The odds of them getting drafted in the NBA 2K League, the NBA’s esports offering, were long, and they knew it — just as they knew it was also possible.
Last year, Chiquita “Chiquitae126” Evans was drafted by, and played for, the Golden State Warriors’ club. As these three women chased their dreams of making a future in competitive video gaming, they could look to someone who cleared the way. This knowledge mattered, they said, because although these women did not have to play low-post defense on men who outweigh them by 100 pounds, nor make up for inches of height difference, they have each faced — and surmounted — a gauntlet of abuse and adversity to get to where they were.
During November and early December, they were in the midst of a crucial leg of their journey, participating in the NBA 2KL combine. Out of the millions of NBA2K20 players, Hazel “hazelfierce” Childress, Wendi “ALittleLady87 “ Fleming, and Amber “ABPureBlood20” Sammons proved themselves as among the 6,000 best in the world. They hailed from Detroit, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and New Lothrop, Michigan, respectively. And they would have three weeks late last year to play in at least 40 games and prove that they deserved one of the open spots on pro rosters and warrant a selection at the Feb. 22 draft in New York City.
Each of the women, all of whom had played competitive sports growing up, knew what they were getting into.
“When they find out you’re a female it goes downhill from there,” said Childress, referring to both teammates and competitors when she played 2K online. She said she muted her microphone the previous year.
“My first combine was pretty rough. Just going in and listening to the things guys had to say was pretty discouraging,” Fleming said.
Sammons, a former college basketball player, reported similar experiences. “They let little boys in here?” she recalls one fellow competitor saying to her, but also added that sometimes the in-game chat took a different kind of turn.
“Sometimes they try to flirt with you. It’s crazy,” said Sammons, who told The Post she would try to steer the discussion back to the game. “Hey man, let’s just hoop, the common goal is to win,” she recalls saying.
But beyond alienating talk, the women said that the ramifications of misogyny had directly impacted their ability to compete as well. Childress, who played the previous combine as a point guard, said she faced difficulty in the position, which is considered vital for team success in the 2K league.
“The point guard is like the court general, you call the plays,” she explained. “But guys really don’t like to listen to instructions from a woman, and when you don’t listen, it makes it hard to win."
The women also mentioned instances of being frozen out during games, where their teammates refused to pass them the ball on offense. Recognizing this issue, which pervades all major esports leagues, the NBA 2K League decided to act, organizing a development camp last summer in New York City. The stated goal was to help more women get drafted by providing them with tools and strategies to overcome these challenges. The league set up a Discord channel for camp attendees to stay in touch and also instituted a strict conduct policy for all combine participants, aiming to crack down on sexist behavior.
“I feel like I am way more prepared and ready to compete this year after being in NYC. It was a lot of firsts that weekend for me, including first time on a plane,” said Sammons, whose hometown has a population of 581.
“'I can’t believe I’m really here, I’m in the Big Apple, I’m here for 2K,” she recalled thinking at the time. “I got emotional.”
Childress came away from the event newly emboldened to assert herself in the game.
“Even if I get a lot of backlash from the guys, I’m just going to push through it,” she said, crediting the trail blazer, Chiquita Evans, who told her that she had started confidently introducing herself before the game, and that it had worked out for her.
In addition to the camp, Fleming said things had been improving this season with these issues.
“It’s a really a big difference as far as the men in the community ragging on women or trying to tear us down. Maybe they’ve see us play more and it’s been more broadcasted how well we play,” she said.
As combine play was set to begin, Childress, Fleming and Sammons, were doing all they could to prepare, and noted how they were bringing their prior experiences to bear, from sports and otherwise.
“I don’t give up until the end of the play. That hustle mentality, the winning and the competitiveness. … I want to be the best at it,” Fleming said.
There is certainly the allure of money and recognition in pursuing a future in the 2K League, but as with traditional sports, there’s also a deeper motivation. In the cases of these three women, it was a family connection. Childress said her father introduced her to the game. For Fleming and her father, the game has been something they’ve bonded over since her high school days — even though he never beat her, Fleming said.
Sammons said her brother, whom she used to play with the most, was less willing to take losses.
“I got good at it, and beat him. Then he stopped asking me to play,” she said.
Assessing their chances of advancing, each of the women shared one mentality.
“When draft day comes, hopefully a team takes a chance, and I can show that I belong out there with the best,” Sammons said.
“I’ve been trying for a while now. It’s like my favorite thing to do. I feel like it would help me, financially, mentally, just doing something I enjoy,” Fleming said.
