Behind the scenes of the NBA 2K League, where Toronto chases more hoops glory
Nick Roy / theScore

TORONTO and NEW YORK CITY - Two months to the day before he became an NBA champion, Kyle Lowry failed to score against the Orlando Magic in the opening game of the playoffs. Both free throws and all seven field goals he attempted missed the mark in what finished as a three-point Toronto Raptors loss.

Kawhi Leonard, a Raptor at the time, wasn't fazed by his point guard's cold shooting night. After Toronto eliminated Orlando in five games, he said Lowry's characteristic diligence in the film room had made it certain that he would quickly bounce back.

On the last Tuesday in May, Shane Talbot related the story to another set of basketball players: six young men affiliated with the same franchise as Lowry, each of whom, Talbot figured, could do far worse than to emulate his approach.

"Look, this guy makes $27 million a year, has watched thousands of hours of film. How much more could he possibly have to learn? He had a bad game? He went in and he worked on film," Talbot told them.

"I want to tell you guys, I recognize how serious we're all taking this. I'm proud of the team. Just like last year, everyone's practicing hard, we're working hard, we're scheming. And I think we all feel that we could be one of those teams that's in this logjam right now that goes on this run."

To Talbot's right sat Gerald Knapp, the newest member of Raptors Uprising Gaming Club, a talented but scuffling team stuck in the crowded middle of the NBA 2K League standings. Listening from an adjoining couch to Talbot's left was Kenneth Hailey, the Toronto squad's tone-setter.

Shane Talbot (right) and Gerald Knapp. Nick Roy / theScore

Their teammates, spread out across the rest of the red-lit basement in Toronto's east end, eyed the projection screen by the wall as they awaited an evening film session.

"The other thing that Kawhi does is remind his team in the middle of the game to just enjoy it," said Talbot, Raptors Uprising's general manager. "Just live in the moment."

Here, Talbot arrived at the crux of his message to the players. Dial in for the next hour, he told them, to be ready for the following day, when they'd fly to New York City to compete in a pair of season-defining games.

He wanted them to be relaxed when they settled into their chairs for tip-off in New York - to focus on their breathing, clear their heads of extraneous thoughts, and savor a moment that, as recently as a few years ago, none of them could reasonably have seen coming.

"When you guys are old and retired, you're going to be thinking back. Don't just live vicariously through the content we have from this. Try to remember what it was like to be sitting in the studio, enjoying one of those games," said Talbot, winding down his remarks so film review could begin.

"I'm telling you: If we live in the moment and calm ourselves down and really focus on just being present ... we're going to reach that practice form that I'm always talking about," he said.

"The closer we can get to that practice form, we can beat every single team in this league."

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At the 2K League's inaugural draft in 2018, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told reporters at Madison Square Garden that his league was about to welcome "a new generation of athletes" - more than a hundred video gamers who play a variation of basketball at an elite level, and who therefore would be considered members of the NBA in their own right.

Silver's words marked a watershed in the NBA's bold foray into esports, a bet that the league and 21 of its teams have undertaken in the hope that people will watch a computerized version of their product.

Raptors Uprising. Steve Freeman / NBAE / Getty Images

Each 2K League team - Celtics Crossover Gaming, Heat Check Gaming, Warriors Gaming Squad, and so on - brings six players to its city and pays them to compete from April through August. Identified by a gamertag and controlling one pixelated player apiece, they chat via headset as they run plays and rotate on defense, building chemistry and pursuing collective success as any NBA teammates would.

The 2K League was devised in the image of the NBA, with a few tweaks. Seven teams qualify for the playoffs through the standings; midseason tournaments confer an eighth postseason berth and prize money.

Each team plays 16 regular-season games at a central studio in Long Island City, across the East River from midtown Manhattan. The action, the trash talk, and the rare real-life shoving match are broadcast live to viewers on Twitch.

