- Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.
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- Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.
FIFTEEN DAYS AFTER the NBA’s suspension, New Orleans Pelicans guard Josh Hart needed a break. He had been locked in battle alongside Dallas Mavericks point guard Jalen Brunson in yet another session of Call of Duty.
In between rounds of dodging virtual bullets — every moment broadcast live from his New Orleans home via his Twitch page that has 47,000 followers — Hart focused in on his monitor and fielded a fan’s question. It was one that was becoming all too familiar.
“How’s quarantine?” Hart read aloud as more comments flooded in.
“Boring as hell!”
For Hart and the rest of the NBA, the past few weeks have been spent desperately trying to fill the void during the coronavirus pandemic.
Individual workouts might take two hours. Binging “Tiger King” or filming TikTok videos might take up a few more. But without basketball, many players around the league are picking up the controller.
On Friday, the NBA, National Basketball Players Association and 2K will hold the NBA 2K20 Player Tournament that will air on ESPN (7 p.m. ET) and ESPN2 (8:30 p.m. ET). Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Trae Young and Donovan Mitchell and Zach LaVine are among 16 players vying for a $100,000 prize to give to a charity in support of coronavirus relief.
“[Gaming and streaming] is going to be extremely big right now,” LaVine said. “It’s pretty much the only thing that people are allowed to be competitive with.”
MORE: What to know for the NBA 2K20 Player Tournament
PAUL GEORGE SETTLED into his chair, a portrait of him holding his newborn daughter and a framed No. 24 Fresno State jersey peeking out of the background. The six-time All-Star slipped his headset on over a black LA Clippers cursive script hat.
It was March 23, and George had joined forces with Hart and actor Jerry Ferrara — best known as Turtle from “Entourage” — in a FaZe Clan celebrity Call of Duty: Warzone tournament. The event, featuring several pro athletes including the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, was held to raise money for COVID-19 relief efforts.
After the first few sessions went poorly, Hart asked George what he has been up to since the league’s suspension.
“Man, this s—,” George replied. “[And] playing with my kids and working out.”
With the season stalled, George has turned toward gaming to fill his day and satisfy his competitive hunger. He has been playing video games since grade school, regularly playing Madden.
“He got so good, he would beat his older uncle,” said Myles Williams, one of George’s longtime friends and his manager. “His uncle would have PG play his older friends for money.”
George probably averaged “30-40 hours a week” gaming during the season and is likely spending an extra two to three more per day now, according to Williams.
Several NBA players have played with George in games ranging from Call of Duty to Destiny.
“He can be a professional [esports player] if he wants to be,” Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond said.
“I feel like he’s the Ninja of basketball players,” Drummond added, referring to esports star Tyler “Ninja” Blevins.
It’s high praise, but George’s passion goes beyond simply playing and streaming. In 2018, George collaborated with Sony PlayStation to deliver special-edition Nike PG-2 colorways, and became co-owner of the Endemic esports team with its CEO, Mike Reilly, who started competitive gaming at 15 and has been in the gaming world for 20 years.
George has also acted as a virtual commissioner for friends and family, organizing gaming leagues throughout the year. This season, George ran a Madden league with scheduled regular-season games for active participants, which included NBA players such as Montrezl Harrell and the Orlando Magic’s Terrence Ross.
Shortly after Reggie Jackson signed with the Clippers in February, the point guard went over to George’s house to ask for help learning the new playbook. So the two longtime friends went over coach Doc Rivers’ offense on an iPad — in between games of Madden.
“I [didn’t] jump in on this [Madden league], but they’re in the middle of the season,” Jackson said earlier this year. “He’s not only been the champ of our league in 2K, he’s the Madden champ. Now he’s been Call of Duty-heavy so he’s always searching for new [opponents]. It’s so bad, he’ll search around the PlayStation network for a regular [challenge].
“He’s put the crew on some random games [too]. Even in years back, we got caught up on Monopoly, just ’cause he found it.
“He’s the gamer, that’s what he does.”
LAVINE HAS BEEN playing online with friends for years, but never before to keep tabs on someone in a dangerous place.
