Working Out a Winning Formula: CLTX Gaming’s Pursuit of Greatness - NBA 2K League

Working Out a Winning Formula: CLTX Gaming’s Pursuit of Greatness

Celtics Crossover Gaming takes physical fitness as seriously as winning on the sticks. It starts with Coach Ricco Phinisee, a certified personal trainer who has connected with his players over 2K and the hunger for healthier diets and exercise routines. Keeping the mind and body sharp during a rigorous regular season is challenging, and camp CLTX is uniquely positioned to maximize their potential when it comes to the gym. 

Their Season 3 preparation goes well beyond fitness, however. MVP candidate oFAB, defensive star Mel East and Ricco are returning with a unified bond that is rooted in past partnership, trust and growth. As they go in-depth about their SZN 3 grind, their excitement over playing another season with No xAutographsx and Bulleyy, and their hype for MOAM’s debut in CLTX green, it’s clear that the organization is primed to put the finishing touches on a winning formula that could, according to them, have them winning a tournament Finals in 2020.

Question: What was your assessment of how Season 2 ended up? 

oFAB: It was a crazy season! For Season 1, I felt like we were for sure going to win a ring. And then we had ups and downs, a heartbreaking loss to Knicks Gaming, then they go on to win it all. Then losing to Magic Gaming during the last week of the season … to us it was a letdown. I didn’t cry that hard in my life! Mel East was right next to me crying, too. Everyone was sad, Ricco was disappointed. Then in Season 2, we came out hungry and made it into the Finals of the TIP OFF, but we knew something was off. We needed to fix some things. Our overthinking ultimately lead us to a 1-5 start in the regular season. At that point, you’re not thinking about a championship. You’re thinking about, oh I need to fix this somehow. It kind of just shows you how special Ricco and Mel are, because Mel came back and watched film every night. Me, I didn’t take the plane home with the team (after hitting the 1-5 mark). I took a 5-hour train ride home with Ricco and we just watched film. We started watching every week for five hours on the way home. Around that time we also cut down practices from 6-7 hours a day to 4 hours of intense practices, and then you saw that record jump from 1-5 to 10-5. It’s crazy, just knowing that one loss could knock you out of the Playoffs, but watching these guys lock in was so special. And then when we DID make playoffs, that’s when we said ‘aw yeah, we’ll go win a championship.’ Season 2 was special like that. It showed me that we could do anything, fight adversity, it was crazy. 

Mel East: For a lot of us, especially me and Fab, we’ve played together for many years before the NBA 2K League was announced. Going in, Season 1 was a roller coaster. We thought guaranteed we were gonna make Playoffs, but it came down to the last game and we didn’t get in. It was heartbreaking. Season 1 I think tested a lot of our character. We were one of the more criticized teams in the league. We would go to (tournament) Finals and lose. We played in all the big Season 1 games, and I think that helped us prepare for Season 2. Then we again go to THE TIP OFF Finals to open Season 2 and didn’t win that. We overthought things like Fab said. We switched the lineups up, and that was the problem with us. When we started believing and trusting and toning back some of the practices, we said ‘we’re not a 1-5 team.’ We could easily fix it. We took it game-by-game, went on a big win streak and built that momentum into the Playoffs. We swept the No. 2 seed Mavs (Gaming)… this team has a lot of heart. We’re coached very well, we have one of the best coaches, if not the best one, so I think Season 3 is THE year for us. 

Coach Ricco Phinisee: Season 2 was definitely crazy. I know that once we hit 1-5 and started turning things around, I knew this team had heart. Other teams would have just given up. These guys really stepped up in big games. I’m so proud of these guys, and so proud of Fab and Mel for leading this group to big victories. I think in the semifinals, we had some ups and downs against teams we’ve always struggled with, but overall I think we learned a lot from that and I’m really, really proud of these guys. Me and Fab always work out together whether we win or lose games. It was really tough to work out after a loss. I’m very, very competitive and Fab is very, very competitive. One thing I can say is, we have a lot of great leaders on this team and Fab is one of them. 

Q: Ricco, it seems like you have a more-than-solid coach/player bond with oFAB. What makes your connection to Fab so special, and how do you continue to nurture it as you go? How do you both gain strength from that? 