The league's 126 players have a lot in common. They're mostly in their 20s and are all male, save for one woman, the Warriors' Chiquita Evans ("Chiquita"). Some, such as Evans and reigning MVP Dayne Downey ("OneWildWalnut") of Blazer5 Gaming, used to play college basketball. Unlike the vast majority of NBA talents, none grew up believing they'd draw a regular paycheck from this particular obsession.

"Prior to last year, these guys were just playing 2K in their basements," Talbot said. "They've been plucked out of obscurity and put into this professional environment, where you've got thousands or tens of thousands watching and incredible pressure from (ownership groups) that have expectations that the investments we make in the team are going to turn into on-court results."

To Silver, the concept brimmed with promise. Given time, he hoped it would attain its utmost potential.

Dayne Downey. Michelle Farsi / National Basketball Association / Getty Images

On the Tuesday in late May that Talbot held court with his players in the film room, Raptors Uprising seemed to fit the same profile. With a record of 3-4 midway through the regular season, they were mired in a three-way tie for 13th place with the opponents they would face the next night: Magic Gaming and Grizz Gaming.

Two weeks earlier, Talbot had swung a trade to acquire Knapp from Cavs Legion GC, the club that beat Raptors Uprising in the first round of the 2018 postseason. In Knapp's Toronto debut, he and his new teammates led for much of the game against Portland, one of the league's best teams, but squandered the advantage in the fourth quarter.

A painful eight-point defeat amplified the urgency of the task ahead: Stop losing, or a return trip to the playoffs would slip away.

As Raptors Uprising prepared for the Magic and Grizz, theScore shadowed its players for three days - from a Monday morning group workout by the Toronto waterfront to the doubleheader in New York a couple of nights later.

This is how six improbable pros come together on and off the virtual court - and, in doing so, help shape the course of a sporting experiment like no other.

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Raptors Uprising roster Gamertag Hometown
Georgio Bonte ODC Slim Cambridge (Mass.)
Kenneth Hailey Kenny Got Work Memphis (Tenn.)
Seanquai Harris KingQuai614 Columbus (Ohio)
Gerald Knapp Sick x 973 Verona (N.J.)
Joshua McKenna TsJosh Decatur (Ga.)
Frederick Mendoza Doza Arlington (Va.)

Thanks to traffic, Magic and Grizz Week started 15 minutes late.

A little past the appointed hour of 10 a.m. on Monday, Hailey, Knapp, and second-year player Joshua McKenna strolled into SWAT Health in Toronto's Harbourfront neighborhood, with rookie Georgio Bonte not far behind. Personal trainer Kyle Ardill, his black hat adorned with Uprising's red chevron logo, greeted them at the door.

The players were at the swank training facility that morning to submit to Ardill's direction at the encouragement of Talbot. He thought a physical fitness boost might positively affect their online play, especially "on stage" - the players' term for the New York studio.

Over the weekend, in the parallel universe of the NBA, Lowry, Leonard, and the Raptors had knocked the Milwaukee Bucks from the playoffs to advance to The Finals. As Ardill led his charges through a series of resistance side steps, he suggested they should angle for tickets to Game 1.

One player issued his prediction for the series: "Warriors in four."

"There's the f------ door," Ardill replied, eliciting laughs.

Gerald Knapp. Nick Roy / theScore

It rapidly became clear that the workout might take its harshest toll on Knapp, who admitted his legs felt like Jell-O after a set of standing squats. The shakiness didn't stop him from completing 10 sled pushes, at which point he slumped on a mat and draped a towel over his head, telling Ardill that exercise wasn't mandated when he played with Cleveland.

At the end of 40 minutes, Ardill asked the players to return later in the week, perhaps Friday morning. Bonte protested the idea of another early wake-up, then slid over to a power rack to bang out some deadlifts.

After leaving the facility and buying salads at an upscale food court nearby, the players hailed an Uber to head to Bell Fibe House, the team-owned residence that doubles as the Uprising's practice facility.

The house boasts a ping-pong table and a hot tub upstairs, but visitors are likeliest to find the players in the basement, where they park themselves in a nook next to the Uprising film room for 8-10 hours a day to scrimmage online against 2K League rivals.

