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, really 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 NBA 2K League Draft, Celtics Crossover Gaming selects oFAB from Missouri,” the league’s managing director Brendan Donohue announced to fans.
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, wearing a too-tight gray sports coat. But otherwise, oFAB acted 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 NBA 2K point guard in the world.
But Thomallari almost didn’t make it to draft night in New York City.
“That was my first time in three years that I actually, like, left the house,” said Thomallari. “Before that draft moment, I went through three years of depression, just being sad because of life. Like, I only talked to my mom, dad and my brother.”
And during that time, he played a lot of NBA 2K.
Playing '2K 24/7'
The video game is pretty much a virtual version of what you see in NBA arenas. It’s five-on-five with traditional positions like point guard, power forward and center. Gamers team up online and compete against each other.
Growing up, Thomallari played basketball in real life. He loved the sport so much that he wanted to play whenever he could. It wasn’t long before he discovered NBA 2K. And he couldn’t get enough of it.
Thomallari spent countless hours in his bedroom perfecting his virtual point guard skills. It was an escape from the realities of his St. Louis neighborhood.
“I remember I was sleeping in a room,” he said. “We only had one room, so we were all sleeping right next to each other. And then someone just broke into our house, while we were sleeping, just stealing our stuff. I remember someone broke into my mom’s car, and it was very bad.”
After high school, as he battled depression, Thomallari said he would, “play 2K 24/7. Never did anything else. Year after that, 2K 24/7. Never went outside.”
Thomallari also said that 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 NBA 2K. But he wouldn’t.
"I just locked myself in my room. I’m like, ‘Hey, you guys don’t want to give me food, I’m just gonna starve here."Albano Thomallari
“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.’ ”
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 NBA 2K.
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.’ ‘No, 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 NBA 2K world.
Then came the inaugural NBA 2K draft in April 2018.
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 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.”
The Team Physical
Like every player selected in the first-round, oFAB 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. He also got a team physical.
“So, I went to the doctor’s office,” he said. “Keep in mind, I’d barely even looked in the mirror. So, me, I still think I’m this skinny, fit guy. I think I look good. The doctor tells me, ‘You’re obese. You’re going to have diabetes soon. You have high blood pressure.’ Stuff like that. I started crying. It was a shock to me. I was like, ‘What? I’m fat?’ And then he was like, ‘Yeah.’ He kept it strict with me. He was like, ‘Yeah, you’re definitely fat.’ "
Then, there was an embarrassing pickup game on a real-life court in Cambridge, Mass.
“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 he did a weak crossover on me, and I almost fell. My teammates, they were just looking at me like, ‘It's all right. 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.’ ”
But while Thomallari worried about his weight, the team had other concerns.
“It became clear pretty early on that, even though three of our players referred to each other as friends, they had never met in person,” said Jim Ferris, managing director of Celtics Crossover Gaming.
Like their NBA counterparts, NBA 2K players live in the same city and practice together. It was a big change for top gamers like oFAB and his teammates. They were used to sitting in a room by themselves and playing. They weren’t used to sitting next to teammates, getting coached and communicating about strategy.
“They had experienced a connection through online video gaming for years,” said Ferris. “How are they going to deal with this whole new social element of, you know, building chemistry and connections? And that happens both on the court and off.”
Ferris knew he needed help. He asked if there was a coach on the Celtics staff that could help improve the gamers’ team chemistry. As Ferris recounted, “[Celtics head coach] Brad Stevens raises his hand and Brad says, ‘That’s me. I’ll step in and help you guys.’ ”
The gamers went to the Celtics practice facility in suburban Boston. Inside, the franchise’s 17 NBA championship banners created an impressive display. And at first, the NBA 2K players were a little nervous.
Stevens, one of the NBA’s most-respected basketball minds, quickly put everyone at ease, offering advice and answering questions.
“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.”
And it gave Celtics Crossover Gaming something to build on.
A Rare Opportunity
Since its launch in 2018, the NBA 2K League has benefited from being part of the NBA family. Currently, 21 out of 30 NBA franchises have active NBA 2K teams. And given the rapid growth of competitive gaming, also known as eSports, and its appeal to young fans, NBA teams believe NBA 2K is a smart investment.
This year, the global eSports market will exceed $1 billion in revenue for the first time and the global eSports audience will reach 453.8 million, according to the industry analysis firm Newzoo. The prize money for NBA 2K is $1.2 million.
To get a share of that prize money, the Celtics gamers sometimes practice eight, nine, 10 hours a day. They go through film sessions, gather around whiteboards to review game plans and they huddle for a team cheer before they break for the day. “One, two, three, family,” they shouted after a tough day of training early in the season.
At practice, in huddles, oFAB is a vocal leader. He wants to be his best for his Celtics family. He recognizes the rare opportunity he has. That’s a big reason why, after his first team physical and that embarrassing pickup game, he asked the Celtics for help with his weight.
This time, Ricco Phinisee, the head coach for Celtics Crossover Gaming, raised his hand and became Thomallari’s personal trainer.
While finishing up his first NBA 2K season, Thomallari started a workout routine. It wasn’t always pretty. Like the first time he tried to bench press.
“I tried benching the bar,” said Thomallari. “The bar is 45 pounds. I watch too much football and NFL. I’m like, ‘I’m 250. I can bench this easy.’ So, I tried benching it. My hands, my arms were wobbling. I’m like, ‘Wow, 45.’ It was getting me frustrated in Boston, but it was the first week [of the workout program].”
It wasn’t long before Thomallari returned to St. Louis for the offseason. He went back to the bedroom where he spent countless hours playing NBA 2K, back to where depression and McDonald’s dominated his everyday life.
“So, at that point, Ricco was like, ‘Hey, you’re by yourself now. Decide what you want to do,’ ” recalled Thomallari. “At that moment, I was like, ‘Hey, text me workouts every day, man. And if I have a problem with a machine I'll FaceTime you.’ Ricco never missed a day. He just sent me workouts. ‘Do this, do this, do this. I want you to try this.’ ”
Thomallari stuck with his workout routine. He even invited Phinisee to St. Louis so they could train together for two weeks.
“I was like, ‘I'll pay for your plane ticket, man,’ ” said Thomallari. “ ‘I'm really serious about this working out stuff.’ ”
The coach and his star point guard filled two weeks in St. Louis with weightlifting, not NBA 2K. And earlier this year, Thomallari returned to Boston for his second NBA 2K season with a different body and a different approach to life.
“I've been on a pretty strict streak,” said Thomallari. “Now, I'm so obsessed with working out that when I miss a day or I eat one bad meal, I feel so guilty. I'm obsessed with it now.”
Thomallari sometimes hits the gym twice a day. He eats salmon and salads, not McDonald’s. And 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 NBA 2K fan. She doesn’t like to brag about her son’s accomplishments, but her younger co-workers know about them from YouTube and Instagram and Twitch.
When asked what she thinks about her son’s success, Rajmonda said, “I feel like I win a million dollars.”
For oFAB, it’s bigger than that.
“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.”
This segment aired on August 3, 2019.