Warning: Story contains derogatory language.
When she thinks back a decade to the meniscus and ACL tears that torpedoed her college basketball career, Chiquita Evans remembers being too young, at 19 years old, to envision a road forward from her hopelessness.
Evans had come to love and excel at the sport as a high school star in Louisville, Ky. Blessed with height and equipped with a true shooting stroke, she intended to turn pro out of Kentucky State University. The sudden upending of that ambition felt like the end of the world.
Evans had to summon substantial toughness to mend her knee and move on. And years down the line - when her basketball mind and her corresponding knack for a video game opened the door to an unexpected opportunity - this difficult experience became a boon.
"It prepared me to become a stronger person," said Evans, now 30. "And as far as 2K (goes), I think it helped me with the adversity I face today. I'm used to it now, fighting through adversity, so it doesn't really bother me anymore. I just keep pushing."
In the past few months, Evans has become the first and only woman to nab a salaried roster spot and to play in the NBA 2K League, the incipient, Adam Silver-sanctioned esports circuit that's about to enter the playoff stage of its second season.
Cast in a reserve role for Warriors Gaming Squad, Golden State's 2K affiliate, Evans has averaged five points, four rebounds, and a steal across the limited slate of four games in which she's seen the court. Yet the particulars of her stat line aren't why she's won accolades from around the league and the larger sporting world ever since Warriors Gaming selected her in a preseason draft.
Along with fellow standout 2K player Brianna Novin, Evans pierced the league's gender divide by qualifying for the 2019 draft pool through an online combine. She had abandoned the same tryout in the run-up to the league's inaugural season, demoralized by strangers who refused to pass her the ball once they heard her speak on the mic.
"I felt I was wasting my time," Evans said. "It's like I'm nonexistent on the basketball court, so how can I qualify for the league if my teammates aren't giving me a chance to help the team?"
This year, living in Louisville and juggling part-time work at Foot Locker and Planet Fitness, Evans swore her second go-around would be different - that she'd stay up late and wake up early in order to grind, and that no matter what sexist insults resounded through her headset, she would see the process through.
Her focus never wavered. Now she's a pioneer, garnering an ESPY nomination for best esports moment of the year - fans voted Evans to the semifinals of a 16-seed bracket - and energizing women who've been called hateful names or have been told to return to the kitchen when they played 2K online.
In part because of her breakthrough, they, too, can picture their own pro future in the game.
"She's the perfect person for it. She's the perfect first," said Brendan Donohue, managing director of the 2K League. "She's tough, she's strong. She's a hard worker. I think she wants for this to be just a first step."
"(She's) breaking that barrier of the previous thinking: that women couldn't play sports games," said Wendi Fleming, a 2K player from Tennessee who came close to qualifying for the league's draft pool last season.
"She's a trailblazer," said Alexandria Jennings, a 2K player from Georgia who's good friends with Evans. "That's the only word you can say for her."
Evans' path to esports esteem has taken her all over the United States. Feeling static and craving a change of scenery after college, she moved to Baltimore on a whim and wound up staying for three years. She resided in Chicago when the 2K League launched. Now, she lives in Oakland and flies to New York City with her five Warriors Gaming teammates most weeks to compete in games at the league's central studio.
For one weekend in May and another in June, the 2K League deviated from its regular season to stage knockout tournaments for prize money in Las Vegas and Orlando. Warriors Gaming emerged victorious at both events, the second of which awarded the team, as champion, an automatic playoff berth.
In a league where some sixth players barely leave the bench - 2K coaches never have to rest their starters due to fatigue - Evans didn't appear in a game at either tournament. Still, Warriors Gaming coach Tommy Abdenour says she's made vital contributions to the team's cause. In an interview at the league's studio earlier this season, he praised her versatility, her smarts, and the characteristics that once enabled her to suit up for Kentucky State.
"Any player that's played where she's been at (in real life), there's a certain mindset and toughness you have to have about yourself," Abdenour said. "You have to have grit and competitiveness to reach the level she did."
When Evans was a young player, as she learned how to space the floor and rotate within a zone defense, an AAU basketball coach instilled in her the importance of being a great teammate. In the 2K League, her trailblazing status has drawn vast attention from inquiring reporters and the public, so she initially worried about overshadowing the rest of her squad, two of whom were top-10 draft selections this season. (Warriors Gaming chose Evans 56th overall in a 75-pick draft.)
