It's a Monday afternoon at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, and Suns center Deandre Ayton is locked in.
He's not focused on his team's upcoming game against the Los Angeles Lakers the next day, thinking ahead to a playoff run, or worrying about his contract negotiations with the Suns. Right now, at this very moment, the most pressing thing on his mind is which video game he'll play first.
Ayton, 23, is a serious gamer. Gaming has always been there for him in any form he needs: a best friend, a therapist, his No. 1 fan. Most of all, gaming provides a virtual community that has helped Ayton navigate the challenges he battles in the physical realm.
"I don't think I could live without the game and that's real talk," Ayton says.
In the middle of the Annexus Social Club, a lounge hidden in plain sight for VIP ticket holders to cheer for their favorite team, Ayton stands with his controller in hand, scanning the list of games preloaded to his PlayStation 5: World War Z: Aftermath; Fortnite; Call of Duty: Warzone Season 2; Grand Theft Auto V. The lounge has been transformed into Ayton's personal game room, complete with his new ASUS gaming PC and favorite PS5 connected to a screen that spans 34 feet across and 20 feet high. A childlike gleam fills Ayton's eyes and a subtle smirk crosses his lips. Ayton cues his go-to game: NBA 2K22.
In the game's lobby, Ayton selects from one of about 10 Deandre Aytons he's created at nearly every position on the court. He enters a game, searching for his headset to hear what's being said by his virtual teammates and opposing players.
"I want these dudes to talk s***!"
Ayton dresses his player in a silver, shimmering suit, blinged-out jewelry that resembles his real-life pieces, black Crocs and a pair of purple googly-eyed glasses to walk around The Neighborhood. He pauses.
"Wait, where's my tiger?"
Tiger was the nickname his mother gave to him as a child. As silly as the outfit appears, there is a certain swagger and confidence about the computerized Deandre Ayton that feels vaguely familiar. On the NBA 2K court, Dominayton is the leader, a thrill-seeker who will try all the new moves that will either earn props from peers or send him back to the playbook. In real life, Deandre Ayton isn't afraid to follow the cues of his virtual doppelgänger. The dunks, the blocks and overall display of domination on the court -- he's averaging 18.8 points per game and 9.2 rebounds per game this postseason -- usually begin with practicing on his PS5.
"It's almost like going on YouTube and watching your favorite player and you doing the same thing you see him do consistently or you see Kobe do the same fade. You want to do that," Ayton says. "I go out there and I try to do the same thing."
It's clear watching Ayton play NBA 2K on the big screen that he's a dedicated gamer. He says that family comes first for him -- as the father of a 1-year-old, Ayton always makes time for his son, Deandre Jr., and girlfriend, Anissa Evans. But then, every day, he'll settle down for several hours -- at least four or five -- to play NBA 2K. This is how Ayton reached Legend status, an achievement that occurs by reaching Level 40 for four seasons in the game. Ayton believes he's the only NBA player to become a Legend.
"I don't know how I did it this year because I got a child, but I did it," Ayton says.
Ayton typically wakes up around 6 a.m. after only getting about two hours of sleep. There's time for a quick round of gaming after eating breakfast, then he's off to practice. Then it's back home to finish talking trash and practicing moves on the virtual court. On game days, Ayton is focused, but that schedule still includes time for video games.
"It's so hard for me to sleep after long games, especially big, long games," Ayton explains. "I don't know why, but I occupy my time with the game. I connect with some of my people. I got brothers in the UK. I got family in Jamaica and the Bahamas. During that game, we talk our smack. Whoever we just beat up on, we talk about it and laugh about it. I ain't going to bed until 4 or 5 a.m. That's how serious it gets."
VIDEO GAMES HAVE BEEN A REFUGE FOR AYTON ever since he was a child growing up in the Bahamas. He often watched his older brother, Andrew, play and successfully beat the hardest levels on most games he owned.
"Any game that was popping, they had it," Ayton says.
When Ayton turned 11, his stepfather, Alvin, bought him a new PlayStation, but he would soon leave behind the console for a new pursuit: basketball. Ayton enrolled in the Jeff Rodgers Basketball Camp on a Monday. By Tuesday and Wednesday, according to Alvin, scouts were at the family home to talk about their son.
