About half the Nets roster spent the entire four-month layoff in the belly of the beast. Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris and Garrett Temple and Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs, among others, spent their days, weeks and ultimately months in their Brooklyn apartments, being helped by the Nets front office, but still confined by the history around them.
There were deliveries of groceries and other essentials plus training equipment early on, but beneath their high rises, Brooklyn became the epicenter of a worldwide pandemic that killed 5,000 borough residents. Then the plaza out front of their home became the center of social justice protests in the city.
They saw it all. Allen who lives in the Gowanus section of the borough recalled “the streets were empty streets, the sirens were everywhere” in talking with Nets media via Zoom Thursday. He may have had questions recently about playing the “bubble” in Orlando —”We’re all going into an unknown”— but he didn’t go back to his native Texas as the death toll mounted. Brooklyn is his home.
“I decided to stay in New York because the Nets were doing a great job taking care of us.
He kept safe, and when George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, he decided that he would march, understanding the risk.
“It’s a tough time because of coronavirus,” he said, discussing the risk. “Do I want to stay healthy for my team, or do I want to risk my health and potentially bring it back to my team?”
Still, on Juneteeth, he joined a protest walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, with his face covered by a mask but his height topped by what is now an enormous Artis Gilmore-like Afro, He joked that he did draw a couple of stares he joked but overall, it “empowering,” made even more so because so many of those marching with him were such a diverse crowd of “allies.”
“It was great to see not only African-Americans, black people. It was predominantly white. It was great to see we have a lot of allies on our side,” he told the media.
For Harris, the situation in Brooklyn was even more troubling. Last November, his mother came to live with him in his and his girlfriend’s Brooklyn apartment. She had been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing treatment at Weill Cornell, one of the country’s top cancer centers. Then COVID-19 struck.
“I was a little worried to be around her…given the uncertainties around corona and how it affects people with compromised immune systems,” Harris said when asked what was the worst part of the experience. “That [was] definitely the worst period. Thankfully, she is doing well from a health standpoint right now.”
But both used the word, “lucky” to describe being able to stay in Brooklyn.
Now, of course, the challenge is different. They and their 10 healthy teammates are preparing to fly off to Orlando and the “bubble” on Tuesday. The seeding games begin July 31 against the Magic.
Harris was asked specifically if he considered opting out of the “bubble” because of his impending free agency, something that the Wizards’ Davis Bertans decided to do. (It should be noted that Bertans, unlike Harris, has had serious knee injuries in the past and didn’t want to risk another.)
“It’s obviously stuff you have to think about and discuss, but it wasn’t a difficult decision for me,” Harris said a bit sternly. “I’m healthy. I’m going to play and finish out the season … We have eight (seeding) games left. I wouldn’t take the last eight games of the season off just to get ready for free agency.”
Allen is in a bit of a different situation. He essentially admitted that he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder after losing his starting job to DeAndre Jordan after Jacque Vaughn replaced Kenny Atkinson.
“I’ve made a staple for myself as to what I can do in the NBA,” said Allen, matter-of-factly. “DeAndre’s out as we heard. I wish him the best. I want him to get healthy and recover well. For me, I’ve been in this position before. In the playoffs, rookie year I was the main big playing and then last year when Ed (Davis) got hurt I had the load, and then this year this happened. I just need to come out and prove that I’m able to play at this level again.”
He added that he understands being the only Net taller than 6’10” that he is, at least as of now, THE big man on the Brooklyn roster. Not only is Jordan out, but Nicolas Claxton is rehabbing from shoulder surgery and, of course, Kevin Durant remains out.
“There is some pressure. I don’t want to say I’m the last ‘big’ standing, but there is some pressure for me to be able to stay healthy and help the team succeed.”
Both expressed confidence in the health and safety protocols being instituted by the league and Walt Disney World. noting the NBA and Disney have over the years earned people’s trust in doing the right thing.
“It’s Disney and the NBA,” said Allen. “I believe they’re going to make the best situation they can. They’re going to try to keep us as healthy as possible. I did question myself whether it’s worth risking my health, but at the end of the day, I think weighing the options, it’s better for me to go. I’m not too concerned about the health portion.”
He also mentioned the hardships though and noted players’ “needs and wants.”
“It’s going to be 310 players or something like that. Take NBA players out of it: That’s a lot of people to make sure you have complete control and complete guidelines over. Then you add the NBA aspect, a bunch of grown men in this situation. We have our needs, we have our wants, and you know how we are,” Allen said with a smile.
Harris dismissed concerns that the championship this season will be tarnished by the four-month layoff, then the “bubble.”
“Whether people want to give it an asterisk or not, I don’t really know if that matters,” Harris said. “We’re trying to go forward in a healthy way, a safe way. Who knows what happens when we’re actually all down there? Across the league, the sentiment with a lot of guys is just the excitement to get back playing. However it finishes up for us, I don’t think there will be an asterisk in our book.”
Both players said the nearly four-month long layoff has led them to re-think where they are in the larger world. Allen used the word, “recalibrate,” Harris “reflective.”
“I think you could make the case that everybody has changed, more time to prioritize the things you really want to,” said Harris. “For me personally, it was one of those situations where you focus on the things you can control and try to take advantage of those specific things. Obviously, there are a lot of unknowns, whether it’s with the coronavirus or things about our season. But at least in my opinion, it helps you prioritize and stay focused on the things you can control.”
He noted as well how the social justice protests had entered into team discussions on an even broader, deeper and yes, uncomfortable level than what’s the norm in NBA locker rooms.
“Socially, I tried to educate myself to be become better in that regard as well,” he said, adding that Garrett Temple had helped him.
“Just being around somebody like Garrett where he’s just such a good communicator in general — but especially in regards to a lot of these social issues — he has a strong stance with how he feels,” Harris said. “He’s going to take the time to educate someone like myself that will never obviously be able to understand, but is wanting to educate and learn and trying to be better.”
In general, he said the issues have been front-and-center in broader team chats.
“We’ve had a number of discussions where we put ourselves in uncomfortable, vulnerable positions where we’re having the kind of situations we’ve had in our locker room on like an Instagram Live platform. We hope we can influence people in the next level of change and educate ourselves...”
Allen concurred. “It’s been different. Practices have been different. Everything’s been different.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a sad time,” Allen said of watching what’s happened to black men and women on the streets of American cities. He explained, “It’s sad to see it happening. It’s been a sad time for many a year. It’s just worse now because people are catching it on camera. It’s becoming more of a thing because more people are seeing it happening. But it’s been happening for hundreds of years.”
For Harris and Allen and the others staying in Brooklyn, living through history at its center was no doubt difficult, draining, but ultimately as they said, empowering.
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