Aziz “Shuttles” Salem’s NBA 2K League journey will continue in Brooklyn with NetsGC this season, but it started in a remote village in Palestine.
After living in Florida for the first seven years of his life, Salem’s parents, both Palestinian, moved he and his family back to their home country so he could learn the native language and religion.
The village of Ramallah where Salem was raised is unlike anywhere other players from the NBA 2K League grew up. Situated less than 20 miles north of Bethlehem, Ramallah is a village that is decades behind on technology, and where a strong enough gust of wind or rain drizzle could knock out electricity for days. Salem would spend most of his day outside, playing any kind of sport he could. Proper equipment wasn’t always available, but there wasn’t much else to do. “I remember having to play soccer with a tennis ball sometimes,” he recounts.
When it was too late to stay out, Salem went home and played video games. There was no GameStop or Walmart in Ramallah, so the only way he could get his hands on a video game was through a man in the village who illegally obtained them—”I don’t know how he did it,” he laughs, but one day, Salem got a copy of NBA 2K10.
“I fell in love with it,” he remembers. “It gave me the same vibe as playing real basketball with my friends.”
His family of seven had only three-megabit internet, so Salem was forced to play offline game modes, but during his senior year of high school, NBA 2K15 came out, and Salem and four of his Palestine friends fought through intense lag to play at their local Rec Center.
“We constantly lagged, but we had so much fun. That’s when I thought if I took this seriously I could get really really good at the game,” said Salem. “But I think it was God telling me you can make something out of this. It took a while. The Pro-Am scene wasn’t really around at that time, but in the Rec Center I knew I was pretty good.”
After graduating from high school, Salem moved back to the U.S. where he made a name for himself on the Pro-Am scene, but missed the season one draft pool for the NBA 2K League.
The pressure was on. His parents were supportive of his decision to pursue the league, but not all of his friends and family were. “They criticized the choice, with good intentions,” said Salem. “I’m good at taking criticism, but that stung a bit.”
Salem told himself he’d give it one more shot. In season two, he made it into the pool, and NetsGC would select him with the 10th pick of the second round. Salem would call Brooklyn his new home.
Shout out to the best org for the off season gift. Always showed me nothing but love since my move to Brooklyn. pic.twitter.com/yD8YCCzK2v
— Aziz (@Shuttles) October 3, 2019
“Once I made it, the criticism turned into support,” he said. “I’m grateful they kept it real.”
It was an up-and-down campaign for Salem and NetsGC in 2019. The team sat in playoff position with just two weeks to go in the season, but dropped its final four games and missed the postseason. They also failed to advance in a single tournament.
Salem feels a number of issues plagued NetsGC last season, but shoulders some of the blame for the team faltering down the stretch. He sees himself as a laid back guy, one who tries to approach each day with a certain level of humility and modesty, but in some ways it worked against him.
“There was one thing I should’ve done that would’ve propelled us to the playoffs, but I didn’t: being able to provide criticism to my teammates,” he explained. “I didn’t do it. We weren’t on the same page as a team. When I look back, if I had spoken my mind in the right way it would’ve turned our season around.”
The NetsGC 2019 team had good chemistry off the court. All of the players enjoyed spending time with each other, but Salem feels it had the unintended consequence of no one wanting to step on other’s toes and ruin the overall team chemistry.
“If I could go back I’d offer some constructive criticism, and not in a toxic way,” he said. “Tell a player they’re not playing well if they weren’t.”
Salem thinks NetsGC Head Coach and General Manager Ivan “OGKINGCURT” Curtiss protected him at season’s end because he embodies the kind of person the team wants its players to be. Salem was never a bad teammate, never difficult to deal with, and never toxic, despite the team’s ups and downs.
“As far as Brooklyn goes, you have to be a better teammate than you are a player,” he said. “I’m lucky to have Curt because he values character as being equal to being a good 2K player. It’s easy to talk to me and I’m good at taking criticism. I’m not the perfect teammate by any means but I bring a lot of good qualities.”
Salem is ready for his sophomore season in the league. The plan is to move him from power forward to center, where he feels he’ll be able to provide more for the team on the court. He is aware of what he needs to improve on as a teammate too.
“When I look back at it, don’t care too much about what other people think or how they feel,” he said on what he learned from his rookie season. “Sometimes people need to hear what they don’t want to. I didn’t want to say something because I didn’t want people to hate me. That was a huge mistake on my part. This season that’s going to change a lot. I’m not going to disrespect anybody, but I’m going to speak my mind. Curt wants me to take on that role more this season.”
After last month’s draft, it’s a whole new NetsGC team. Salem is excited about the energy that offseason trade acquisition Rando will bring, the leadership of first-round pick Choc and the I.Q. and high-level play of guys like Randomz and Potts.
“I whole-heartedly think we’re a better team than last year and we can be a playoff team if all of us buy into what Curt wants for us,” he said. “If we do that not only can we be a playoff team but we can make a deep run into the playoffs…we can bring a banner home to Brooklyn.”
Salem says no one in the league wants to win more than he does. The number one goal in season three will be to turn NetsGC into a winning team. Community pundits don’t believe Brooklyn can do that, but it doesn’t bother Salem.
“I see all these power rankings and breakdowns that have been coming out, and a lot of teams have NetsGC ranked at the bottom,” he said. “It doesn’t offend me; I actually enjoy seeing things like that. When people write some of that stuff and are wrong they don’t want to admit they’re wrong. But I remember. So if we’re winning and have a banner I’ll go back and comment on those. I’m excited to prove those people wrong.”
Salem realizes that NBA 2K isn’t, and won’t be, his entire life. In December, he’ll graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of South Florida. Since his parents sacrificed so much in order for him to make it into the league, he feels it’s only right to give them the joy of seeing him finish school.
But his degree holds another meaning for him. “I don’t plan on living my whole life here in America,” he explained. “There are certain jobs back in Palestine that are scarce. I couldn’t find an engineering job in Palestine because the jobs aren’t there. So I decided I wanted something that if I went back to Palestine I wouldn’t have that hard of a time finding.”
One goal of Salem’s is to run his own business. He watched his dad work as a businessman growing up, and hopes that five or six years down the line, he’ll do the same.
Salem still has friends, family and memories in Palestine. If his Palestinian family moves to America, he’ll stay here, but if his parents move back to their home country, he will follow. “It’s about where my family is. But you never know what will happen in the next few years.”