Inside a dimly lit theater at Madison Square Garden, Albano Thomallari struggled to control his anxiety. The biggest moment of his life was minutes away and his mind raced. His confidence wavered. Who would want him? His eyes darted around the room. He caught sight of the other prospects and NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Where would he play? His palms became sweaty. How could he shake anyone’s hand like that?
Then, mercifully, the draft started. And it wasn’t long before Thomallari’s life changed.
“With the second overall pick in the NBA2K League Draft, Celtics Crossover Gaming selects oFab from Missouri,” said the league’s managing director, Brendan Donohue.
Thomallari, known in the gaming world as oFab, put on a Celtics hat, walked onto the draft stage, shook Donohue’s hand, and posed for photos.
The 5-foot-10 point guard looked more than a little overweight that night, wearing a too-tight gray sports coat. But otherwise, oFab seemed like any other top draft pick. He was a confident 21, some might say cocky. He soaked in all the attention like someone who figured he’d earned it.
Why not? oFab is widely regarded as the best NBA2K point guard in the world. Entering the final week of the regular season, he led the league in assists (12.4 per game) and ranked second in points (22.1 per game). Behind oFab’s MVP-caliber numbers, the Celtics have put together an impressive late-season, nine-game winning streak. With one more regular season game on their schedule, the Celtics hope to enter next week’s NBA2K playoffs as the league’s hottest team.
But Thomallari almost didn’t make it to the draft in New York City.
“That was my first time in three years that I actually like left the house,” he said. “Before that draft moment, I went through three years of depression, just being sad because of life, like I only talked to my mom, my dad and my brother.”
And he played NBA2K.
Leading 2 Different Lives
The video game is pretty much a virtual version of what you see in NBA arenas. It’s five-on-five, and gamers play traditional positions like point guard, power forward and center, teaming up online to compete against each other.
Growing up, Thomallari spent countless hours in his bedroom perfecting his point guard skills. It was an escape from the poverty, drugs and violence in his St. Louis neighborhood. After high school, as he battled depression, he said he would, “play 2K 24/7. Never did anything else. Year after that, 2K 24/7. Never went outside.”
Thomallari said his family tried to help, tried to talk to him about what was wrong, tried to get him to leave his bedroom and take a break from NBA2K. But he wouldn’t.
“It was pretty much, like, I just locked myself in my room,” said Thomallari. “I’m like, ‘Hey, you guys don’t want to give me food, I’m just gonna starve here.’ They weren’t just like enabling me.”
Most days, his parents brought him food from McDonald’s. He’d down that and a couple bags of chips. Family-sized bags. He gained about 80 pounds.
He also became a star in NBA2K.
And it was like he was leading two different lives.
“When I hopped on 2K, it was kind of an ego boost, when people got first pick, they’re like, ‘Hey, I got Fab, hey, I got Fab. Hey, I got him. ‘No, no I want him.’ ‘No, I want him,’ ” said Thomallari. “So, I was kind of like, ‘Wow, I really feel important, like people actually, like, like me.’ ”
They liked what they saw on the court: a player with exceptional basketball IQ who could pick apart defenses and rack up points and assists. But as Thomallari became a world-class gamer, his mom and dad became more worried about his future. They were two hard-working immigrants from Albania and they didn’t quite understand the whole NBA2K world.
Moments after the Celtics picked him, Thomallari said, “Man, I’m feeling great. Just a couple months ago, my parents told me, ‘You better get a job.’ I told them, ‘Give me to March.’ And this is where we at now.”
His mom’s reaction?
“I see where he was playing and I know everybody says he was pretty good,” said Rajmonda Thomallari. “But it was a surprise to me because I didn’t know this day is going to come.”
Building A Team
By April 2018, Thomallari was getting paid to play the game he loved.
Like every player selected in the first round, Thomallari signed a six-month contract that paid a base salary of $35,000. He got housing for the entire season, medical insurance and retirement benefits. That helped with the transition to the pro ranks. But it’s a big leap from playing in your bedroom in St. Louis to living in Boston and playing for the Celtics.
“We take the subway — not the subway, the T — the train, over here,” Thomallari said, from inside the Larry Bird conference room at the Celtics headquarters on Causeway Street. “It’s a pretty cool experience. Me, I never did the train thing before.”
Part of what makes the NBA2K League unique is its team structure. Just like their NBA counterparts, NBA2K players live in the same city and practice together. Sometimes they practice eight, nine, 10 hours a day. They go through film sessions, gather around whiteboards to review game plans, and even huddle for a team cheer before they break for the day.