"The people around there saw his height," Alvin says. "He was the same height as guys older than him. People were saying he looked like he was about 16, but he was 11."
By the end of the summer, Ayton began preparing to move to the United States to pursue hoops. They eventually chose the Balboa School in Escondido, California. Ayton was grateful for the opportunity but didn't fully understand how much work the program would be. He would receive a free education at the private school and be given the tools to grow his skills as a player but the program required a strict and rigorous schedule.
"[The program] consisted of school, but I wasn't waking up at 5 a.m. to go lift no weights or run a track," Ayton says. "We ain't sign up for that. We heard free education. We ain't hear labor. I'm like, 'Hold on, what is this?'"
Ayton struggled to shake the feeling of being alone in a new country. He says he quickly became the target of bullies who picked on his height and Bahamian accent. Maybe, worst of all, he didn't have his PlayStation to regularly connect with his family and friends online.
"I was alienated from the world because of the way I play and where I'm from, the size I am, and maybe even my color," Ayton says. "When I first came to the United States, I had that feeling of not having nobody at a young age. You feel like you want to belong, but kids don't want to hang out with you."
He became overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness and rejection. While he was unable to express his feelings back then, Ayton now knows he was dealing with bouts of anxiety and depression.
"I would never wish that on nobody," Ayton says. "That type of stuff builds a hole in your heart. You have a big heart, but nobody sees the heart. You want to give the heart, but nobody wants the heart. And I had that at a young age where I didn't even want to be here. I didn't want to be here."
"I'm like, ain't no console. I ain't got nothing around this mug? Ain't no video game, nothing? No, a basketball. That's it. Basketball and books. It was tough," he says. "I really only got serious with basketball because I ain't had nobody. I ain't had nothing and playing basketball was like really my own outlet to really have fun."
His mother, Andrea, admits it was difficult for her, too.
"There were times when he said, 'Mommy, I'm tired. I want to come home.' As a mother, I told him that things will be better, and he listened. After the conversations, he was a brand-new person again. It was tough. It was a lot of tears and a lot of disappointment. The stress was real."
At 15, Ayton became a force on the hardwood and soon his mother relocated to America to be closer to her son. And in more good news, Ayton's host family gifted him with a new PlayStation 4. Ayton told anyone who would listen what his gamer tag was and found friends and family he'd lost touch with in the three years he'd been gone. His community had returned.
"I cared for that [PS4] every day, cleaning the vent every day," Ayton says.
DURING HIGH SCHOOL, Ayton told anyone in online chatrooms who would listen that he was going to be a big basketball star. He was going to make it.
"They thought I was talking the most s*** ever," Ayton says.
Some of the best friends Ayton kept in touch with online were mutual friends from the Bahamas. Others were total strangers who laughed while listening to a delusional teenager yell about being the top-ranked 10th grader in the country and his far-fetched dreams of becoming a top draft pick in the NBA.
While some continued to take Ayton's dreams lightly, there were two gamers, Recarno Nixon and Joshua Russell, from his home country who listened to Ayton and encouraged his dreams.
"It was 4 a.m. one morning, I can remember it like it was yesterday," Ayton says. "I was like, 'Yo, bro, you've always been there for me. When they go through that draft, I'm going to be the No. 1 pick. I'm going to make sure you're there with me."
On June 21, 2018, after years of speaking his future plans into existence, the time had come. The 6-foot-11-inch, 250-pound center out of Arizona had been drafted No. 1 overall by the Suns.
Ayton kept his word to Russell.
"That's the first time I met that dude," Ayton says.
Ayton's gaming community also helped him endure the most difficult parts of his basketball career. In his freshman year of college in 2017-18, his name was referenced in the FBI's federal corruption investigation into college basketball, which included the University of Arizona. In a wiretap recording of a telephone call between former runner and aspiring business manager Christian Dawkins and business partner Munish Sood played during a federal criminal trial in 2019, Dawkins alleged that then-Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller "fronted" a deal to ensure the Wildcats signed Ayton. (Dawkins was convicted of conspiracy and bribery charges. Miller and Ayton have denied the claims.)
Ayton also leaned on gaming as an NBA rookie. The Suns struggled to find a rhythm in the 2018-2019 season, winning only 19 games and finishing last in the Western Conference.
