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In mid-June, CLTX Gaming forward Tamer Mustafa was separated from his professional NBA 2K League team by nearly 1,000 miles — stuck in a bed at St. Alexius Medical Center just outside Chicago for more than a week.
Mustafa has dealt with cystic fibrosis since he was born, a progressive genetic disorder that fills the lungs with fluid. A lifelong gamer, Mustafa ground his way into the NBA’s 2K League — now in its fourth season.
As his third season began, Mustafa’s lungs felt clogged. He was tired for reasons he couldn’t even explain to his parents, other than to tell them it was because of his disease. Mustafa’s long-time doctor wanted to see him, so he took leave from the team and flew back home, where he watched his teammates play games without him via Zoom.
In that moment, Mustafa felt clarity.
“I never want my sickness to stop me from doing what I want to do,” Mustafa told Boston.com. “It was an eye-opener. This is what I want to do. It was a moment I realized that I’m not going to let it stop me.”
Mustafa, who goes by the gamer name Bulleyy, was in middle school when he first learned what it truly means to have cystic fibrosis.
Mustafa was used to his treatments by that point — the twice-daily routine of breathing in albuterol through the machines set up at home and a monthly visit to his doctor. During his treatments, the albuterol mouthpiece dangled from his mouth pumping vaporized medicine into his lungs while he played video games (X-Men was one of his favorites).
When Mustafa was in sixth grade, a group came to his school to raise funds for cystic fibrosis research. That day, for the first time, Mustafa heard the prognosis for people with his condition: At the time, the life expectancy was just 31.
“Obviously your doctor isn’t going to tell you that,” Mustafa said. “That’s the one time it really hit me. When I heard that, I was tearing up in class. I never heard that before.”
Gradually, Mustafa learned to deal with the prognosis. He watched videos of people with cystic fibrosis working their way through day-to-day tasks for inspiration and did his own research on the disease.
Cystic fibrosis gradually limits the ability to breathe over time. The disease begins with a mutation in the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR), which controls the flow of salt and fluids in cells. If the genetic issue develops, a sticky mucus builds up in the lungs.
Mustafa credits much of his wellbeing to his doctor, who has worked with him since he was born. But even with a good doctor, cystic fibrosis is difficult to manage. A couple of days each week, Mustafa feels sick and exhausted.
“There’s no explanation for it,” Mustafa said. “It’s something you’ve got to fight. You can’t let it win. Once I give up, I’m letting my sickness win.”
Mustafa found refuge in gaming, particularly NBA 2K which he first tried in 2011 playing as the Thunder with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Soon, Mustafa was hooked. He discovered Team-Up options, in which players who have built up their MyPlayer characters find a virtual group to play 3-on-3 or 5-on-5. A versatile power forward, Mustafa was so talented that when the NBA began its exhaustive process to build dossiers on the best 2K players in the world, his name came up.
“He was a person of interest,” CLTX managing director Jim Ferris told Boston.com. “The reason why really showed in his combine stats — he’s one of the most versatile players in the league.”
Versatility is important at the NBA level because it gives a player multiple avenues to make an impact. The same is true in 2K, according to Ferris. When the gameplay shifts from year to year, having a player who can play a variety of roles is valuable.
But Ferris also knew about Mustafa’s condition. If CLTX was going to select him, Ferris wanted to make sure the team had the necessary housing components in place.
As CLTX did its research, Mustafa did his own on the league at large. After all, a professional 2K league — with paid housing, and real salaries plus lucrative prizes for winning tournaments — seemed too good to be true at first glance.
“The first season, I didn’t go for it,” Mustafa said. “I had to see with my eyes, like, ‘Yo, this is real.’”
As Mustafa watched, he realized the opportunity in front of him, and he spoke to his parents and doctor about the logistics. Both parties were supportive.
“Go for it,” Mustafa’s doctor told him. “If you can’t do it, that’s something we’ll talk about after.”
So Mustafa went for it and entered the 2019 Draft. CLTX Gaming — confident after conversations with both Mustafa and his doctor in its ability to support him — picked him at No. 8.
Two years later, remembering the moment he was drafted is still emotional for Mustafa.
“Growing up, it was hard to finish school,” Mustafa said. “It was hard to find a job. When I made it, it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. Just making my parents proud. I talked to my mom on FaceTime after I was drafted. I can’t explain it.”
The NBA 2K League features 23 teams with six players — five starters and a reserve — on each roster. Players are paid a salary ($38,000 per year for veterans, $35,000 for 2021 first-round draft picks and $32,000 per year for everyone else), and they can earn significantly more money from winning tournaments, as well as endorsement deals. Players also receive housing, health insurance and a retirement plan.
As Ferris noted, for many players, the league is the opportunity of a lifetime, and nobody appreciated that opportunity more than Mustafa — who worked at a car wash and as a Grub Hub driver before he was drafted. Ferris quickly discovered that Mustafa was self-sufficient and determined to maintain his spot in the league on his own merits, no matter how much work that entailed.
“He’s one of these incredible kids that works harder than anyone, and literally is humble and doesn’t want anybody to know,” Ferris said. “He keeps everything private and works his ass off.”
Still, the treatments aren’t easy. Mustafa needs three hours of treatment per day — an hour-and-a-half session in the morning and evening. He begins every day with his first round, then he goes to practice and spends time with teammates before finishing off his day with his second. Keeping cystic fibrosis at bay feels like a second job.
But Mustafa accomplishes both jobs with pride, according to Ferris. Last month, CLTX Gaming trailed Heatcheck Gaming by a point in the closing seconds, and CLTX ran an inbound play for Mustafa. He caught the ball in the corner and fired up a 3-pointer.
Before Mustafa even released the shot, his teammates started celebrating.
“Green,” Mustafa screamed, referencing the color shots turn in 2K when they are guaranteed to go in.
Sure enough, the ball hit nothing but net.
“He’ll say that at key moments,” Ferris said. “Not just to win a game, but throughout. The second he does that, you’ll see the confidence and energy start to shift.”
Mustafa’s own confidence has shifted as well. He avoided talking about his disease during his first year with the team and balked at the idea of sharing his struggle more broadly. Dealing with cystic fibrosis is hard. The disease is always there. The bad days are difficult to handle.
“If you let those days dictate what you’re going to do, it’s going to be hard to get through,” Mustafa said. “That’s my favorite thing to say.”
But after years of drawing inspiration from people with cystic fibrosis on YouTube, Mustafa — who worked for years to both deal with his condition and accomplish his own dreams — now realizes he can be an inspiration to others in his situation.
“This has been the best journey of my life,” Mustafa said. “The last couple years, it definitely changed my life — from being at home feeling sick to getting up every day and doing something I love. I want to inspire others. …
“I want to tell my story. I want to inspire others, and this is something I want to look back at and watch when I’m not feeling well to help me get through my days. So I just want to keep going and keep fighting. Whether it’s cystic fibrosis, whether it’s something else, the lesson is not to give up. Control what you can control, and just do what you can, and if you can do something and you’re really passionate about it, I would say go for it. Don’t let nothing stop you. If you’re doing something you love, it’s going to be a great feeling.”
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