Four years ago, when Derric Franklin returned from Afghanistan, where he’d been deployed by the U.S. Army, he picked up NBA 2K15 and began playing the game with a virtually created avatar. The only thing is, he didn’t know to change the avatar’s name, “Russ Snow,” or its physical appearance, a 7-foot-3 center with a massive purple Afro. But he let it rock, even as he became more well-versed in the game, and people took notice.
By 2016, he began operating under the persona “Famous Enough” as a way to embrace talented players whom the game cultivates worldwide. “ I wanted to let them know,” he said, “that they were famous enough to get the credit they deserve.” Via YouTube videos and a strong Twitter presence, Franklin became a fixture in the 2K community as “Famous” — a source of news and an evaluator of skill. But even as his profile expanded, Franklin continued to channel his inner Russ Snow. He dons a purple ’fro at every 2K event — and this one? It’s his biggest yet.
NEW YORK — It’s an uncharacteristically dreary spring morning in Manhattan, and Derric Franklin pulls up at Madison Square Garden earlier than most. In the sea of suits that begin to fill the arena, he stands out: button-down shirt, gray cardigan, dark blue jeans and freshly unboxed Game Royal Air Jordan 1s. The crown jewel of his ’fit is a custom Afro wig, dyed a faint violet and picked out in all its glory.
“This is me,” he says after climbing an MSG escalator that leads him to the lobby of the Hulu Theater. The ’fro is a trademark of Franklin’s swag in the NBA 2K community. And among tastemakers surrounding the most revered basketball video game in gaming history (and its most popular mode, the 5-on-5 Pro-Am gameplay), the 6-foot-4 Famous is something of a Don Corleone. Famous knows everyone — including players, streamers and league creators — and everyone knows Famous. This realm is his element, and in his element he commands the utmost respect.
“Today is the day,” he continued. “I had to tell myself, ‘Oh, s—, this is real.’ ” It’s April 4, 2018, and the draft of the inaugural season of the NBA 2K League has finally arrived. Professional gaming squads from 17 of the NBA’s 30 teams are gearing up to select from a crop of the best players on the planet. Beginning in May, the season will consist of weekly matchups and monthly showcases, all leading to the postseason in late August.
For those a part of this world, this moment has been a long time coming. Back in February 2017, the NBA announced a partnership with Take-Two Interactive, 2K’s publisher, to bring the league to life. Since then, the latest installment of the series, NBA 2K18, became 2017’s top-selling sports video game, despite being released in mid-September, and is ranked behind only Call of Duty: World War II in national sales. The game is a multicultural phenomenon, and it just got bigger.
“From the NBA’s standpoint, this is our fourth league,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver says in a packed news conference. “Of course we have the NBA, the WNBA and the G League, and now this is the fourth league in our family — and that’s exactly as we’re treating it: one more professional league.”
Famous is running on the fumes of a mere three hours of sleep, though he doubts that anyone else in the building has studied the field of talent — which went from 72,000 gamers to 250 to a final pool of 102 — more than he has. As team operations coordinator (basically, general manager and coach) of the Miami Heat’s squad, he’s had full control of Heat Check Gaming’s draft strategy since he joined the organization in February.
The hire came after initial talks with Sacramento’s Kings Guard Gaming, Portland’s Blaze5 Gaming and Washington’s Wizards District Gaming. For some reason, he went 0-for-3 in each of those interviews. “It’s definitely something that isn’t going to be forgotten,” he says of the teams that passed on him. Of the 17 teams in the first season of the league, Franklin is the only black leader.
“We didn’t set out and say, ‘Hey, we wanna hire an African-American coordinator,’ ” said Michael McCullough, the Miami Heat’s chief marketing officer, who is also black. “But when we met Famous, and learned about his background and what he can bring to us, it was a no-brainer. … He understood that the bulk of the gamers in NBA 2K are African-American and Hispanic … so we felt like he was able to bring that diversity to life and be different than some of the other teams.”
After the draft, the six players whom Famous selects will put in two weeks’ notice at former day jobs and uproot their lives. They’ll sign contracts, which include medical insurance and retirement plans, with the Miami Heat organization, worth more money ($35,000 for the first-round pick and $32,000 for players taken afterward) than what the NBA’s G League players make. Heat Check gamers will then move into new apartments in Coral Gables, Florida, where the team’s gaming room is on its own level. And for the next five months, they’ll compete for a $1 million prize pool, spread out over three in-season tournaments and the playoffs, with one goal in mind: a championship.