"I wasn't used to losing," Ayton says. "I'm like, 'Oh, so this is the NBA. You lose every game.' Them L's came so quick and I was over here stressing like, 'Bro, we lost man.' Them dudes telling me, 'Boy, you got 81 more to go.' We lost again. 'You got 80 more to go, bro.'"
Ayton turned to NBA 2K. If his team couldn't win IRL, he could at least redeem himself in the game.
Thankfully, there was hope for the next season. Ayton was impressive, averaging 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds. He left fans looking forward to his sophomore season. In the 2019-2020 season opener, Ayton shined with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks in a 124-95 Suns win over the Sacramento Kings.
The next day, the feelings of joy and anticipation for the season dissipated when Ayton learned he had violated the league's anti-drug policy after testing positive for a diuretic. His punishment was a 25-game suspension.
"I tell you, the worst time to play [NBA 2K] was during the suspension," Ayton says. "[Those] kids were attacking me. Out of all the games I could play, I chose to play the basketball game that follows everything about the NBA and I went in the devil's pit. I don't even want to say the lion's den. It was the devil's pit, and I got bashed every day playing the game."
Deandre should be working out, but he's over here.
No wonder why he got suspended.
"I'm hearing all of that," Ayton says. "My back's against the wall, but I'm still playing this game. I don't give a damn. Y'all going to see me in the game. Being in the video game and 25-game suspension, it's like being in the middle of a hundred people that hate you, yelling at you, saying anything to you. Whoever you think you are, go in the gaming world. [Those] people will tell you about your ass."
Ayton kept himself in playing condition, but his time spent playing video games increased from four to five hours each day to around the clock. Ayton returned from his suspension, but a few months later, the NBA season was suspended indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than most players, Ayton could handle the uncertainty. He had recently learned he and his girlfriend were expecting their first child but would spend time away from her when he rejoined his team in the bubble. He was concerned, but everything else would fall in line as long as he had his games.
"Dudes weren't used to that," Ayton says. "They can't sit on the game for that long and enjoy themselves. You could tell them dudes was going crazy in there. They didn't know what to do. Dudes trying to go outside, trying to enjoy the weather. Like bro, it's going to be the same view. You ain't going to see nothing else but the pond. So I'm over here playing the game, I'm going to enjoy myself, talking so much trash. That game saved my life in the bubble."
BACK AT THE ANNEXUS CLUB, Ayton has switched to killing zombies in World War Z.
"I play World War Z and get spooked out a little bit," Ayton laughs. "I mean, that's a serious game. It gets pretty scary. They're loud, they're ugly and you got to just put [those] things down and eliminate them."
Ayton stands up, controller in hand and displays a different type of focus with this game. In some areas, he is strategic with his skills. In other zones, when zombies have multiplied and overwhelmed his character, Ayton has to think on his feet. Even when caught off guard, Ayton ensures his character will be the one to make it out alive.
"I'm competing with folks that hate me," Ayton says. "I always feel like I've been hated, until this day, but that don't mean I get down on myself. No. I just want to prove you wrong."
Ayton has dominated this year's playoff race. The Suns are up 3-2 on the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals, and he's one of the league's hottest playoff shooters. In Game 5, Ayton logged his 13th career playoff game with 20 points while shooting 60% from the field, the second-most by any Suns player in franchise history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"Oh, I'm feeling confident," Ayton says.
His future in Phoenix remains a question mark. Last fall, the Suns' contract extension discussions with Ayton -- who sought a five-year contract worth a guaranteed $172.5 million -- ended with no agreement. Still, he isn't too worried about where he might end up this offseason.
"That's just the game, period, just knowing that you have to take care of business in order to get what you want," he says.
Even as the Suns battle throughout the playoffs, Ayton uses video games to remain grounded while leaning on his family. On the road, Ayton shares a room with his girlfriend and son. They've fallen into a bit of a routine: Ayton Jr. plays basketball with toys sprawled across the hotel room floor. Anissa watches Netflix. Deandre relaxes while Dominayton takes control of the virtual court. In these moments, Deandre is at peace.
"Gaming always keeps me level-headed. That's not a thing I'll ever lose. Like on the road right now. ... It's just a load off where I can just play the game and just chill out for a bit and then get back to work," Ayton says. "It's just video games and basketball. That's what keeps my head clear so I can play this sport."