January 22, 2006. Los Angeles. The visiting Toronto Raptors come out hot, leading the host Lakers by 7 after the first quarter and doubling their lead by halftime. The Lakers blow them out the rest of the way, outscoring Toronto 73–41 in the second half. Mike James (the original Mike James, point guard) scores 26 and notches 10 assists for the Raptors; Chris Bosh scores 18 points; even Matt Bonner, starting at center, shoots 5-12 in 26 minutes. The Raptors’ problem, though: Kobe Bryant, who scores 81 points in 42 minutes, the most prolific scoring game of his career.
Yusuf Abdulla, known in the community as “Kobeyusuf,” from Toronto, Ontario, is twelve years old.
* * *
April 4, 2018. A fast-forward of another twelve years. Kobe Bryant has won an Oscar for his short film “Dear Basketball” after the conclusion of his starry and storied NBA career. But Yusuf, the other Kobe, is just about to get started on his. Yusuf is a member of the 102 Club: 102 guys who will be drafted into the new NBA 2k League. For these guys, April is hardest the cruelest month.
“I kneeled down and I thanked god and I couldn’t stop asking the NBA representative if this was real.”
The NBA 2k League is simultaneously a culmination of immense hard work and years of dreaming. It is a convergence of many, many narratives. Practically, it is the NBA’s esports league, where seventeen NBA teams (the league projects full 30-team participation by year three) compete in the video game NBA 2k. Not, say, Paul George vs. Kevin Durant, playing in their spare time: those guys aren’t good enough for this. No, the league selected a draft pool of the world’s best 102 players (six to each team) after several qualification rounds, including esports’ first-ever official combine. Several of the 102, upon winning $250,000 in NBA 2k17’s Road to the All Star Game tournament last year, proceeded to easily wipe the floor with the roster of NBA stars—PG13 and Durant included—that emerged to challenge them. Two players of that victorious squad are Yusuf’s NBA 2k League teammates, although no one knew that yet.
Yusuf began playing NBA 2k with NBA 2k9, where Kobe was one of the top players in the game, rated 98 overall. He played quick head-to-head matchups, before graduating in NBA 2k10 to Crew Mode. The forerunner to Pro-Am was where Yusuf found his niche, as his team was ranked in the top 5 throughout the year. Not that his online success mattered much to his parents, who saw gaming as a waste of time. For Yusuf, however, gaming meant time to step away from reality and have fun. And so he continued to play, beginning to compete again in NBA 2k16 and progressing deep into the NBA 2k17 Road to the All Star Game tournament. His team made it to the final week of qualifying before falling. He watched the final game, won by Still Trill (headed by DatBoyDimez, the first overall pick in the draft), from his home in Toronto.
“Losing in that tournament broke my heart,” Yusuf told me. “You work so hard to get in, and in one loss all your hard work is gone.”
Luckily for Yusuf and for many of those who fell short in the tournament, another opportunity came calling. The NBA announced the NBA 2k League on February 9, 2017, the first true integration of an esport and its parent sports league. Yusuf’s hometown Raptors unveiled Raptors Uprising as one of the inaugural 17 teams. For Yusuf, the league announcement was a godsend, an opportunity to bounce back from losing in the tournament. His focus changed. In the beginning of the NBA 2k18 cycle, he went from being a role player to being a star center, his team’s anchor on defense. He became hungry. He developed not a mamba mentality but his own Yusuf mentality.
* * *
The league literally came calling in late March 2018. Yusuf had progressed through the qualification stages the league had posed, winning over 50 games in January and doing so well in the February combine that he had made the penultimate round of cuts: 250 players, with each of whom the league conducted interviews. Now, a few days after the interview, he scrolled through Twitter, seeing over 40 players happily announce life-changing phone calls that had made them part of the 102.
“I was scared, I was anxious,” he said. “There were people calling me to prank me and making me feel like I got the call.” So he did what he’d been doing since NBA 2k9: he fired up his PS4 and began to play NBA 2k, stepping away from reality and having fun. A call came, caller ID gently declaring New York as the call’s origin. This time, it was no prank.
Yusuf’s excitement is palpable as he recounts the moment. “I kneeled down and I thanked god and I couldn’t stop asking the NBA representative if this was real.”
