The NBA employs 491 players. That’s it. Reality for most isn’t having the impact of a LeBron James or even that of an unknown, 11th man bencher. Rather, it’s not being any of those things and quitting the dream.
To that point, NBA 2K19 gets it. This year’s created star is A.I., entering the draft too soon, and ending up playing in Chinese leagues. Soon, A.I. is shuffled off to Fort Wayne’s minor leagues where he’s traded for, of all things, a sandwich shop contract. A.I.’s story doesn’t show the glamor, but the grind experienced of many who miss their shot. It’s long nights in crummy hotels, extended travel on rotting buses, nursing long term injuries, and boiled over frustrations when the caller ID doesn’t say, “NBA.” It’s cornfield basketball where the sport originated and the importance of small market ball in a town where nothing else matters.
A.I. makes it to the NBA. That’s no spoiler since there’s no career mode if he doesn’t, but NBA 2K’s depiction of the grind is an admirable one. Some players don’t make it – one of them buys a boat to start a fishing career when the pro sports dream fades. All around A.I., personalities vary, from those satisfied with playing three minutes a game on a G-League squad to those willing to step over their city and morals in the chase for an NBA roster spot. More so than NBA 2K16 and the inner city poverty story told by Spike Lee, NBA 2K19 holds the most plausible and heartfelt sports story of this series, albeit with a cop-out ending that’s far too Hollywood-ized. Getting there though, through the gunk that exists in the sewers of a billion dollar sports league, that’s admirable. It’s a story of expectations and acceptance, not of cancelled dreams.
Oh, it costs money to do this. NBA 2K19 again butts up against the reality of microtransactions, souring the story of A.I. by limiting progression for the sake of selling wasteful plastic cards sold at GameStop or right in NBA 2K19’s menus. That’s garbage. Or, maybe more reality. Everyone wants to get paid, even those selling a fictional story of pro basketball. Once might consider the tsunami of in-game ads to cover some of the losses though.