Nick Roy / theScore

As Hailey puts it, the team is there to grind. At 1 p.m., the quartet that worked out joined the remaining teammates - Seanquai Harris and Frederick Mendoza - at two parallel rows of computers for a series of practice games against the Warriors.

Locked in, the group was mostly quiet except for the intermittent chatter of teammates navigating court action: pick-and-roll partners, a ball-handler and a cutter, a help defender and a guy snuffed out by a screen. Stricken by poor shooting, Toronto lost the first game by seven, but the players soon remedied their offensive woes and won the rematch by 35.

"Screenshot this," Knapp joked as the final score flashed across the screen. "Post it on Twitter."

Shortly before the end of the third game, an Uprising staff member clutched a camera as he presented Knapp with his next task of the afternoon: starring in a promotional video for Bell, the Canadian telecommunications giant that co-owns the Raptors and sponsors the house.

Nick Roy / theScore

The video called for Uprising head coach Ogi Micic to ask Knapp, as the newest tenant, to identify his favorite thing about the house. Knapp was to click over to an internet speed test and watch the download ticker skyrocket to 1,000 megabits per second.

"It's gotta be the internet," Knapp told the camera. He paused and turned to Harris, who was munching a bag of chips, and added, "I guess the guys are all right, too."

"Quai, you're famous. You're going to be a star someday," another Uprising staffer said after the last take.

"My mom told me that, too," Harris replied.

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Though 2K League players tend to resemble one another in many ways, some stand out on the basis of their remarkable backstories.

Evans, of the Warriors, has been hailed as a trailblazer for breaking the league's gender barrier. Michael Diaz ("Bp"), of Sacramento's Kings Guard Gaming, is one of the league's top 15 scorers and passers despite being blind in his right eye. A gunman shot Cavs Legion's Timothy Anselimo ("oLARRY") in the chest, hand, and hip at a Madden NFL tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., last summer; he recovered in time to return to 2K after initially fearing he might never play again.

Brooklyn's NetsGC is helmed by head coach and general manager Ivan Curtiss, a former enlistee in the United States Navy. Two decades ago, when he'd deploy to sea for up to nine months at a time, he and his fellow servicemembers used their leisure time to play an early version of 2K on a Sega Dreamcast console.

"It was something people used to free their mind until we got back," Curtiss said. "We used that time just to get away."

Seanquai Harris. Nick Roy / theScore

On Raptors Uprising, no player has a story quite like Harris, a 25-year-old forward-center from Columbus, Ohio, and an original team member from last season.

Harris arrived in Toronto by way of Worthington, Minn., where he cycled between safety, cornerback, running back, and slot receiver as a Division III football player at Minnesota West Community and Technical College. He got injured, had a daughter named Nalani, and stuck around Worthington, playing a lot of 2K and working as a direct support professional for the elderly and people with mental disabilities.

Late in 2017, a few months before the 2K League held its first qualification combine, Harris had to move out of the place he was sharing with a roommate. (He and Nalani's mother aren't together.) For a time he crashed on friends' couches or slept in his old-school Pontiac. Intent on navigating his brush with homelessness alone, he says his solitude instead led him to suffer emotionally.

"I never want to get back to that point," Harris said.

One consequence of Harris' living situation was that he had nowhere to play 2K - until he found a new place in Worthington shortly before the league combine. He traces his rise in the game back a decade, when his best friend routinely trounced him in after-school matchups. Now, when friends came to visit his home, he'd let them chat as he concentrated on the game, making up for lost time and repetitions.

"The league definitely helped me. It brought me back to some peace," Harris said.

"This league, just to see it elevating and being a professional, it's a humbling experience. It's something you never want to give up."

Joshua McKenna. Nick Roy / theScore

Harris' teammates come from varied backgrounds all over the U.S. Hailey used to work as a machine lift operator for AT&T in Memphis, balancing 40 hours of work and 40 hours of 2K each week. Mendoza, a Virginia native who played for Detroit's Pistons GT last season, has an information technology degree from Old Dominion.

