Kyle Kuzma’s brother hopes to get his shot at hoop dreams — in the NBA 2K League
The hours of work, the sacrifices that kept him from his friends and isolated him from his family, were about to pay off. He was so close to getting what he wanted, what he worked so hard for.
He was on the cusp of playing basketball professionally.
“Man, this is crazy,” Andre Smith told his big brother. “I’m really about to be in the league.”
“The league?” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma shot back. “You’re not in the league. I’m in THE league.”
They might both be right — in very different ways.
Franchises from the NBA’s 2K League will fill their teams with the best virtual basketball players ahead of the league’s fourth season with its annual draft on Saturday. Smith will be in the player pool of around 250 gamers hoping to land one of the 63 available roster spots.
“I hope it’s the first or second round. A lot of people don’t see me as a first-, second-round guy,” said Smith, 21. “But they didn’t see Kyle as a first- or second-round guy, either. A lot of people had him as an undrafted player.”
That opportunity could include an even wilder stroke of luck — a chance to work and play virtual basketball inside the same building where Kuzma and the Lakers practice in El Segundo.
“This is going to mean everything for him,” Kuzma said. “This is what he does every single day — he plays video games eight-plus hours a day. That tells you how serious he is about this. I know it’s tough, for him, his whole life to have that label of being ‘Kuz’s little brother.’ Nobody wants to have their life defined like that. For him, he’s trying to make his own name.”
Lakers Gaming has the No. 1 overall selection and four total picks in the draft. They also need a shooting guard, the position SpaceJamDre (Smith’s gamer tag) plays. The draft, which starts at 4 p.m. PST, will be streamed on the NBA 2K League Twitch and YouTube accounts.
“Could be a mid-late-round pick,” one 2K team general manager said about Smith’s place on draft boards. “Good shooter, just hasn’t played all that much on the competitive scene.”
All of this amuses Karri Kuzma, the notion that she soon could be the mother of two professional basketball players in two different worlds.
“She will support anything that you want to do,” Smith said.
For Kyle, it meant Karri driving him around Michigan for practices and games, sitting in the stands cheering. For Smith, it meant everything from texting him to “Shut up” when a 5 a.m. gaming session got wild to dropping off a sandwich and quietly leaving the room without interrupting his Twitch stream.
Life as a virtual basketball mom, she said, is a little easier.
“I just drop [food] off and shut the door,” Karri said. “I don’t even say anything.”
The two boys grew up loving video games — Kyle coming inside after playing basketball or football to sit in front of the TV and play against Smith’s father, Larry. If it was just the two boys, Kyle had a plan to keep his brother from ruining his video game time.
“A lot of times when he was very young, he didn’t know how to play the game. And I obviously didn’t want to play with him,” Kyle said. “I would always try to trick him — just give him a random remote and just play against the computer so I could have some competition.”
“Had me thinking I was playing and stuff,” Smith remembered.
As Kyle became an accomplished athlete, Smith found his lane indoors behind the controller, sneaking in time on his favorite games before school. Playing with his video game system hooked up to a TV his dad scored for him during a Black Friday deal, he found his own lane and eventually settled on “NBA 2K,” the premier pro basketball game.
“I’m just not really a physically active person. I just don’t think physical activity is really my thing,” Smith said. “I’m just a gamer. I’m hooked to it. It’s in me.”
Kuzma, an avid gamer who has been traveling this season with a video game monitor, saw Smith’s skills explode in a very unbrotherly whooping in the sport Kuzma plays professionally at the highest level.
“It wasn’t fun playing with him. ... But eventually as time grew and he got a lot better at it. About two years ago, he finally beat me in ‘2K’ for the first time,” Kuzma said. “… He kicked my ass. I was like, damn. This dude got better.”
There’s potential in this for Smith to make a living. “NBA 2K” players make more than $30,000 in base salary while competing in tournaments with cash prize pools. Players also can have sponsorship deals and earn money from streaming games on their personal accounts. Some make more than $100,000 a year.
In the 2K world, players compete as their own avatars with skill sets they choose. SpaceJamDre is a shooting guard who, just like Kuzma, wears No. 0.
At first, it all sounds wild. And even as people like Karri learn more about professional gaming, it can be hard to believe. When she talks about “training,” she added the air quotes with her fingers. But she’s also gotten caught up watching him play, listening to him and his teammates bark strategy and talk about defensive coverages on the fly.
“I was like, wow, he really knows basketball now,” she said. “I was impressed.”
Some of it comes from being able to talk basketball with an expert — even though the virtual NBA has different strategies than the real game.
“Kyle gave me a great idea of what the game of basketball is. When I say that, I mean Kyle really showed me the ropes, what he can do and everything in between — the small things, the big things, the things that don’t show up on stat sheets,” Smith said. “Kyle really showed me a lot of stuff. And everything else, I really learned from 2K.”
If Smith hears his name called Saturday during the draft, it’ll be a massive achievement, someone coming a long way from playing with a dead controller to competing against the best players in the world.
It’s a story that’s familiar to Karri Kuzma. She’s lived it before and may be about to live it again — even if her sons can’t agree on what being in “the league” means.
“They argued all the time [as kids]. They still argue to this day,” she said with a mother’s slight exasperation. “… I guess they’re both in the league — just in their own ways.”
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