Ricco: It’s like this, you have your Brady and you have your Belichick. Every coach in football is close to their quarterback, and point guard in basketball is your quarterback. In Season 1, Fab wanted to lose weight, and look, I give a lot of people workouts and they don’t take it seriously, but Fab I know took it seriously when he called me at 6am in the morning saying ‘hey, I’m trying to work out, where you at’? Once we started working out every day during Season 1 that early in the morning, I knew this guy was hungry to change his way to get in shape. He’s been like that since day 1. We’ve stayed close every day. I learn from him, he learns from me. We both keep it 100 percent, and I’m very thankful for it. 

oFAB: The first moment I knew this was going to be a great franchise was when we were at practice, and our offense was stagnant. We were getting boxed up, and Ricco’s like, ‘You know what? We’re going to run some plays and add something to our offense.’ Keep in mind, 2K players aren’t supposed to run new plays like that. They just usually isolated during Season 1. We changed things up and we might have been the only team during Season 1 to have all starting five players average at least 10 points a game. It was because of Ricco changing up plays. He told the best PG in the world, I think I’m the best PG in the world (laughs), so he told me ‘we’re gonna stop the iso ball, we’re gonna throw some plays in.’ I said ok, I respect this man, he’s coming in here confident, and it was working! But also, he’s not a coach that has a high ego. Some coaches out there in the world won’t take high criticism. There were some plays Ricco drew up that were trash (laughs)! I was like, ‘that ain’t it coach’ (laughs), and Ricco didn’t get offended at all. We’d sit there and say, yeah this play is good, let’s run this. Those plays are part of the reason why ProFusion had 20 points against Knicks Gaming in THE TICKET. We lost by a bucket, but Ricco’s plays almost got us a tournament win and a Playoff spot. Also we get on Mel, but Mel gets on us, too. I think that’s why I feel like we have the best, most important relationship in the league. We could talk to each other crazy, but we also say ‘you know what? We have to get this thing done.’ We have so much love for each other, we’re brothers. 

Q: Mel, can you talk a little bit about your pre-existing relationship with oFAB and how that’s a net positive for the team both on and off the sticks? 

Mel East: Yeah, our bond has been growing since 2013 when we started playing together. Back then I wasn’t the best at the game, but Fab was getting there and he showed me some things that helped me get better. Our relationship grew to the next level because when we met in person especially, I met his mom and brother and now they’re like family to me. My mom met Fab and Ricco now and she calls them her sons. We have a family dynamic here regardless of whatever happens. We always have each others’ backs. It’s fun being able to compete with your boys, winning games and having success and knowing that those boys are the right fit for you. There’s nothing better than that. We’re pretty successful I think so far in our careers, but we have a lot more to do. Fab and I have been dreaming about bringing championships to Boston, so that’s the main priority now. 

Q: Mel, off the sticks you’re the nicest, softest spoken guy. On the sticks, you’re a firestarter. How do you find that fire during gameday and do you think it brings a positive element to the team as you compete, vs. being more of the quiet leader that you are in person? 

Mel East: With me, I feel like I’m the most passionate player in the league. Sometimes it gets the best of me, and that’s something our Managing Director Jim Ferris tells me. We talk all the time and he and Ricco always encourage me to be myself. Having people like that around you is fun. This passion comes from me growing up and playing basketball as a kid. I’ve always loved basketball and that drive to compete. I feel like I’m a student of the game, always trying to improve. Sometimes there will be arguments on teams, but with Fab and I, we’ll have a disagreement about something but afterwards we’ll come to an agreement. We know how to talk to each other. We keep it real. That’s the one thing we both respect about each other. We keep everything real. We’re not afraid to speak up when we need to. Those are the two things that really got our relationship going. Having a mentor like Ricco, he does a lot of stuff for us that people don’t see. He’s pushing for us, always trying to do big things for us.

Q: Mel and Fab, what are some of the positive elements Ricco brings to CLTX Gaming as a coach, and Ricco, what are some of the challenges you run into coaching your guys? 

Ricco: I think more of that (in regards to disagreements and passionate moments) comes on the stage. All my guys are very passionate. They’re very competitive. Sometimes they overthink, as Fab pointed out. I think that’s one of our biggest challenges. Dealing with Fab, he’s the best point guard, and sometimes he thinks something can be handled one way, but it can be done multiple ways. Much of the time it’s just about getting on the same page with everybody. And with Mel, he wears his heart on his sleeve, so sometimes he’ll take something the wrong way. But at the end of the day, we’ll all eat at the same restaurant, usually it’s the Tavern right next to our practice space. At the end of the day, these guys are special and we just need to get on the same page sometimes. 

oFAB: Ricco’s a great listener. He pays attention to every little detail. When we’d do film sessions, and Ricco would have us pay attention like it was school. If he sees you slacking and not paying attention, you have to be awake and alert because he’ll quiz you. ‘Oh, what happened with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, Fab?’ ‘What happened here, Mel?’ You have to make sure you’re learning as much as you can. He knew we weren’t as receptive to eight-hour practices, so he said, ‘you know what? You don’t want eight-hour practices? Then we need to make the most out of practicing in less time.’ Ricco makes the most out of nothing. When he has little time, he makes the most out of it. That’s his best attribute. Time is money with Ricco and that’s what makes him a great coach. 