One of LaVine’s closest friends, Sekou Wiggs, is the starting point guard for Kleb Basket Ferrara in Italy.
LaVine learned just how serious the coronavirus pandemic was, getting a preview by way of Wiggs. Italy has reported over 13,100 deaths from COVID-19 as of Friday, according to the World Health Organization.
“He was trying to get out of there before it really got bad,” LaVine said.
Wiggs remained indoors until he was able to return recently to the U.S., according to LaVine. But back home in Seattle, the coronavirus was also spreading. The Seattle area was home to the first coronavirus case in the country, and 37 of the first 50 U.S. deaths occurred there.
“I obviously called him, and it was easier to talk on video games for hours if we were playing,” LaVine said.
Gaming is also how Golden State’s Eric Paschall kept in touch with childhood friend and All-Star Mitchell, who was the second NBA player to test positive for the coronavirus after Utah Jazz teammate Rudy Gobert.
While Mitchell was in mandatory isolation for two weeks, Paschall often checked in through video games.
“We FaceTime all the time,” Paschall said. “We play Xbox all the time. He’s fine. I feel like he’s doing a lot better now. He’s done a lot better just strictly because he gets to [game.]”
John Collins, the third-year Atlanta Hawks forward, has always used video games to bond with teammates in hotel rooms by bringing his Xbox on AAU road trips. But now isolated in his home in Atlanta, Collins has been able to use his console to stay in touch with his high school friends and Hawks teammates such as Young, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Brandon Goodwin.
“If I wake up and I see one of my friends online,” Collins said, “I might play with them all day. Because if they’re online all day, I might play with them all day.”
“Gaming for me has always been a coping mechanism,” Collins added of video games becoming an escape from social media pressure and criticism. “It’s [also] a bonding tool … that brotherhood.”
Collins said he’s playing “a minimum six hours” daily and that he’s meeting new people virtually.
“On NBA2K, if you’re familiar with ‘The Park,’ they verified me on the parks,” Collins said of the game’s social feature. “When I go into the park, it’s really me. Sometimes I’ll try to meet new people and play Xbox that way.”
WATCHING PLAYERS STREAM has been an escape for many, including their fellow players. Drummond is constantly doing laundry at home in Miami — he didn’t bring nearly enough clothes back for the extended layoff — but in between loads, he caught Miami Heat big man Meyers Leonard streaming Call of Duty and was impressed.
He’s not alone.
Leonard boasts he’s the “best COD NBA player” and backed it up recently by winning Slam magazine’s Call of Duty tournament on a team that included Hart, Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox and Memphis’ Grayson Allen. He’ll be streaming live for 24 hours with other celebrities, athletes and gamers starting Sunday to raise funds for COVID-19 relief on ESPN’s esports Twitch channel.
NBA players have flocked to Twitch during the stoppage. The platform reached all-time highs for both hours watched and hours streamed between January and March, surpassing 3 billion hours watched for the first time in its history, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Drummond, Collins and Toronto’s Chris Boucher have reached out to their agents to start their own Twitch pages. LaVine recently set up his own page and had streaming equipment sent to his Seattle home.
“Honestly, I would do the same thing, too, if I couldn’t watch basketball,” Hunter said. “I’d just watch a basketball player play video games. People watching me — I feel like that’s just a really cool feeling.”
For Boucher, the absence of basketball made him realize just how much social distancing he had been doing already.
“My life was not really different from quarantining,” the Raptors forward said. “I feel like I was doing the same thing. Besides the fact that you can’t go out. Most of the time I was home playing video games.”
For the first two weeks after the season was suspended, Boucher’s average gaming time increased to “seven to eight hours” per day.
But what has been missing for Boucher — and nearly every player — is the daily calendar of practices, games and team functions.
“I miss the structure the most,” Warriors guard Mychal Mulder said. “You don’t realize how much your day revolves around basketball until it’s kind of taken away from you for a minute.”
Gaming is now the new routine for many.
“A couple weeks ago I probably played like every other day,” Hunter said. “Now I play every day.
“I wake up, I eat breakfast and I go right to the game and start playing.”
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