by Lang Whitaker

I’ve long said that basketball is the hardest sport to translate into a video game. Baseball and football are relatively easy, because after every play, all the players reset and resume their positions. Soccer is a little more problematic, but the field is so large and the action so spread out that you usually only dealing with a few players at a time. Basketball, however, is a sport that like a circus, with huge, nimble athletes crowding the court, ten players all constantly reading and reacting to one another, with equal parts predictability and unpredictability. It’s almost like quidditch. Almost.

As a result, I haven’t liked playing most basketball video games. It didn’t matter the franchise, 2K or NBA Live, neither game, for my tastes, nailed what it’s really like to play basketball.

But as I’ve learned the last few days, it turns out the “My Player” mode in the new NBA 2K10 is a fun way to play a basketball video game. The only thing is, you’re not really playing a basketball game; you’re playing a game that just happens to take place inside a basketball game.

nba-2k10-draft-combine-001I recently created Lang Whitaker, a 19-year-old, 6-1, 175 pass-first point guard who represented the best basketball-playing version of me, the me who played in high school many years (and pounds) ago. Despite making myself the lightest skin tone available in the game, I do not appear to be white. But whatever. After one year at that vaunted basketball hotbed the University of Georgia, I found myself going pro. This is how my professional career has gone thus far: I performed well in the pre-Draft camp, but went undrafted. The Sacramento Kings invited me to play on their summer league team, and after a few games I became the starting point guard (the Kings shifted Tyreke Evans to the 2 to accommodate me). I averaged 8 points and 8 assists (with 1 turnover) a game, but it wasn’t good enough to earn me an invite to training camp.

(Seriously, a guy averaged 8 and 8 with an 8-to-1 turnover-to-assist ratio and can’t get an invite to training camp with the Kings? No wonder they’re so terrible.)

Instead, I accepted an invite to go to training camp with the New York Knicks. After just two training camp scrimmages, including one session where I was lit up by Toney Douglas, the Knicks waived me. I was quickly snapped up by the Reno Bighorns in the D-League, where I’ve played ever since.

In your career mode, for each game you play, your performance is graded by your teammates; as the game goes along, you see your grade going up and down in the top left corner of the screen. Your grade increases for things like assists or rebounds, decreases when you allow your man to score or you turn the ball over. The way your grade changes is mostly logical, though it seems inconsistent. Your score gets a bump after some assists but not all of them, for instance. I’ll bring the ball up the court and pass it to an open guy on the wing. Sometimes I am rewarded for this, sometimes I am not, and I can’t figure out why I am or why I am not.

One major issue I have with the My Player mode is that your grade isn’t relative to making sound basketball decisions. For instance, when I’m the lone defender on a fast break, it would help my team if I attempted to stop the ball. But if I stop the ball and nobody picks up my man and he scores, then my own grade suffers and I am penalized. So on fast breaks, I often let the ball go and just focus on keeping my man from scoring. If I did that in a real game, my coach would be furious with me. But in this game mode I’m rewarded for it. This happens throughout the games: I can never switch after I’m picked, for fear of my man scoring; it’s safer to play conservative defense than it is to gamble on picking off a pass. Basically, smart team basketball must be sacrificed in order for your player to get a good grade from his team.

In addition to worrying about your personal grade in each game, you’re asked to complete two tasks per game, things like, “Hold your opponent under 39 percent from the floor,” “Have at least 5 assists,” “Shoot at least 70 percent from the free throw line.” Completing each task earns you skill points, which you can then spend on improving your player. Again, though, completing these tasks often requires counter-intuitive play — not going for a steal from a lumbering guy in the post because in this game I’m supposed to watch out for something specific like three-pointers from my guy on the perimeter.

In some ways, this is probably highly realistic, in that guys in the D-League not only care more about their own stats than team play, but that to some degree they need to care more about their own stats. If I was a real player, I would care more about team stats than my own stats. At least I’m pretty sure I would. In the My Player mode, you don’t have a choice but to look out for self.

Despite the fundamental flaws in the way the game mode grades you, it’s a lot of fun to play. I get the ball, come down and call for a pick-and-roll over and over, then try to hit my big man for an easy two as he dives to the basket. That’s what I do, and I’m focused on doing it well. When I was on the Kings it was a lot easier to roll up assists than it is in the D-League, because Jason Thompson could dunk on everyone. That experience has me hooked on the thought of making it back to the NBA. The D-League life is tedious — especially playing against the Austin Toros, who insist on using a zone defense against my Bighorns — but one day being good enough to play with NBA teammates is a worthy goal.

After every game that Lang Whitaker plays, the “2K Insider,” a guy who looks a little like Stephen A. Smith, gives you a report on your performance, telling you your shot selection was poor, or that you shouldn’t have allowed your man to score 8 points. A major glitch in the game, however, has happened following every game I’ve played in the D-League: The Insider tells me he has bad news, that the Reno Bighorns have decided to waive me. The good news, he always adds, every single time, is that he’s been in touch with the GM of the Reno Bighorns, who have decided to offer me a contract. I’ve played about 15 games with the Reno Bighorns, and this happens after every game I’ve played — they cut me and re-sign me.

Initially, I decided it must be a contractual thing, that the Bighorns didn’t want to sign me to a guaranteed deal because I’d count against the salary cap or something, so instead they’ve been signing me to a series of one-game contracts. At least, that’s how I’m looking at it. I’m tired of the disrespect, but I don’t really have a choice, either.

As a kid, I wanted to play in the NBA, but I didn’t have the skills necessary to make that dream a reality. Now that I can upgrade my skills beyond what they actually are, I’m determined to actually make it to the NBA.

Even if that road takes me through Reno.