Matt Grant finally would be able to say it: He was a professional basketball player.
It was spring 2018, and Grant — a fifth-year senior at Detroit Mercy — had just been offered a contract to play in Ireland’s top league. This wasn’t the NBA, but, for someone who had daydreamed about getting paid to play his favorite sport, it was a goal realized.
The problem was that, in more than a year since a knee injury cut short his final season with the Titans, Grant had spent at least 25 hours a week dueling players online in hopes of making the new NBA 2K League. After weighing his options, he decided to skip real basketball for the chance to earn between $33,000 and $37,500 on a six-month contract playing the digital version.
Grant’s days are now a middle-schooler’s utopia: living with five peers in a team-provided apartment in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood; waking up around 11 a.m.; playing video games — or, perhaps more accurately, practicing — for four- to six-hour stretches. With contact sports halted to help curtail the spread of the coronavirus, the NBA 2K League is one of the few outlets for live events.
On Tuesday night, Warriors Gaming Squad — an affiliate of the Golden State Warriors — moved to 5-0 with a win over Lakers Gaming on ESPN2. Grant, the sixth man on a six-person team, has yet to log a minute of live action this season. But if he learned anything during his high school and college basketball career, it was that a player’s contributions aren’t always reflected in the box score.
As the only member of the NBA 2K League with Division I playing experience, Grant, 25, has helped bring a team perspective to something as solitary as video games. Just as he did when he was a reserve point guard at Detroit Mercy, he offers encouraging words and tries to stay ready.
Warriors Gaming Squad coach Mike Newton, who took over the team this season after a stint on the player development staff of Golden State’s G League affiliate in Santa Cruz, has leaned on Grant’s expertise in recent months. Given that Newton has minimal experience in gaming, he initially tried to help like any other basketball coach.
The issue was that not all basketball principles translate to the digital world of NBA 2K. Grant — “Matty” to his teammates — explained to Newton how player movement in a video game differs from what someone would see at an NBA arena.
“I’m helping Coach as much as I can and giving guys tips where they need it,” Grant said. “I don’t feel like an outcast as the sixth man. I’m doing the best I can to help us win. That’s all that matters.”
This macro outlook was forged during a playing career that forced Grant to assume every role on a team at various times: the go-to option, the facilitator, the role player, the seldom-used reserve.
As a senior at basketball powerhouse Westchester High School in Los Angeles, he was named L.A. City Section Player of the Year. After turning down a preferred walk-on spot at Long Beach State to attend Detroit Mercy on a scholarship, Grant started 32 games over his first two seasons, only for his playing time to plummet as a junior.
Early in his senior season, when an MRI exam revealed torn cartilage in his right knee, Grant realized the pain he’d tolerated for years stemmed from a significant injury. His college career over, Grant returned to Detroit Mercy for a fifth year to finish his Health Service Administration credits.
Around that time, he saw on Twitter that the NBA, eager to capitalize on the booming e-sports industry, was preparing to launch an NBA 2K League. What had been a pastime quickly became Grant’s obsession. By the time an official from Ireland’s Super League offered him a contract to play point guard, Grant already eyed becoming a pro basketball player in a different way.
After a rigorous process that included 50 5-on-5 games of NBA 2K, a scouting combine and interviews with teams, he went in the third round of the 2019 draft to Pacers Gaming. Given that Grant wasn’t one of the three players that the team retained for this season, he re-entered the draft, and Warriors Gaming took him in the fourth round.
Now, as he awakens in the late morning to begin his job playing video games, he sometimes thinks about his mother. When Grant was in grade school and high school, his mom had a rule: no video games on weekdays so that he could focus on school and basketball.
“I’ve always had a passion for basketball video games in general,” Grant said. “I just never thought it’d be my career.”