Asked if she thought she would make it into the league, Childress was forthright. “Yes, I do. I’m confident I can make it.”
The road to the draft. And a dead end.
None of their combine experiences had been a cakewalk. For Fleming, the problem was getting in the required number of games at her center position, where wait times were up to one hour. In past combines, she had failed to meet the minimum.
“I made sure to complete it this time,” she said, which meant taking her PlayStation to work and hooking it up to the screen at her desk to play during lulls at her call center.
Childress also had to adapt, but on the court. She found herself dealing with the same static from online players as past years while playing point guard.
“So I switched to shooting guard and dominated,” she said, racking up 40 wins with only nine losses.
Sammons had played about 130 games, but found that her power forward position often left her frozen out of ball rotations.
“You can’t really control the game that way, you just sit in the corner and wait for them to tell you what to do,” she said.
All of the women had to deal with artificial intelligence (AI) teammates as a result of other players deciding to quit.
“AI sucks,” said Fleming. “The other team can just double team the real player,” said Sammons.
And while Childress reported misogynistic-flavored trash talk, Fleming said it had dissipated for her this time around.
“Some of that shock factor [of playing with a woman] has fallen off, we are more made visible in the community now. People who play aren’t as dumbfounded when they end up on the court with a female,” she said.
After the conclusion of the combine on Dec. 9, the waiting game began, each hoping to advance to the interview portion of the process.
Fleming had been fielding questions all day, from her boyfriend, her mother, her best friend. “Everybody had been checking all day, including me,” she said.
She was at work, constantly refreshing her email account when, “it popped up.” She’d made it and was one step closer to her dream.
After a nerve-racking day in which she stayed in her room and didn’t eat much, Childress was at home sleeping when her sister woke her up around midnight. She too, had advanced.
Sammons got word about a half-hour earlier. It followed a different path.
She had a bad feeling going into the night, owing to her subpar win-loss record. Still, she maintained “a little bit” of hope. It dissolved when she received notice she would advance no further in the process.
“I cried for about an hour. I was devastated, to be honest, just because I worked so hard,” she said.
Eventually she reflected on her combine, noting she “didn’t do enough” even as she had averaged double digits in points. Sammons hopes to improve her shot selection and communication skills for next year. She said she might also switch to Xbox.
She said she had no plans to move back to New Lothrop, Michigan. “There’s nothing for me there,” she said. “Plus, the Internet is better here, in Alpina.”
Back at the day job she could no longer leave, she had been given new responsibilities, which provided a bittersweet salve for the disappointment.
“I’m hurt, but all I gotta do is just keep going, I’m not going to let it stop me,” Sammons said. “It’s crazy the support you have through gaming.”
A dream within grasp
Childress saw her Twitter account dinging with notifications just before she read the email saying she’d qualified to move on in the draft process.
“I jumped up off the bed, started jumping up and down, I was super excited,” she said.
Fleming was in the middle of her shift, but no less restrained.
“I was shocked, I was ecstatic. I just couldn’t even stop the tears that came up from the joy, because I’ve been trying to get to the point for a while. I just know how hard it is and how competitive it is and how much effort I put into it,” she said.
The road to draft day for Fleming and Childress steered them to the interview stage with interested teams.
“After the emotion settled and I could talk again — I couldn’t even hardly talk — I just felt like, ‘what’s next?’" Fleming said. “I’m excited, I am ready, I am focused, I am happy, I feel driven. Whatever I need to do, that’s all I’m going to be thinking about.”
Both women had enlisted friends and family to help prep them for the interview, with Childress corralling her four sisters in the effort. She also ramped up her game play, working toward nine hours of gaming on work days and up to 16 hours on off days.
“I go out and rep the 313,” Childress said. “I’m just ready to ball.”
After the interview stage, Fleming and Childress were up against 227 other players competing for 68 spots. That’s when they were invited to New York to attend the draft in person.
Last Saturday at Terminal 5, a versatile, warehouse-style music venue in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, draft hopefuls waited for their name to be called.
The NBA 2KL draft looked very much like an NBA-quality event, with bouncy music, energetic lighting and a shining stage. The script was just about the same as the NBA draft, complete with the league commissioner following the familiar fill-in-the-blank script for each selection. “With the [number] pick in the NBA 2K League draft the [team] select [player]." That player then put on his new team’s cap and shook the commissioner’s hand. Washington Wizards Owner Ted Leonsis, Former MSU Spartan and Atlanta Hawk Steve Smith, and former Indiana Fever player Tamika Catchings announced picks via video. Former Knick Allan Houston announced one in person.