McKenna skipped a Planet Fitness job fair in Georgia last year to finalize his 2K League application - to the annoyance of his mother, who has since cast her full support behind his gaming career. Bonte, who grew up an hour north of Miami, saw snow for the first time last winter. Now, he says, he could see himself living in Toronto for a while.

Knapp spent much of his early adolescence being driven to elite Madden tournaments and challenges where he competed against adults. His 2K play for Cleveland last season - including a number of games in which Talbot says he "horsed" Toronto - persuaded the Uprising to target him in the trade market.

The trade didn't go smoothly. The deal - Knapp for Uprising forward Trevion Hendrix - was set to take effect after a mid-May tournament in Las Vegas, but details leaked partway through the event when Knapp was mistakenly emailed his itinerary for future flights between New York and Toronto.

Knapp played one last game with the Cavs in Vegas. After returning to Cleveland, he drove seven hours to New Jersey, retrieved some things from home, and flew to Toronto. Though the Uprising were on a bye week some players returned early to help integrate Knapp into their schemes, scrimmaging together for 12 hours a day.

Two weeks after the "circus" that preceded his arrival, Knapp said he was happy to be in Toronto, finding his fit on a roster that prides itself on its versatility.

On the court, the offense flows through Mendoza. Hailey can shoulder a scoring burden and, much like Kawhi, prefers to lead by example. McKenna is often the designated "lock," a setting within the game that turns one player per side into a defensive terror (at the expense of much of his offensive capacity). Bonte can shoot, slash, and spark fast breaks with his rebounding and passing. Harris is an energetic jokester who swears that opponents consider him the funniest guy in the league.

Harris' daughter recently turned 4 years old. Knapp, too, juggles 2K and fatherhood: His infant daughter, Isabella, was born six months before he was traded. At the house, the Uprising dads keep up with their kids through regular FaceTime sessions, and despite the difficulty of being away, they say they're grateful for the opportunity to make some money they can send home.

Together, the players occasionally duck away from 2K to bond by other means. Knapp grudgingly admits that Bonte is the house ping-pong titleholder. After an underwhelming effort during a three-on-three basketball run at a nearby court, Bonte, a tall former AAU player, attributed the letdown to his recovery from a recent surgery. He warned that his teammates would soon be due for "a rude awakening."

"It's just the trust," Knapp said, summarizing the utility of these downtime activities. "You trust your friend more than you trust somebody you don't know."

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When Brendan Donohue, the managing director of the 2K League, pictures the future of his enterprise, the vision transcends the NBA's borders.

Every current and incoming 2K League squad is owned and run by an NBA franchise. Charlotte's Hornets Venom GT will become the circuit's 22nd team next season.

But since basketball fans abound across the world, potential new markets could exist anywhere, Donohue said in an interview. Before long, he hopes to see member clubs in global cities - London, maybe, or Beijing.

"There's still so much opportunity outside of the U.S. and outside of Canada," Donohue said. "We have broader aspirations than just 30 NBA teams."

As the Uprising readied to face the Magic and Grizz, the team's focus was allotted to a narrower slate of goals - a few ways Toronto could elevate its performance that week and beyond.

Of their four losses at that point, including the smarting defeat to Portland the previous week, the players felt they had mostly beaten themselves. They wanted to keep meshing with Knapp after his promising debut. Hitting outside shots would vindicate Mendoza's efforts to shake loose from opposing lockdown defenders and kick-start the offense.

Frederick Mendoza. Nick Roy / theScore

Talbot's priority was to make sure his players prepared with a sense of urgency. The second half of the season - crunch time - loomed.

"Nobody plays as well in the studio as they play at home," Talbot said. "What we're trying to do is simulate the studio experience and get as many reps in as we can, so that when we get to the studio, we play as close to our practice-facility form as we can."

