“You’re crazy as s—,” NBA 2K League Managing Director Brendan Donohue, with a heartfelt chuckle, tells Michael “BearDaBeast” Key. Bear smiles.
“That was bad,” he admits. But as crazy as it seemed a month ago, T-Wolves Gaming are in the playoffs, and that—considering what Bear and the team have been through—is more than worth smiling about.
* * *
No one expected Bear to fall to T-Wolves Gaming, who had the No. 11 pick in the 2019 entry draft, their first entry draft as an expansion franchise. Many had expected him to be part of the season one draft pool after making the cut for the final 250 players, but a surprising exclusion from the final 102 players left him with no choice but to wait another year.
His connection to the Pro-Am team Island Gang—which boasts a handful of league stars on its roster—was part of why his name was most often mentioned in connection with Bucks Gaming. Sitting pretty with the 6th and 17th overall picks, Bucks Gaming, in need of a point guard, were known to have their sights on SlayIsland, one of Island Gang’s leaders and a Milwaukee native. Connecting the two Pro-Am teammates at two positions of need seemed inevitable.
“Actually, I wanted to go number one,” Bear told DIMER. “I wanted to be known as the best player in the world.”
Jazz Gaming instead picked Ria with the top selection. Bear knew that Mavs Gaming, picking fifth, were interested, but they went with center PeteBeBallin. After Bucks Gaming shocked the league by selecting Plondo sixth overall, it came down to Kina and Bear as the consensus top remaining point guard prospects. When Warriors Gaming Squad selected Kina with the 10th overall pick, Bear knew he was heading to Minnesota.
“During the interview, [then-coach Shawn Vilvens] told me: ‘If you’re at number eleven—don’t think you’ll be there—it’s a steal. Pack your bags, you’re coming to Minnesota.'”
Interim head coach/general manager Justin Butler was part of the T-Wolves Gaming draft process from the beginning, and like Vilvens he had Bear extremely highly ranked.
“He’s amazing,” Butler said. He and Vilvens flip-flopped between Bear and PeteBeBallin at the top of their board, but eventually narrowed it down to Bear with the top overall pick. “At number eleven, we thought, we’re not getting a point guard. But when the Warriors took Kina, it wasn’t a question, it was how fast can we make this call before people figure out what we’ve done.”
T-Wolves Gaming figured to pair Bear with Hood, whom the team had acquired at the expansion draft from Cavs Legion GC. Two dynamic scorers and vociferous trash talkers, the pair was supposed to be the team’s core and future. The team impressed in the Tipoff Tournament, making the quarterfinals, but struggled to start the regular season.
After a two-loss week, Hood requested a trade on April 25. The team scrambled to meet, adjust and figure things out as Hood, then the leading scorer, was benched. Shortly after the trade request, the team dismissed Vilvens due to an unrelated situation. Butler stepped in as interim coach and GM. Eventually, the team traded Hood to Heat Check Gaming in exchange for JMoney.
“To be honest, I like that kid a lot,” Bear said. “Hood and I were in the exact situation, a lot of the same things he was going through are almost completely identical to what I was going through at the time. He’s a heck of a 2K player. I honestly do hope that wherever he goes he locks in and taps into something that he’s never had before.”
In week seven, the T-Wolves took on Cavs Legion GC in what would originally have been Hood’s first game against Cleveland since the trade. T-Wolves Gaming took a 64-48 lead into the final two minutes of the game. They failed to score another point and lost on a last-second dunk by All Hail Trey in arguably the greatest comeback—or blown lead—in NBA 2K League history. The brutal loss dropped them to 3-6 on the year with just seven games remaining.
They haven’t lost a regular-season game since.
* * *
Bear is from Hight Point, North Carolina, but he likes to say that he’s really from everywhere in North Carolina—Greensboro, Durham, Winston-Salem, wherever. Moving to Minnesota was a big change, but one to which he’s warmed immensely.
“The whole city embraces each other, there’s a lot of love there,” he explained. “It’s so clean, it’s massive, a lot of people, and the skyway there is amazing. I’d never seen a skyway, it’s like the most amazing thing in the world.”
In Minnesota, T-Wolves Gaming is split into three apartments with two players each. The six guys all live in the same building, several floors apart. Bear rooms with Feast, whom T-Wolves Gaming drafted away from 76ers GC with the sixth pick in the expansion draft. Feast, one of the best defenders in the league, was on the receiving end of AuthenticAfrican’s record-shattering 84-point game in 2018, thanks to the 76ers’ strategy of staying home on shooters and leaving Feast on an island.
