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Woj: Inside the Nets locker room when COVID tests hit

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

December 14 was a tough day for the Nets. Paul Millsap was already in COVID health and safety protocols and as Bruce Brown looked around the locker room, he saw some empty places, as he told Adrian Wojnarowski. As the game vs. Raptors approached, he knew Paul Millsap was out. He had been told to stay home the day before and DeAndre’ Bembry and James Johnson had had positive or inconclusive tests earlier in the day.

Woj, writing with Baxter Holmes, described the scene Brown faced, literally and figuratively.

Standing in the locker room at Barclays Center, Brooklyn Nets guard Bruce Brown stared at the empty stalls surrounding him: all his neighbors, all absent. No James Johnson. No DeAndre’ Bembry. No Paul Millsap. It was Dec. 14, and the Nets were about to face the Raptors, but they were also in the teeth of a COVID-19 breakout. As Brown glanced to his left and right, a sense of dread settled in. “I don’t think it’s going to skip over my locker,” he thought to himself.

And, of course, he was right.

Soon, Brown found himself on the court warming up for a rare starting assignment, a byproduct of so many teammates in the protocols. He wore a good sweat and the good-faith belief he had cleared two rounds of game-day testing. It felt like a clean getaway.

But before tipoff, Nets assistant general manager Jeff Peterson waved Brown toward the tunnel to the locker room. One of Brown’s two pregame tests had come back inconclusive, and the NBA told the Nets that they needed to enter Brown into the league’s protocols. Officials walked Brown toward an empty side room, brought him his street clothes and belongings, and walked him out to the loading dock to leave the arena.

And, of course, he was not alone.

Awaiting Brown was Nets star guard James Harden.

When the Nets were pulling Brown off the court, they delivered Harden his testing news in the training room. Beyond the din of the Barclays crowd, Harden looked at Brown, and Brown looked at Harden, and they wondered what in the world was happening.

“You feel anything?” Harden asked him.

“I’m good,” Brown said. “You?”

No symptoms, Harden told him. Feeling fine.

As the ESPN writers wrote, Brown and Harden had done everything right ... and Brown had even appeared in a commercial sponsored by the Nets, Pfizer and BioNTech promoting the companies’ vaccine.

Brown and Harden were fully vaccinated, and Brown had COVID-19 in September. “But there’s a new variant,” Brown said, and so there was something of a reset button for everyone with antibodies.

Together, Brown and Harden were the sixth and seventh Nets players lost to the team’s outbreak. Eventually, 10 players — including MVP candidate Durant — would contract the virus, and the franchise would scramble to assemble G League players and journeymen on 10-day hardship exemptions to replenish the roster.

It was then, Woj and Holmes write, that the Nets realized they had to make a move, one that would reverberate around the team and the league.

As Brown and Harden awaited testing clearance to return, the Nets, concerned about their remaining players wearing down from playing too many minutes — namely Durant — opted to make a bold move.

They turned to Kyrie Irving.

That too was not unaffected by the virus and its omicron variant ... or irony.

The star guard is the NBA’s most prominent unvaccinated player. That status kept him sidelined both because of New York City law and because the Nets declared that they didn’t want him to be a part-time player who could only play in road games.

They would bring Irving back, the Nets stated, because they needed him.

Less than 24 hours after their announcement, sources said, Irving contracted COVID-19.

What’s next? We will know more later Thursday morning when Steve Nash speaks with the media. By now, Millsap should be out of protocols and maybe some of the others lost on December 14.

In talking with Pat McAFee of FanDuel, Shams Charania speculated that Irving could be back by the Nets game vs the Pacers on January 5 or the Bulls on January 12. But it’s hard to figure. Things can change, as Bruce Brown can tell you.