T-minus one hour till the first team goes on the clock, and Famous spots and daps up Ivan Curtiss and Toijuin Fairley, co-founders of the popular MPBA2K league who were hired by Milwaukee’s Bucks Gaming as draft analysts. Together, the three influencers are the only black representatives from the 2K community calling the shots at the draft (Christopher Toussaint serves as a players manager for Orlando’s Magic Gaming, and Hall of Famer/Sacramento Kings co-owner Shaquille O’Neal was named general manager of Kings Guard Gaming but didn’t make the trip to New York). But even Curtiss and Fairley look up to Famous’ position. “He’s built solid relationships with thousands of players, from unknown to known, and knows what he’s talking about,” said Curtiss, whom Famous reached out to share the news of landing the Miami gig. “He’s our only competition.”
Famous embraces the pressure of being the head of a franchise and architect of a roster that needs six MyPlayers: a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, center and sixth man. And his confidence is oozing. “I’m gonna control the draft,” he said. “Things are gonna go the way I want. No other way.” Imagine this is the game itself for Famous. He grabs the rebound off the glass and leads the break up the floor. Now, it’s just time to score.
Heat Check Gaming’s war room is a cramped dressing room, deep in the bowels of Madison Square Garden. Inside, Famous sits at his bulky Dell Alienware laptop, scrolling up and down a color-coated Excel spreadsheet that he spent countless hours perfecting. Ever since the 2K League finalized the very multicultural-appearing group of draft-eligible prospects, many who are attending the event in New York wearing new suits purchased on the league’s dime, Famous went through scenario after scenario, simulating selections.
Although 2K is a point guard’s game, the league’s altered game mode (or “build,” as it’s called by gamers) allows for big men to thrive. So for weeks, the head of Heat Check focused his energy on taking a center with the team’s first pick at No. 7 overall. “I’m 99.9 percent sure,” Famous said over the phone from Miami, about a week before the draft, “that nobody else has this mindset.”
At 1:33 p.m., Silver calls the name of Artreyo Boyd, an e-point guard from Cleveland known as “Dimez,” as the No. 1 overall pick of Dallas’ Mavs Gaming. That’s right, the commissioner who announced Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz as top picks in the NBA sticks around to welcome the first player to be taken in the 2K League. That’s how real this thing is. “It’s a blessing, man. I’ve worked so hard,” Boyd says onstage. “I’ve been playing for a very long time.” Before Dimez became arguably the best 2K player in the world, with a massive multiplatform following, Famous encouraged him to expand his skill set and brand outside of GroupMe conversations with fellow players by marketing himself in relevant ways.
“He got a lot of us to make Twitters,” says Dimez, who has nearly 30,000 followers/subscribers between Twitter, Twitch and YouTube. “He was just good for the community. We always played 2K, but there was no meaning to it. He came in and brought that. I respect Famous.”
With Dimez off the board, the league’s first draft has officially begun. Famous doesn’t watch but simply listens to the 50-inch TV mounted above him as Boston’s Celtics Crossover Gaming and Utah’s Jazz Gaming make their decisions. And just as he prophesied, the top three teams take a point guard. By the seventh slot, no one has sniffed out Famous’ strategy, so he gets his guy: Juan Gonzalez, aka “Hotshot,” a Miami native who’s “definitely in the conversation for the best center of the game,” said draft commentator/league analyst Jamie “Dirk” Diaz Ruiz. Meanwhile, Heat Check’s top choice collects his draft cap and walks onstage to pose in front of flashing cameras with league managing director Brendan Donohue.
“It’s such an honor,” says Gonzalez, his hands still shaking after a circuit of interviews, “that it doesn’t feel real. I wanted to go to the Heat. I wanted to play for my hometown team.” The vibe is nearly identical to what any real NBA player experiences after being drafted. Flashing cameras and nonstop interviews. Congratulatory handshakes and salutes from every direction. Brewing trash talk between fellow picks — who would fire up the game right then and there to go at it on the sticks.