But unlike the NBA draft, players were announced with their nicknames, which lent a lighter atmosphere to the event. Notables include “CantGuardRob,” “Splashy,” and “Snubby.” Additionally, most of the crowd was composed of family and friends of the hopefuls, who were unsurprisingly smaller, and in more ill-fitting suits, than their NBA compatriots.
In a red gown, Childress sat and waited at her table by the stage, flanked by numerous family members. Near her was Fleming, who was sitting with her mom. Another draft hopeful, Ayleesha “BallaGirl” Harvey, who works as a 911 dispatcher, also waited for her name to be called as a parade of young men walked up onstage during Rounds 1 and 2.
“It would be the best thing to happen in my life,” Fleming said. “It would change everything. I’d get to move, like I’ve been wanting to, and make more money, and do the thing I love the most.” She wore a black blazer and was also draped in waves of nervousness throughout the weekend.
Childress’s nerves were there for her “the whole time.”
By the time Round 3 crept into the final round, the lighter mood at women’s tables — laughing with family members and checking their phones — had shifted. None of the women’s names had yet been called — nor had the casters even made mention of them on the draft’s broadcast. Another omen emerged when a promo video was cut off right when Chiquita Evans was on screen. Just days before the draft, Evans announced she would not longer seek a spot in the 2K League and withdrew from the draft.
“As the night went on, I felt a bad vibe,” Childress said. “I knew in the third round.”
“As the night progressed, and they weren’t calling my name or anything, my hopes were dimmer,” said Fleming, who had interviewed with five teams. “I heard some of the coaches say people had been picked up by teams that had not interviewed them, so I had a little bit of hope still left.”
Blazer5 Gaming had the third-to-last pick. It was not Fleming, Childress nor Harvey.
76ers GC was next. They went with a player nicknamed “TuckerLocksUp.”
T-Wolves Gaming had the final pick in the draft. The commissioner announced the selection. Fleming and Childress got up with their families and left.
“I’m done,” Childress said.
A dream denied
Both Childress and Fleming were somewhat in shock at what had transpired the night before.
“I really, really feel bad about it. It really got me down,” Childress said when reached by The Post the day after the draft. “I felt the interviews went really well. I got good feedback for the coaches and everything. I felt great about, going into the draft I was extremely confident."
Fleming said she had compared her stats to players who had been drafted and felt she stacked up well. Beyond that, she was bringing maturity and poise.
“I feel like I’m pretty professional, more professional than a lot of the players in the league. … I don’t feel like I was lacking anything. I feel like I’m pretty marketable, I work a full-time [job], I’ve been on the pro stage, I’ve been in Pro-Ams. I felt like I did everything.”
Neither said they experienced any overt misogyny during the draft process. Still, they were left with questions, including why a player who had made a series of conspiracy theory video denigrating the league in its first season had been drafted.
“I don’t think people who have bashed the league should be given such a great opportunity, also people who have been traded multiple times and have shown bad chemistry,” Fleming said.
Fleming felt teams had not asked her many basketball-related questions during the interviews, instead focusing on what she believed were tangential issues, such as how many hours she practices playing her viola.
They also wondered whether the league would see another woman in its ranks, though Evans said she would make herself eligible for 2021.
“Even if I didn’t get picked, I thought Hazel would get picked,” Fleming said. “As far as women in the league, I don’t know if it’s going to happen. Some of best women have been available to the league, but not utilized. … I know a lot of people discredit women, if we’re lacking one thing, that’s enough for us to not even be given a chance."
Fleming’s future after three unsuccessful drafts with the competitive scene is unclear. While she said she felt welcome throughout the draft weekend, the outcome caused her to reassess.
“[The draft] definitely discouraged me,” she said. “I definitely don’t feel wanted. I feel like I’ve done quite a bit to be a part of the community and league. … The most success I’ve had is on a team full of women. … I would support a women’s league but also I feel 2K should be more open to women as well.”
Childress was also ready to quit the previous night. But she found the morning brought new hope. While she was without an NBA 2KL team, she still had a whole crew behind her.
“Everybody has been blowing up my phone, telling me not to quit,” she said. “I’ll do it for myself, I’ll do it for them."
Childress said she will begin reaching out to coaches to see what she needs to do for next year.
“I‘m going to work, hard,” she said. “I’m going to go do what I have to do to prove that women belong once again.”
Jhaan Elker contributed reporting from Manhattan.
Noah Smith is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and staff journalist for Direct Relief, a nonprofit. Follow his work on Twitter @Vildehaya.