They could not give him a definitive answer.
“Listen, I’m really good at video games, and I kinda do it for a living, am I gonna be able to play again?"
This was not the scenario Anselimo, 26, a pro esports player in the NBA 2K League, envisioned when he went to Jacksonville last August for a Madden NFL video game tournament. During the competition, another participant came into the bar and fired multiple gunshots, killing two men, Taylor Roberston, 27, and Elijah Clayton, 22. Eleven others were wounded, including Anselimo, who was struck by bullets in his chest and close to his hip, just missing vital organs, and in his hand.
He does not like to talk about what happened. After competing against Robertson, his friend, an hour before, the two men were standing and watching matches at Jacksonville Landing when Anselimo heard a noise, but didn’t know what it was. By the second or third gunshot, he understood.
“Everything’s just a blur after that. Scrambling, trying to find cover, getting shot, trying to run out,” Anselimo told the Washington Post in a phone interview. “It causes that lump in the throat kind of feeling and brings back a lot of bad thoughts.”
Only a few months earlier, Anselimo had bet it all on his esports career. He was selling used cars and decided to let his license expire, in anticipation of being drafted by a team in the new NBA 2K League.
It paid off. He was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks’ team early in the second round of the league’s inaugural draft. In his first season he averaged more than 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists with his 7-foot-1, 260-pound avatar at the center position. As a second-round pick he earned a base salary of $32,000 in addition to paid housing, medical insurance and a retirement plan, which are benefits extended to all league players, according to the NBA 2K League. The league also awarded $1 million in prize money for in-season tournaments and the end of season champion team. From that pot Anselimo took home an additional $1,000.
“It almost just felt like we were real NBA players," he said. “We visited the arena a lot, we saw a lot of the players, we had a really nice facility. It definitely was a lot more than I expected.”
During the inaugural season, Anselimo — a Brooklyn native who goes by “oLarry” online, and was bestowed the handle “Larry Legend” by fellow gamers — was able to stand out to execs in the league, despite playing for a Bucks team that finished under .500.
“He was an individual that I really respected in terms of overall basketball IQ and overall passion for the game and dedication," said Anthony Muraco, GM of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ team, Cavs Legion. "He’s one of those guys, you could always catch him watching film, whatever he could do to make his team better. He absolutely dominated us in all facets of the game.”
When the season ended, Anselimo left Milwaukee feeling confident about his chances of being re-signed by the team. Then everything changed.
A steep climb
Anselimo fainted on the way to the hospital due to loss of blood. When he came to, he learned he would survive, but the fate of his career was less clear.
One of the joints in his thumb was completely shattered. The surgeon had to fuse it back together using a variety of methods, including a plate, cadaver bones and screws.
After the second surgery, the doctor explained that if Anselimo could “work around” the injury, he should be able to play again— but that it would not be an easy, nor inevitable, path back to the professional ranks. His future as a pro became even less certain when the Bucks did not renew his contract.
“I remember leaving the hospital knowing I’m not on a team,” he said. Now with a long period of rehabilitation ahead of him, Anselimo knew he had a significant challenge.
"The thumb accounts for 42-percent of all the functional motions of the hand. When the thumb gets injured, people often have great, great disability with the hand,” said Dr. Levi Harrison, an orthopedic surgeon and traumatologist in Los Angeles. While Harrison did not treat Anselimo, as the trademarked Gamers and Esports Doctor, he is familiar with the mechanics required to compete in gaming at the professional level. “Thumb stability for a gamer is critical.”
For Anselimo, the following days were filled with doctor appointments and wound care treatments for the gunshots in his chest and hip. The latest version of NBA 2K was also released around that time, which Anselimo tried to play less than two weeks after being shot.
“I was too stubborn," he said. "It’s the game I’ve loved to play since I was a child. I tried and wasn’t really successful. I couldn’t really hold the controller, so it was hard, a lot of emotion in that, feeling defeated.”
In physical therapy, he was told that he would face permanent limitations as far as movement and certain amounts of weight he could hold in his hand. It hit him hard.
“There’s days where I wake up in the morning and see my hand, and the scar ... and it’s just frustrating and I’m upset at the world, like, ‘Why me?’ I’m a very fun person to be around, I’ve always been giving. I’ve always been a person people like to be around. I didn’t really feel like I deserved this,” he said.
Despite these setbacks, Anselimo remembers telling his family, and especially his mom, that he was not going to give up.
“I’m not going let this stop me, there is no way I could just stop doing what I love, and have fun doing, and something that’s growing so rapidly, and I want to be a part of it,” he recalls saying.
“I can’t let someone, like, this person take away my career and my joy and what I love to do.”
As he battled back against those feelings, Anselimo says he has “fueled by doubt,” referring to the Bucks letting him go and, what he sees as them losing faith in him. He also credited friends and family with helping him think more positively and fight back against the mental fallout from the traumatic event, such as wanting to be alone more often. Anselimo said he could “feel [his] personality changing,” and so even seemingly small gestures — a friend asking him if he needed company — really mattered to him.
“They’d tell me, you survived for a reason," he recalls. "You were shot three times and still have a bullet in your body. You took all of this and the worst is behind you and you can’t give up.”
The next challenge
Dr. Harrison said Anselimo’s “exceptional” recovery highlights elements he sees as being key to recovery from traumatic incidents, namely, mental stability and a focus on post-operative care, especially physical therapy. Serendipitously, video games can be considered a form of physical therapy, since they help to build strength and mobility in the hand, according to Dr Harrison.
With his support system, and a commitment to recovery, Anselimo was able to get back on the video game court only a couple weeks after coming home from the hospital — quickly enough to draw interest from NBA 2K League teams.
“I just put this all into my recovery and rehab. And sure enough the Cavaliers saw me playing,” said Anselimo. “I just really needed one team to believe in me.”
One month after being shot three times, Anselimo was drafted third overall in the NBA 2K League’s expansion draft. The Minnesota Timberwolves, who picked him, quickly traded him to Cleveland.
“His dedication after the tragedy and him trying to make that recovery as fast as possible so he could participate in Season 2 is all I needed to hear, once I talked to him,” said Cavs Legion GM Muraco, who said Anselimo continues to excel in the game. “It was honestly a no-brainer for me.”
Anselimo said he is only operating at about half of what he thinks is his potential, which he believes will be about 20-25 percent less than he was physically capable of before the shooting.
“His dedication to his physical therapy has been incredible," Muraco said. “He’s not only an inspiration to other players but our entire organization as a whole, from the Cavs to the [American Hockey League’s] Monsters, to the [NBA] G-League team and to Cavs Legion itself.”
In addition to rehabbing his hand, Anselimo has also lost more than 40 pounds after bettering his diet and dedicating himself to the gym, something he said was catalyzed by his near-death experience.
“Things could have obviously went a lot different that day," Anselimo said. "I’m grateful to still be here to talk about it.”
He hopes other can learn from his experiences and recognize the importance of mental well-being in recovery.
“If you’re ever feeling down, or need someone to talk to, make sure not to hold it in, because mental health is a very serious thing,” he said. "Just make sure you have the tools to try to get better, whether it’s friends or family or activities to free your mind, just go for it.”
Even as he learns to live in a new reality, one with a new thumb, a new team, and new role within the gaming community, and beyond, “Larry Legend” revealed he is still the same Brooklyn kid at heart and won’t be content just to make it back into the 2K League.
“No hard feelings towards anybody or anything like that," Anselimo said. "But I come from New York City and was born with that competitive nature, that hustle, and desire, and I just feel like I’m the best in what I do.”