Famous appears and interrupts Gonzalez with a huge hug. “After the pick, I cried,” he says to Hotshot, who’s still beaming. The brief moment ends with Famous jogging back to his post, where he’s cracked open a fruit tray to fuel him through the next five picks. Next to his computer is the phone he uses to call in his selections to a league representative when it’s Heat Check’s turn to draft. Early on, he establishes a streamlined system for himself: pick up the phone, hit redial and say a name. No time wasted — that’s how certain he is of his choices. There’s quite a bit of time, though, until he must make another decision. A snake-style drafting format means Heat Check must wait 11 picks before its second selection. And as Donohue announces name after name, there’s one that, shockingly, remains uncalled.
Stanley Lebron (yes, that’s his real last name), known on 2K as MaJes7ic (pronounced Majestic), would’ve been the top-ranked shooting guard in the draft class but qualified as a point guard at the combine. Hotshot notices Lebron continuing to fall, pulls out his iPhone and dials Famous. “TAKE MAJES7IC!” he blurts out before his coach hangs up on him. Famous already knew what to do. With the No. 28 overall pick at the end of the second round, Heat Check lands the talented combo guard.
“This guy should’ve went in the first round,” says Famous, standing next to Lebron. “When he got there, I was, like, there’s no way I could pass on him.” Of the eight pre-draft interviews he conducted with gamers, Famous hadn’t even bothered wasting MaJes7ic’s time because it just didn’t seem feasible for him to still be there so deep in the draft. He continues raving about the second-round pick to members of the Heat staff: communications manager Lorenzo Butler, marketing manager Clara Stroude-Vazquez, videographer Edwin Jean and senior director of interactive media Lauren Cochran. They’re a dedicated crew who all made the trip up from Miami.
“I’m Dominican,” Lebron says with a smile. He’ll fit right in. The shooter hails from Queens, New York — but the Heat is his favorite NBA squad.
Basil Rose, the man from Montreal known in these NBA 2K streets as “24K DropOff,” looks deep into a SportsCenter camera and doesn’t hesitate. “Just like Lonzo Ball knew he was going to the Lakers, I knew I was going to the Heat.”
Famous had planned on taking a power forward in the third round, and the versatile DeMar Butler, who can essentially play every position on the floor under the gamer tag “OGDeedz,” sat atop his list. But Utah’s Jazz Gaming snagged OGDeedz four picks before Heat Check was in position. “Once Deedz was gone,” Rose said, “I could’ve just walked up before the three minutes on the draft clock started. I already knew.”
Don’t get it twisted, though. 24K DropOff is no compromise for Heat Check. Famous interviewed him before the draft and placed Rose’s name high on his board. Of 72,000 players who participated in the combine, Rose emerged as the only one to average a triple-double (17 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists). Hotshot, MaJes7ic and 24K DropOff are Miami’s best big three since D-Wade, LeBron and Bosh. And DropOff is certainly the alpha of the bunch — outspoken and super wavy, as they say north of the U.S. border. As for how he feels about playing for the league’s only black coordinator?
“You go on a TV or reality show — for example, I like Big Brother — and you’re only going to see one black guy, one black girl. Everybody else is gonna be white,” said Rose, who’s half-Jamaican and half-Nova Scotian. He left Canada for the first time in his life to attend the draft in New York. “It’s how the world works, but Famous is going to succeed. We just had a black president. … Well, you guys did, not me.”
Stop it, Famous … just stop it.
These are the whispers in the room, but as the draft rages on, he keeps splashing jumpers with his selections.
In the fourth round, he takes “sharpshooterlos,” a skilled small forward from Reading, Pennsylvania. “I thought Miami was the last place on Earth I was gonna land,” said Carlos Zayas-Diaz. “But, man, this is a dream come true. I got the best team in the league.” The fifth round yields a shooting guard in “Jalen03303” Jones, who didn’t make the trip to the Big Apple from his hometown of Bossier City, Louisiana.
Famous makes one last call in the sixth round. This time, it’s for Rahmel Wilkins, another shooting guard, who calls himself “HyPeR iS Pro” on 2K. “I was just watching the picks unfold in front of me,” he says, “and I was the final piece.”
The new faces of Heat Check Gaming gather in the first two rows of the theater’s auditorium for their first team meeting. “We’re gonna run, we’re gonna score a lot of points and we’re gonna play tough defense,” says Famous, while his players listen intently as their fearless leader delivers an Any Given Sunday moment.
“We’re gonna go win a championship,” he continues, “because I feel like we got the best team.” Famous adds a little more weight to the statement.