Now, she says her wariness was unfounded. Her teammates understand why her story matters, and if anything, they're glad that she, not them, is the player deluged with interview requests. Evans also appreciates the upside of the spotlight's shine. Lots of women have told her she's an inspiration, reinforcing to her the importance of setting a positive example and staying true to herself.
"You can't help that somebody feels that a female shouldn't be playing a game," Evans said. "It's just up to us to keep fighting and be ourselves and not change who we are because people have opinions."
The end of Evans' first 2K League campaign is fast approaching, as Warriors Gaming will play its final game of the regular season on Wednesday before the playoffs begin next week. No player's contract is guaranteed beyond a single season, and legions of 2K hobbyists, eager to prove their mettle in the 2020 combine, await their shot.
A fair amount of these aspiring pros are women. Whether or not Evans returns to the league next year, her legacy won't soon be forgotten if more of them get the chance to tread the ground she broke.
For his part, Donohue has sought to correct the league's severe gender imbalance ever since he learned at the end of the 2018 combine that not a single woman was part of the 102-player draft pool. (Fleming was the lone woman to reach the penultimate stage of 250 finalists.) Like Evans, many were getting frozen out on offense earlier in the tryout process, escaping the notice of scouts through no fault of their own.
The league responded with some practical adjustments. Rather than prioritizing the totality of a candidate's offensive output, its scouts started accounting for usage rate and valuing efficiency with the ball. Every player who tried out this season was also made to sign a pledge saying they'd foster a safe and inclusive environment.
Ideally, Donohue said, as more top female gamers continue to sign up for the combine, their representation in the draft pool will rise accordingly, furthering the momentum that Evans has created for seasons to come.
"By no means are we checking the box," Donohue said. "Now, hopefully, there are young girls or women who are competitive who realize (playing in the league is) a possibility."
A year ago, the 2K League held a showcase tournament at its New York studio that featured, among other participants, four of its original players and retired NBAers Robert Horry and Brian Scalabrine. Also part of the fold were four members of the elite female 2K community: Evans, Fleming, Jennings, and Unique Moore.
Evans, Fleming, and Jennings have befriended each other in recent years through 2K's online scene. Shortly before Evans left to join Warriors Gaming this spring, Fleming and Jennings traveled to her Kentucky home for a send-off. Both hope to follow her into the league in some capacity - if not as a player, then perhaps in a coaching or operations role.
Another commonality between the three players is that they're all too familiar with the misogyny that marred Evans' first combine experience.
Men have told Fleming, 31, that they fear playing alongside a woman will ruin the fun or tank their chances of winning. Once, a stranger who was placed at random onto her team called her a "b----," only to recant his stance and tell her he loved her after she led the game in scoring. She says she tries to use barbs like these as motivation.
Jennings, meanwhile, says she's mostly become inured to opponents who malign her or denigrate her ability.
"All I can really say is, 'You're saying I'm not that good, I need to go back to the kitchen - but you just lost to me,'" said Jennings, 27, who played for the winning team at the 2K League showcase event.
"You do have those men who respect us and support us, but then you have a lot of boys on the game, also. You just have to go through this journey of boys and men and see who's on your side and who's not, and how to protect yourself through this whole thing."
The persistence of this malignant strain of gender-based scorn suggests that if 2K culture is truly going to change - if online gameplay is to become sufficiently welcoming to women - the league's diversification efforts won't be enough on their own. For now, at least, the game's best female players can find inspiration in Evans' story, and in the knowledge that they're in this together.
Breaking into any sort of uncharted territory comes with immense pressure, Jennings said, and she thinks Evans has shouldered it unflinchingly. Fleming has seen more women commenting in the 2K League's online Twitch chat since Evans was drafted - heartened to watch and support a player to whom they can relate.
When she was tasked with guarding Evans in the final of last summer's New York showcase, Jennings joked to her friend that she planned to lock her up on defense. These days, the two of them talk all the time, and Jennings will tell Evans how meaningful it is to see her succeed.
It seems inevitable that Evans won't be alone at the top level for long. Toughness topples barriers, and dreams blossom in a leader's wake.
"I don't want to be known as a top 2K female," Jennings said, outlining her own ultimate objective in the game. "I want to be known as a top 2K player, because I feel that's where we need to go - get rid of these different roles of male this, female this. Everybody can compete if they have the stick skills and they have the IQ to play."
Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.