Back in the basement Monday, the Uprising followed their scrimmages against the Warriors with a pair of matchups against Blazer5 Gaming. Portland's stars, Downey and point guard Nidal Nasser ("Mama Im Dat Man"), are among the 2K League's more spirited trash talkers; during games in the studio, they leverage their proximity to the opponent to unleash, as Downey puts it, a running stream of "petty" taunts in the name of entertaining viewers and motivating their squad.

On this afternoon, insulated from any heckles, the Uprising players started to speak amongst themselves with greater intensity than when they faced the Warriors. They debated how to guard Portland's transition game after conceding two fast-break buckets; Hailey's call to blitz any player who snared a defensive rebound won out. They urged perimeter defenders to stay closer to home on corner shooters after Portland canned two straight threes.

"Just because he's a lock, don't just leave him buck naked," Hailey said. "Make him make the pass."

The Uprising withstood these lapses to win the first scrimmage by seven and took a commanding lead into the second quarter of the following matchup. Up by 18 points, the players screamed en masse as Harris faced up for - and missed - a deep 3-pointer. They shouted even louder when Harris, set up by an offensive rebound, bounced a second attempt off the rim and out.

"I quit," Harris moaned, laughing. A few seconds later, the game concluded when Portland, three time zones away, appeared to end things with a force-quit.

After the clamor calmed, an impassioned discussion broke out concerning how to defend dribble penetration. Knapp, echoing an earlier point, said any player looking to help from the corner should be assertive but prudent: Feint toward the ball-handler, but don't stray too far from a potential kick-out shooter.

"Thank you," Harris chimed in. "I've been saying that all year."

Georgio Bonte. Nick Roy / theScore

The players fell quiet as they waited for the day's final set of scrimmages, a 5 p.m. date with Minnesota's T-Wolves Gaming. Knapp took advantage of the lull to wander over to his bedroom, past the couch and the projection screen in the corner of the basement.

He emerged a few minutes later, yelling as he reflected on how they'd subdued Portland.

"Damn!" he said. "Why couldn't we do them like that on stage?"

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Two evenings later, an hour before forbidding rain clouds opened over Long Island City, the Uprising players stepped off a bus and walked into a nondescript brick building in sight of the Manhattan skyline. Inside, the Magic and Grizz awaited.

The players had finalized their prep at the film session the previous day. For the better part of an hour, Micic, perched outside the huddle at one of the gaming computers, took control of the meeting and cued up 25 snippets of game action from the recent loss to Portland.

Nick Roy / theScore

The team bemoaned each little, costly error - a fast break where Mendoza didn't find McKenna for a dunk; a late three that sealed the loss when Knapp and McKenna eased off Nasser after a screen - and identified assorted points of focus for the games ahead. Don't take undue risks on defense that could result in an open shot. Listen on defense to Knapp, newly entrenched as the Uprising's anchor at that end of the court.

Before they flew commercial to New York, the players reached consensus on how to attack the Magic and Grizz. Orlando, they decided, shouldn't be taken lightly but could be abused on pick-and-pops. Against Memphis, they planned to keep feeding Hailey in his one-on-one matchup with Grizz forward Antonio Saldivar ("UniversalPhenom"), whom Micic called out as a defensive liability.

"All right, boys," Talbot said at the end of the session. "Let's go get two big f------ wins."

At the studio, just after 7 p.m. on Wednesday, every Toronto player but Harris - on the bench for this game - descended a tall staircase that connects an upstairs team lounge to the gaming arena. A few dozen spectators were scattered in the bleachers as 6,000 additional viewers tuned in on Twitch.

Taking the stage, Mendoza, Bonte, McKenna, Hailey, and Knapp sat in that order at a row of consoles opposite their positional counterparts from the Magic. This was the crucial juncture that Talbot had referenced in his speech to the team: a few minutes to breathe, to think serenely, to excise doubts and negativity.

Steve Freeman / NBAE / Getty Images

Then came tipoff, and the Magic raced to a massive lead.