Still, as the Celtics found out, it’s not easy building a professional NBA2K team.
“It became clear pretty early on that, even though three of our players referred to each other as friends, they never met in person,” said Jim Ferris, managing director of Celtics Crossover Gaming. “They had experienced a connection through online video gaming.”
Typically, competitive video game players think about putting up big numbers, not about putting their team first. They’re used to sitting in a room by themselves. They’re not used to playing in the same room with teammates, getting coached and communicating about strategy.
Ferris knew he needed help. He asked if there was a coach on the (NBA) Celtics staff who could help improve the gamers’ team chemistry. As Ferris recounted, “[Celtics head coach] Brad Stevens raised his hand and says, ‘Yeah, that’s me. I’ll help you guys.’ ” Stevens met with the whole Celtics’ NBA2K team and shared advice.
“Our players are diehard basketball fans,” said Ferris. “They’re into 2K because they love the sport. And to have someone like Brad take an interest in them and what they’re doing, that really resonated with them.”
A Key Doctor’s Visit
As competitive gaming becomes more professional, learning from traditional sports is part of the process. The NBA2K League benefits from being part of the NBA family. Currently, 21 out of 30 NBA franchises have active NBA2K teams. Given the rapid growth of competitive gaming, also known as esports, and its appeal to young fans, NBA teams believe NBA2K is a smart investment.
This year, the global esports market will exceed $1 billion in revenue for the first time, according to the industry analysis firm Newzoo, and the global esports audience will reach nearly 454 million.
Another big number: The annual prize money pool for Fortnite tournaments is $100 million.
The prize money for NBA2K is much smaller: $1.2 million. But there’s a big spotlight on the league because of its NBA connections. Those connections also mean that the lessons from the NBA go beyond the court. Even when it comes to health and fitness.
Thomallari learned that during his first team physical.
“So, I went to the doctor’s office,” said Thomallari. “I’d barely even looked in the mirror so I still think I’m a skinny, fit guy. I think I look good. The doctor tells me, ‘You’re obese. Yeah, you’re going to have diabetes soon. You’re gonna have high blood pressure’ and stuff like that. I started crying. It was a shock to me. I was like, ‘What, I’m fat?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re definitely fat.’ ”
Then, there was an embarrassing pickup game on a real-life court in Cambridge.
“Someone did a crossover on me,” said Thomallari, recalling the game. “It was the weakest crossover ever. Middle school me would have locked that up. But I almost fell. My teammates, everybody, they were looking at me like, ‘Get back on defense. You’re good.’ But me, I’m self-conscious. I’m like, nah, they know I’m fat. I know I’m fat. I need to do something about it.”
Thomallari worried his NBA2K career might be over before it really started. He feared the Celtics might not let him play because of his weight. That wasn’t the case. But after the doctor’s visit and the pickup game, the professional education of oFab began in earnest.
‘Like I Win A Million Dollars’
Shortly after the pickup game, Thomallari started an exercise routine and worked on his diet. Celtics Crossover Gaming head coach Ricco Phinisee became his personal trainer.
“I think Fab didn’t really believe in himself and I said, ‘Trust me, man. Just follow this eating program that I got for you. Follow my workout my program and you’re gonna be fine,’ ” recalled Phinisee. “He didn’t believe me at first, then he started seeing his arms getting bigger, his stomach starting to go down. He started to feel good about himself.”
These days, sometimes Thomallari and Phinisee hit the gym at 3 a.m. Sometimes Thomallari goes twice a day. He eats salmon and salads, not McDonald’s. He’s dropped more than 50 pounds.
“I feel it made me a better player, a better leader,” said Thomallari. “Because I feel more comfortable with myself, like I’m not worried about what other people will say or think. So, it helps me in 2K because if I make a mistake or something I’m not worried about what people will say. I’ll continue on to the next play.”
Thomallari’s mom Rajmonda watches his games whenever she can. She’s become an NBA2K fan. She doesn’t like to brag about her son’s accomplishments, but her younger coworkers know about them from YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. When asked what she thinks about oFab’s success, especially since she knows how dramatically he’s changed during his time with the Celtics, Rajmonda said, “I feel like I win a million dollars.”
As the NBA2K playoffs approach, oFab is in the middle of the action, under the brightest NBA2K spotlight — and he likes it there.
“I got the job I wanted,” he said. “My whole life I worked for something and I got it. So, I can do anything.”
It’s a different kind of confidence than what fans saw on draft night — and for good reason.
“It sounds crazy,” said Thomallari, “2K really saved my life.”
And that’s tough to beat.