It was real. Yusuf is one of five Canadians, and nine international players as a whole, to make the inaugural 102. Another round of team interviews came next, before the April 4 draft. Yusuf planned to stay in Toronto and watch the draft on TV. He let the deadline for reserving a league-sponsored hotel room pass by. Thankfully, more sensible friends convinced him to be present at the biggest moment of his life, and so he hopped a 10-hour Greyhound bus to New York City, arriving a mere five hours before the start of the draft. He dons his blue suit, shows off on NBA 2k League Twitter for twelve seconds, mugs for the camera alongside the rest of the draftees, and finally settles into a league-sponsored seat.
The draft goes as expected. Dimez goes first overall, to MavsGG, the first of three consecutive point guard selections. Teams are constrained slightly: each must pick one player at each position in the first five rounds, before using their final selection on a player of any position. Kenny, Dimez’s teammate on StillTrill in NBA 2k17 and now a point guard himself, goes 11th to Raptors Uprising, one of ten point guards chosen in the first round. Centers go six and seven overall. The second round is far more big-man heavy, as ten of seventeen selections are power forwards or centers. Raptors Uprising picks Detoxys, another Still Trill member and a power forward, with the second pick of the round. Matt Bonner—yes, Matt Bonner of the twelve-point performance on January 22, 2006—chimes in on Twitter, offering Detoxys congratulations… along with a list of Toronto tips. No such list of tips was necessary for Raptors Uprising’s next selection.
* * *
I first saw Yusuf at MSG, when NBA 2k League Marketing Director Brendan Donohue announced that Raptors Uprising had selected him with the eleventh pick in the third round. Yusuf ran up to the podium clapping, an ear-to-ear grin on his face as he carefully pulled the Raptors Uprising cap down; he jubilantly announced, “I’m staying home.” When I first met him, about ten minutes later, after the backstage media circus had gotten through with him, he looked more awestruck than anything else. A few hours later, after the draft, we crossed paths again on the escalator in Madison Square Garden. He still looked awestruck. The matter had not yet sunk in. He knew, rationally, that he was about to be paid a lot of money (third-round picks are signed to six-month, $32,000 contracts, with potential for branding income, and have their housing costs covered) to play NBA 2k, but emotionally, it hadn’t registered. Also, he still doesn’t have a hotel room.
His emotions carry over in telling the story. “My friend from Geekletes, Danny Martin, was going to help me and let me sleep in his private room even though we didn’t have room for the both of us. He was so kind in letting me stay at least on the floor for the night.”
The kindness spread.
“Once I got drafted to the raptors, Shane [Talbot, esports manager for MLSE, which owns the Raptors] took the team out to eat, and he asked where I was sleeping, and I told him the truth. You should have seen it: he treated me like family and got me a hotel room. I was amazed and so humbled from him doing that. One of the nicest gestures anyone has done for me. I can’t thank him enough. He didn’t have to do it but he chose to. Once I got the hotel room, I told Danny Martin to stay with me as he tried to help me out as well.” New York hotel rooms are pricey, but the kindness shown to him, Yusuf insists, is priceless.
The grin is back, now. “I felt like an NBA star. The feeling is indescribable.”
* * *
Yusuf returns to Toronto. There will be lots of time to show his new teammates around, once they arrive: they’re the only players who really, really need passports. Meanwhile, Yusuf’s beloved Raptors will embark on a quest for their first franchise championship, entering the NBA playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s first seed. They’ve slowly, subtly built a winning culture, still somewhat overshadowed by LeBron’s dominance of the East. Yusuf wants more than that for his team.
“I want teams to mark their calendars and be scared to play Toronto,” he says. “I’m going to give this organization everything that I have and make sure that we get that championship.” He knows, too, that it’s about more than a city. The Raptors are Canada’s basketball team; Yusuf intends to make Raptors Uprising Canada’s esports team. “We aren’t just representing a city,” he declares. He’s no longer awestruck; he’s determined again—merely being drafted hasn’t sated him. “We are representing a country.” Yusuf has no plans to let Kobe or anyone score 81 points against Canada’s team. The Yusuf mentality is back up North where it belongs.