys are vaccinated and did all the things you did and still get COVID.”

He talked Tuesday about avoiding contact with others where possible and making smart decisions despite the unpredictability of the virus.

On Wednesday morning, the Heat added Cheatham to their list of players out because of the league’s health and safety protocols.

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