Mel: He’s very selfless. He always tries to put us before him. That’s a trait you can’t really teach and that’s what you’d want in any leader. I’m very passionate sometimes, and sometimes I word things in ways that other people don’t get. He helps me change that up so that people are more receptive to what I’m trying to say. He’s very smart at the game. It happened a couple times this year, some of us got caught slipping in practice. The teacher pointed on the student. We would joke around about it too, we’d be like, ‘oh I don’t wanna be the one to mess up, I’m locking in. I’m not getting pointed out by the coach!’ Ricco always tries to make 2K fun for us, and that’s the most important thing. He also likes to spend time with us off the court which is genuine. I respect that. 

Q: It’s no secret that physical fitness is a part of CLTX Gaming’s routine. Can you guys talk about how important it is for a 2K League pro to be physically fit for the season, in addition to mentally fit on the sticks? 

Mel East: When we were 1-5, I slacked off with working out and I felt like I didn’t even have enough time to sleep. Working out is really big for me in the offseason. Hopefully Season 3 I’ll be back to the gym and locked in. With these two guys, I always notice that they were consistent with their workouts. When Fab wanted to make that lifestyle change, I remember telling him, ‘you ready for it?’ Sometimes I’d go with him to the gym at 6am, but I see their dynamic duo is committed to it. Sometimes I even see Fab telling Ricco, ‘nah, we’re not taking a day off, we’re going (to the gym) today!’ Seeing stuff like that is motivating. You have to be in tip-top shape if you’re going pro. When I play basketball, it helps me clear my head and think straight. I feel like for all of us, yeah we’re all trying to get on that kind of lifestyle. 

oFAB: I was going through a depression stage for a few years while eating McDonalds and stuff. Me, when I looked in the mirror, I always thought I was a skinny kid. I’m still skinny, you know? But then my family rolled up and told me I was fat, but they loved me for me! So I was like OK, I’m a skinny kid going into the Draft, I’m happy, I’m gonna get drafted. Once I got drafted, I see the Twitch comments and everyone’s calling me fat. I was like, wait am I really fat? During Season 1 it was hard because I had been working out with Ricco and at one point he says, when are you gonna clean up your diet? I was like what, I have to put down my wings, too? Are you serious? It was kind of tough making a diet change, but when I did, you saw the weight shed off me. I downloaded the MyFitness Pal app, subtracted 500 calories to make sure I lost a pound or so a week. I kept track of everything. I take this serious, I’ve had like a 100-day streak of logging in and tracking it. It’s really a blessing to have the 2K League because without it, I would probably still feel fat and not know what to do with my health. It gives us a lot of time. We have an offseason, we have all this time to read books, work out, do some school stuff, you can do everything in this offseason. Just use it wisely and treat it like a real NBA offseason. That’s what I did. I’m actually a real NBA player now and I lost 20 pounds this offseason. When I eat a bad meal now I feel sick and bad now. I just want to burn it off on a treadmill now. Seeing the results shows you a lot about what we’re like as 2K gamers. You want to see results and see yourself progressing. That’s how it is in the weight room. Seeing yourself run faster, your stamina getting better — that’s what it’s all about. I think everyone should try it. 

Q: Ricco, your training disciplines have only helped the situation, right?  

Ricco: I’ve been working out since a very young age. I’ve been around a lot of pro basketball and football players, and Fab, he already had the discipline to work out. He just needed somebody to give him an extra push. That’s one thing I’m really proud of him about. Mel, too. He can really get at it if he wants to, you know? I really started taking things to the next level at 13 with a bodybuilder out of LA. He flew back and forth to Oklahoma City (where I’m from). In high school, our strength and conditioning coach was from Maryland and was one of the biggest mentors of my life. He always told me, if you want to be great at anything, you always have to go past your limit. Anybody can get tired or sore and just give up. The best of the best always push past their limits, that’s how you become elite. I use that same mentality when it comes to my players whether we’re in tough games or at the gym. It applies when you’re on stage and it’s not looking too good. Anybody with a weak mind can just give up and fold, but my players never give up and fold. I’m certified as a personal trainer too, so I take this very, very seriously. My players do, too. When the guys come back from the offseason, I have plenty of workouts that they can do as a group. 