Very little went right early for the Uprising, who looked rudderless on offense and trailed 36-15 at halftime. The plan to dine on pick-and-pops gave way to stagnancy and forced shots. In one representative sequence, after Mendoza missed a contested layup and Knapp's 3-point attempt off the rebound bounced out, Orlando scored seven straight points to end the second quarter on a putback layup, a three, and a steal that led to a dunk.

Toronto's respectable offensive showing in the second half - 35 points on improved shooting - couldn't stem the tide. The Magic won 72-50, boosting their record to 4-4 as the Uprising fell to 3-5.

"That game didn't happen," an Uprising staffer told Hailey and Knapp after the buzzer, patting each of them on the back.

The dominant form the players had flashed in that week's scrimmages seemed a distant memory. Micic had an hour before the Grizz game to get his squad on track. Bonte had scored 12 efficient points against Orlando, but the coach opted to sub him out for Harris, hoping the former juco football player's energy could help salvage the night.

At 9 p.m., moments before tipoff against Memphis, Harris banged the side of his chair three times. The Grizz began to chirp across the divide, celebrating an alley-oop on their opening possession. Hailey sank a three in response, and Harris hollered in recognition.

Soon, Hailey connected on another three, and then a floater, and then yet another three from straightaway, and a fire icon appeared below his pixelated self on the screen.

"Can't guard you!" Harris bellowed.

Kenneth Hailey. Steve Freeman / NBAE / Getty Images

Hailey's face didn't betray any emotion as he poured in 14 first-quarter points, powering the Uprising to an early 20-12 lead - an advantage they frittered away with cold shooting in the second frame. The Grizz beat the buzzer with a layup to lead 31-29 at the half.

The Uprising rose to the gravity of the task when the game resumed, quelling every Grizz run with timely points. A Harris steal got Hailey a fast-break dunk. McKenna and Knapp hit threes to reclaim the lead. Hailey slipped loose in transition for two more dunks. Harris opened the fourth quarter by nailing a corner three, his first and only shot attempt.

Up by one point with 2:20 left, Knapp knocked down a three before Mendoza drove for a dunk. When Memphis point guard Zach Vandivier ("Vandi") drove for the hoop with a minute on the clock, McKenna - Toronto's lock - stymied his progress and forced him to pass. Harris stole the ball from the recipient and let out a primal scream.

In the last 10 seconds, Hailey threaded a perfect pass through two defenders to Knapp for a layup, cementing the final score 60-56 in the Uprising's favor. They would depart New York with a record of 4-5.

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In the weeks since the split against the Magic and Grizz, as their NBA team won a championship and lost Leonard in free agency, the Uprising dropped two of their next four games by blowout scores, imperiling their playoff hopes.

At 6-7 with three games to go against teams below them in the standings, they still retain a slight chance to qualify for the postseason, the same fact that supplied a silver lining following the victory over the Grizz.

The lead-up to the night had been busy, and plenty of individual contributions under pressure - Hailey's aggressiveness on offense; Knapp's steadying presence; the zest with which Harris plays - ensured that all their work hadn't been for naught.

"We knew we shouldn't have lost the way we did (against the Magic). It wasn't a competitive game," Micic said in the lobby of the league studio at the end of the night. "That's not what we're about. We're a competitive team, and we're good at bouncing back."

As Micic spoke, most of the players milled about nearby. Bonte, after sitting out the second game, wandered into the bleachers to catch part of the last matchup on that night's schedule.

The Warriors were facing Pacers Gaming, a strong team the Uprising were slated to play the following week. Bonte sat to the side of a dozen Indiana fans who cheered every Pacers bucket and wagged their fingers in unison to try to distract an opposing free-throw shooter, just as they would have in any basketball arena.

A few minutes later, Bonte left his seat and slipped past a black curtain to rejoin his teammates in the lobby. They had a flight home to catch the following day, another workout with Ardill on Friday, and half a season left to grind.

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

Behind the scenes of the NBA 2K League, where Toronto chases more hoops glory
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