His senior Island Gang roommate knows Feast can be great.
“I get on Feast a lot,” Bear said. “On the defensive end, this dude is unbelievable. On offense, I get on him: if you understand it to that point on defense, on offense, he has so much potential. I get on him more than I get on other teammates, which is perfect, because he’s my roommate. So I might rip into him at practice, and then we go back home, we’re sitting there watching TV together.”
At 27, Bear is one of the older players in the league and one of the elder statesmen on T-Wolves Gaming. His experience, combined with his near-miss in 2018, gives him a different perspective than some of the other guys. Most importantly, it allows him to see the need for and develop the bond that has made T-Wolves Gaming so resilient.
“I’m older, I’m 27, some of these guys in the league are 18, 19, so I’ve been there, done that,” he said. “Everybody respects each other. It’s crazy, the bond that we have.”
* * *
T-Wolves Gaming took a six-game win streak into their week 12 matchup with Blazer5 Gaming, whom they’d upset in the first round of the Turn Tournament in Las Vegas. One win to lock up a playoff spot. Blazer5 Gaming, riding a 14-game win streak of its own, seemed determined to try and eliminate the T-Wolves.
“Early in the season, we were beating ourselves,” Butler said. “It was really frustrating. Over these last seven games, we’re figuring things out. We all know what our weaknesses are internally Bear helps pull that together.”
Butler praised Bear for his on-court leadership, but it’s his skill that has the T-Wolves where they want to be: tied 53-53 in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter against Blazer5, with the chance to take the final shot. Bear has 15 points and 11 assists, which is not quite what presumptive MVP favorite Mama Im Dat Man has (26 points and 10 assists), but only Bear has the ball.
The T-Wolves go 5-Out, Bear at the top of the arc against potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate LavishPhenom. Bear crosses over, once, twice, three times. He gets past Lavish, and seems to hang at the elbow with the chance to either hit a midrange jumper or drive to the basket for the win. But he waits an extra second, as the entire Blazer5 defense collapses on him, and passes to Mama’s abandoned man, lockdown defender TURNUPDEFENSE, in the corner.
“Turnup never shows emotion,” Bear said. “I saw him stand up. I knew what it was: he never shows emotion. When he stood up, I knew it was green. I just knew it was green.”
Bear jumped up and kept jumping, unbridled energy and unbound joy. He strode across the stage toward Mama, sitting opposite him, accidentally bumping and knocking over his own monitor.
WE’RE HEADING TO THE PLAYOFFS!!!! https://t.co/J93RlFhk6z
“I don’t have to score forty, I don’t care to score forty, I don’t care who takes the game-winning shot,” Bear said. “I don’t care about any of that shine. If we win, I get to talk trash.”
Everyone, including Butler, expected a technical foul. Butler tried to pull him back, reminding him that the game wasn’t over. Bear held back for the final split seconds before letting out the emotion. With T-Wolves Gaming up three and just 0.2 seconds left on the clock, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. But the technical—for one reason or another—never came, and the T-Wolves sealed the win and with it the first-ever playoff berth in franchise history.
“It’s a lot of emotion, everything is running through my head,” he said. “I’m the 11th [pick], I thought I could be number one, the Timberwolves taking me, believing in me. Nine teams didn’t take me. A lot of emotions came out. I usually talk trash a lot. But this one felt a little sweeter with us making the playoffs.”
* * *
There isn’t really another player like Bear. There are more eager trash-talkers. There are point guards with better numbers. There might just be crazier players.
Bear embraces it all with humility. He says he’s just frontrunning right now. Similar to his reluctance to try and go for 40 points every game, he wouldn’t mind someone bigger and more of a presence to come along, since that’s what the league needs. He praises his teammates effusively, and says that without their confidence behind him he wouldn’t be anywhere near the same player he is today.
But it’s his infectious enthusiasm and charisma that have made Bear one of the faces of the league. His trash talk and post-game excitement are widely beloved. His occasional on-stage antics, monitor-related or not, are fan favorites. His seven-game win streak and playoff-clinching assist are now legendary. It’s his success, not his pride, that pushes aside his humility in one regard.
“Do I think I’m a superstar? Heck yeah, I think I’m one, and it’s not even a question.”