Mel East: His workouts are very helpful for me. I like to play ball a lot, so he’s shown me a lot of activities that help me with acceleration, going vertical … Ricco is the best at stuff like that. We’re very lucky to have him.

Q: oFAB, you dished out another MVP-caliber season during Season 2. Does being an MVP finalist fulfill you, or at the end of the day, is it still all about winning a championship for you? 

oFAB: I really want to be number one. It would be nice to win MVP, but I’m a greedy person so I want a championship and MVP. I want all of that! I want a CLTX championship to come to Boston. I want Mel to win Defensive Player of the Year. I want Ricco to win Coach of the Year. I want everyone to win everything. The best way for us to do that is to win the ‘chip. We have to do everything we can to win this ‘chip. I wasn’t really even thinking about winning MVP last year at all. It was nice to know I was in the conversation, but we were 1-5 so MVP wasn’t even on my radar at that point. It was cool to see my stats translate into W’s and that’s what means the most. They weren’t just useless stats, and that means a lot. Winning is definitely priority number one. If we have another winning season, maybe I’ll be MVP, so winning definitely can help! 

Ricco: To me, to be honest I think all of our guys deserved to win something. Fab should have definitely won MVP. Mel should have won Defensive Player of the Year, he was the number one shooting lock, which no one really talks about. Auto (No xAutographsx) was for sure a top player and a rookie, and Bulleyy was a top rookie as well. I think all of our guys really stepped up this year, especially towards the end of the season. 

oFAB: We have a good core, but yeah having Auto and Bulleyy on our team, that’s big because those two are the definition of the nicest guys ever. I’m just blessed to have them both as teammates and they’re really hard workers who lock in. I’m so happy we’re playing with them again in Season 3. They’re a big part of this team. 

Q: To that point, player movement has been a big theme to the offseason. You guys are bringing four of your starting five back for Season 3. Will that familiarity and consistency make a difference when you tip back off in March? 

Ricco: I think consistency definitely helps and gives us more confidence heading into Season 3. We still have to play just like everyone else has to play, to put the work in to get better each and every day, but I definitely think it’ll give us confidence. 

Q: What does MOAM bring to CLTX in regards to on and off the court chemistry? 

oFAB: I think that more people should talk about MOAM more. This was a big move. He didn’t get much time to shine in previous seasons, but he put up 16 points per game and averaged two steals per game last year. That shows you he’s got good numbers. He’s a great defender that can shoot. MOAM is definitely hungry. He’s got a chip on his shoulder. That’s what we want. I’m excited to play with him. 

Mel East: He’s a great talent. He’s someone who’s been in the community who I’ve played with a few times. He’s gonna fit right in. I think chemistry-wise, he’ll be good. On the court, he’s a sniper. He was one of the best sharps in the league last year but his team’s performances overshadowed what he was doing. I love defense and I love seeing someone like MOAM play on a sharp role averaging two steals a game, that’s impressive to me. I’m excited to have him. 

Ricco: He fits into every category that I look for. He’s a very aggressive player on both offense and defense. He creates his own shot. He can also take criticism. I’m glad to have him on our team. 

Q: What sorts of 2K-related skillsets are you working to improve on this offseason? 

oFAB: I always liked my dribble moves, and this year I’m learning how to dribble more. In the league, I get by with my IQ. This year, I made sure to learn a lot of the dribble moves and I’m still learning more each day. Expect me to be a better dribbler in the league and get myself way more open next year. 

Mel East: I take pride in my versatility so I’m trying to touch up on that. I’m playing a lot of the 4 right now, learning that. I want to keep shooting the ball well, consistently. I play a lot of team-up, trying to get my guard to play up. You never know when that might happen in a game. I’m just trying to make sure I’m prepared for all scenarios. The season is a long grind so you never know where I’ll have to play. I’m like a swiss army knife, I’m ready to play wherever. I’m even getting down the sharp role. I’m getting ready for everything! 

Q: With the massive amount of success Boston sports teams have had over the last 20 odd years, does that put any added pressure on CLTX Gaming to bring home a championship one day soon? 

Ricco: Absolutely, but it comes with the territory. That’s why we draft players who can come in and handle the pressure. All five of those players on the stage should really handle that pressure. To be honest, I think that fuels our guys to play better, to be a part of the great city of Boston. 

