“Mama, there goes that man”…to Portland

Imagine you’re 20, sitting in the bowels of Madison Square Garden, dressed to impress.

You’re there with 101 other top athletes, anticipating a moment that will be unforgettable and potentially life-changing. The moment when all your hard work and many hours of practice finally pay off.

You’re waiting for your name to be called in the NBA2K draft.

That’s exactly what 20-year-old SF State business and marketing major Nidal Nasser experienced on April 4 before being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers’ e-sports team, Blazer5Gaming, with the 12th pick of the second round, the 29th pick overall.

Nasser, known online as “MamaImDatMan,” can now count himself as one of the 102 best virtual basketball players in the world just by being drafted to play in the nascent e-sports league.

“I just started playing video games when I was younger, ‘cause I was just into it in general. I played basketball throughout my whole life and its always been something that stuck with me,” said Nasser. “When the opportunity came around, I said, ‘Why not go for it?’ and here I am.”

The league, comprised of 17 teams with six players each, is a partnership between the National Basketball Association (NBA)and game developer Take-Two Interactive.

In this version of the NBA, players control virtual avatars they’ve created and model them with a particular playing style. Nasser modeled his avatar after Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, and in keeping with the Warriors theme, chose his gaming handle as an homage to former Warriors coach Mark Jackson’s often repeated phrase — “Mama, there goes that man.”

The new virtual Blazers point guard started playing NBA2K six years ago when he was 13 years old, and he quickly realized he was good enough to make a career of it. When the league was announced, Nasser didn’t hesitate to try out.

He was among the 72,000 initial players to make it through the first round of tryouts by winning at least 50 games. Over 200 players were taken from the second round of tryouts and put through a tournament that required them to win at least 40 games to go on to the next round. The final 102 players were then drafted by their respective teams using a process that involved scouting and interviews.

First-round picks will receive a $35,000 baseline salary for six months with the potential for a three-year contract, while all other picks will earn at least $32,000 for the same duration. The teams will also house, feed and give the new players medical benefits.

There is also the not-so-small prize pool worth $1 million that will be awarded to the winners of the four-month season that kicks off on May 1.

“It feels great … it feels cool you know, just to get the experience and all that as a whole,” Nasser said. “But it’s just the fact that I can be making money, good money, while going to college doing something that I love. That’s what is really getting me excited for it.”

Even with all that money up for grabs, Nasser said he has no plans on leaving school and will be enrolled in online classes at SF State while he’s in Portland. Uncertainty about what will happen after his three-year contract expires keeps Nasser focused on getting his degree.

Nasser has a good shot at earning that prize money though. His game comes highly touted.

Forbes called him and teammate Dayne Downey, the sixth overall pick in the draft known as OneWildWalnut, “elite” players and gave the Portland organization an A+ score for their draft day job. Having played together before with much success, the pair of Californians will form a formidable point guard-center duo in the Rose City.

Downey, a Santa Monica native, called himself and Nasser “the best point guard-center combo in the game,” and said that the two connected instantly.

“He [Nasser] brings leadership and a really cool personality to the squad … outgoing and all that,” said Downey.

Downey points to Nasser’s experience of playing point guard at a high level, coupled with his ability to adapt his game to any playing style, as the reasons he’s gotten this far and why he’ll be a success.

Before the draft, Nasser said an ideal situation for him would be winding up as Downey’s teammate. Now Nasser will have that chance.

“With the chemistry we have, we’ll be extremely dominant,” Downey said of the team’s prospects.

Nasser claims the game is a mental thing, however.

“I approach every game like a chess match, like a mind game,” said Nasser. “It’s about the mechanics of what works and what doesn’t work and changing up your game constantly.”

The team’s other center and the only player drafted from Puerto Rico, Jomar J. Varela Escapa, said he feels “blessed” to have the opportunity to play with Portland and his teammates. He relishes the chance to meet up with his teammates again and get to work on April 12.

“I’ve heard how competitive he is, like me,” said Escapa. “He is a tremendous person.”

Now that Nasser is Portland’s new point guard, he’ll have to leave the Bay Area and his family behind for the next five months. It is a prospect that the family of five — Nasser has two sisters — has been preparing for since Nasser passed the second tryout and made it to the last 250.

He said his dad realized at that point that it was a huge opportunity and could actually happen and if it did, he would have to take it.

“My mom, of course, doesn’t want me to leave home, but I gotta do this and accomplish this. I mean, this is what I’ve been playing for for the longest time,” said Nasser. “I would tell my family and friends all the time, I’m gonna make the league.”

Now that he has, Nasser will get a chance to show off his skills when Blazer5Gaming’s seasons begins on May 1.

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