Q: Can you recall your favorite Draft Day memories? 

Mel East: Draft Day was definitely insane. In Season 1, when everyone there was gonna get picked by a team, I was nervous. I had interviewed for almost every team, and I was hoping to land with the Celtics organization. This team stood out to me in the interview process, asking questions no other team had asked me — What do I see myself doing in ten years? How do I conduct myself on and off the court? — things like that stood out to me. I liked that. I grew up in New York, so I wasn’t too fond of the Boston Celtics growing up. But I always had that respect for them because they would always win playing team basketball, doing whatever it took to win. This was a place I wanted to be in. It worked out because I’m playing with one of my best friends and I’m playing for a coach that is the best in the league in my opinion. 

oFAB: Draft Day was crazy because my brother, at the last minute, bought a plane ticket to come to New York with me. He was sleeping on the hotel couch spending days with me in New York. He was so proud of me getting drafted. It was cool seeing one of my family members joining me, supporting me. He was saying, ‘Albano you really did it. You said you’d do it. And you did it.’ That means a lot. 

Q: Mel, you brought up the interview question about where you see yourself in ten years. Does it ever floor you that you’re part of a rising esports league? 

Mel East: Definitely. Before the league, I worked at a bank, TD Bank. The Celtics play in TD Garden which is pretty crazy. The connection’s there. I was at TSI College in Staten Island, learning finance. When I heard about the NBA 2K League, I said to myself ‘ah, I have to do this. I’m in.’ Speaking of Draft Day, I brought my mom to the Draft. When I first told her about the league, she thought it was a scam! She didn’t believe it (laughs). She was born overseas and she wasn’t really going to know what this was. She knew what basketball was, but didn’t know what the 2K League was all about. So, I brought her to the Draft. They picked us up in a limo, and once she saw the limo she was like, ‘oh this is real.’ She saw all the players’ parents at the Draft and it was just insane. That moment changed everything. I see this league growing year by year. It’s doing what I hoped it would do by going international. We have Gen.G, which is really big. A team like that coming in will help in the long run. I hope to be a part of all that, I really do. 

Q: Point blank, what does CLTX Gaming need to do to get over the hump and secure a championship this year? 

oFAB: Coming right out of the gate, we need to start hot. Season 1 we started off 2-2. Season 2 we started off 1-5. I think if we start the season right, like 2-0 or 3-0, I feel like that sets the momentum for the season. We haven’t had a season where we’re on fire right out of the gate. We always have to claw back in and win clutch W’s. If we start out right and I continue to carry the team on offense and Mel continues to carry the team on defense, I think it’ll be really good. Hit our jumpers. I have to make plays, win the turnovers. Swing on defense. Bulleyy and Auto got it. Mel got the on-ball defense. 

Ricco: We need to not overthink everything. I think we have great minds on the team, and sometimes that hurts us. I think going into Season 3, we just need to trust one another and stay with it. 

Mel East: We’re just need to keep trying to grow. That’s the biggest key for us. Learning from our mistakes. Keep pushing each other. Not getting stagnant. Not getting comfortable. I hope this year that’s something we can definitely improve on. Like Fab said, having a good start and keeping it going. Keep our foot on the gas, that’s the biggest thing. 

Q: What defines a successful Season 3 for CLTX Gaming when it’s all said and done? 

oFAB: I think a successful season is all of us being happy, smiling, having fun off the court, not being stressed. It gets stressful sometimes without family, so if they’re having fun, having a good atmosphere… that’s priority number one. Number two is winning. If we win a championship, whether it be tournament and get over the hump of winning a Finals for once, that would be really great. And winning a ‘ship is the most important goal. It all starts with these tournaments though. We need that one Finals win and that’ll set the tone. If players say ‘yeah, love this, I love playing in Boston,’ that’s the best feeling.  

Ricco: I know we had long-hour practices during Season 1 and 2, and I wanted to tone it down so my guys wouldn’t be so stressed out and overthink things. I think players being stress-free is the most important thing ever. I work my tail off to make sure our guys are having fun. Of course, winning a championship is the biggest thing that sticks out for having a successful Season 3. 

Mel East: I feel the best way for us to be successful is keeping that chemistry growing on and off the court. Looking out for each other and having a genuine vibe. Number two is obviously winning. Gotta show up in the tournaments. Obviously everyone will say we need to win the championship, but if we can get a tournament win, that will give us an extreme level of confidence and it would show us that all these years of taking losses in the Finals will have paid off. This season can be our year, especially if we start off winning a tournament.