"It's now or never," Timothy Anselimo thought as he laid on the cold, blood-ridden floor of Chicago Pizza in Jacksonville, Florida.
Seconds earlier, the NBA 2K League player heard a shot and then turned to face a man just a few feet away with a pistol in his hand. As gunshots continued to ring out, Anselimo felt an itch and a burn in his chest -- he knew he was already wounded -- and ducked for cover in the small corner of the narrow, dimly lit room near restaurant booths, TVs and murals of a grimacing Joker and jumping Mario.
A spur-of-the-moment trip to catch up with old friends and play "Madden NFL 19" at an offline qualifier for a Madden championship event had suddenly turned into a life-or-death situation.
The gunfire didn't stop.
Maybe this guy is going to try to clear the whole room, Anselimo thought.
The shooter blocked off one of two paths outside; a 3-foot wide door jammed with nearly 100 restaurant patrons was the only option.
As his vision blurred, Anselimo got a kick of adrenaline and made a break for it.
The gunman continued firing.
Outside, the partly cloudy, warm weather near the St. Johns River made it seem like a peaceful day on the promenade at the Jacksonville Landing. The screams of terror as people fled destroyed that atmosphere. As Anselimo breached the door, he went left, remembering a Hooters two doors down from Chicago Pizza and hoping someone would be there to help him.
By the time he was outside, four bullets had ripped into Anselimo: one to his right chest, one in his left hip and another two to his right hand.
At Hooters, a recently hired chef named Jordan Williams, 23, had a woman enter his restaurant and alert them of the shooting. Outside he heard cries for help and saw people, including Anselimo with his right thumb dangling and blood running down his clothing, running for their lives.
"Please, call 911!" Anselimo said as he ran toward Williams, who by then had run outside to meet him. "Please, there's a shooter here, and I've been shot. Please, call 911!"
Hours later, Anselimo, 26, awoke at UF Health Jacksonville to see his mother, Sujeil Lopez, who had just arrived. Her son was bandaged up and still caked in blood. His hand was wrapped tightly, hiding a wound that would profoundly impact Anselimo's 2K career.
"Mom," he said. "I'll probably never play again."
In 2018, Anselimo became one of the most respected players in the NBA 2K League. Drafted in April that year, he went from being a used car salesman on the Gulf Coast to competing nearly every week in New York, playing for the Milwaukee Bucks and pocketing $32,000 for six months of competition. Now, all of that was on the line for the No. 25 pick in the Season 1 draft.
It has been eight months since the day that changed Anselimo's life, but he still has nightmares every night. He faces both physical and mental roadblocks because of what happened in Jacksonville. His hand and career will never be the same, but Anselimo, like the others who were in Chicago Pizza, has to figure out how to move forward.
Anselimo is doing that by playing through the pain -- in front of a crowd in New York playing 2K, the one constant in his life. On stage, "oLARRY" is still imprinted on the back of his jersey, but Anselimo isn't the same person who sat in the NBA 2K League studio one year ago.
In the days after the shooting, Anselimo struggled to keep it together. He continued to ask himself, Why? His career was in the balance, and he remained hospitalized while awaiting two surgeries on his right hand, where his thumb remained connected by just fat and skin. Why me?
Anselimo had made it out, but two others did not. Two Madden pros -- Taylor Robertson and Elijah Clayton -- died that day in Jacksonville. Robertson was 28; Clayton was 22. Just seconds before shots rang out, Anselimo stood next to Robertson as the two watched a game between another set of competitors. Clayton, facing a monitor directly behind them, focused on his game. Then a red laser appeared on Clayton's chest, and the shots began.
"Taylor obviously had a family, and it's terrible," Anselimo said. Robertson played his final game of Madden against Anselimo that weekend. "It was a hobby for him. This was something he enjoyed, and his family understood that and was OK with it, and unfortunately everything else comes from it. So something that you just never really forget. The thought just lives with you forever."
At first, the shock kept Anselimo from recalling details. But as the days went by, he began to remember the logjam at the door, the look in the shooter's eyes, the 150-foot sprint between the back patio of Chicago Pizza and Hooters and the waist-high gate he jumped to get to Williams.
Anselimo barely even knew the shooter. Why did he do this to me? The two had played once online, and during the weekend, before the shooting, the shooter had thrown his shoulder into Anselimo. Who even is that guy? he thought then. The next time he saw him, he was behind the barrel of a handgun.
Anselimo wasn't alone. His mother, Lopez, felt a massive sense of guilt, anger and failure -- that she was unable to protect her child from harm. Anselimo was born in the Bushwick neighborhood of New York City in the early 1990s, when Lopez recalls crime being a staple of the environment around them. They moved to Florida to escape that. And now here she sat, at her son's bedside, as his four gunshot wounds were tended to around the clock.
"This person came in here and tried to take you from me," she told Anselimo at the hospital. "Not even knowing the type of person you are, not even knowing how much I need you, he tried to take you from me."
Old friends, some of whom attended the tournament during the shooting, and new, like Williams, cycled in and out of Anselimo's hospital room the following week. Although only 15 minutes passed as they awaited paramedics, a near-familial bond formed between the two as Williams cared for Anselimo -- wrapping his hand with towels, bear hugging Anselimo to cover wounds and continuing to emotionally support him through the pain and the fear of death.
"We're family now, because he's a brother to me," Anselimo said. "I could not see him for months, years, whatever, but whenever we will text or talk to each other, we're family, happy holidays, everything. I'm forever grateful to that guy."
"Even when I was in that [hospital] room that first day, they were like, 'You're a part of the family.' And I think that's what hit the most," Williams said.
Online, there was an outpouring of support for Anselimo, including from "Entourage" actor and Knicks Gaming consultant Jerry Ferrara. Pusha T, one of Anselimo's favorite rappers, FaceTimed with him.
The encouragement helped, but it didn't answer the big questions. As he waited to be discharged, Anselimo just wanted to know what came next.
"This isn't easy for us," Bucks Gaming manager Cayle Drabinsky said on the other line. "We're going to protect two other players instead of you."
Just days after being released from UF Health Jacksonville, on Sept. 4, Bucks Gaming had released Anselimo. As the NBA 2K League expanded from 17 to 21 teams, the league forced each team to choose two players to retain. The rest would enter an expansion draft pool.
The Bucks, aware of Anselimo's hand injury but unclear on whether or not the center's recovery would pan out, did not retain him.
For three weeks, Anselimo didn't know if his esports career would continue. If he wasn't selected in the 2019 NBA 2K League expansion draft on Sept. 26, he would have to play his way back to the top against players from across the world, limiting his chances to make a team and continue competing.
"I just need one person or one organization, one team to believe in me, 'cause I'm gonna get past this," he said. "They could take my thumb off of my hand, and I'm gonna still be able to play."
As soon as he returned home to Riverview, Florida, he started playing, despite doctor's orders. His hand, still in a cast, and his thumb, newly reconstructed, were fragile, and operating a controller was painful. But Anselimo was determined. He was going to play, one way or another.
NBA 2K19 was released on Sept. 7, and just as he had since he first played NBA 2K5 in 2005 at 12 years old, Anselimo dove right in. The majority of his right hand remained constricted by the cast: He'd taken a bullet in his lower thumb and another to the tip of his middle finger. But his index finger was all he needed.
"I can't let the competition get ahead," he said. "I can't just lay here and watch streams while I just stay on bed rest. I had to force myself. I couldn't just be a victim. I'm stronger than that, mentally and physically."
On Sept. 26, Anselimo sat at home anxiously awaiting his fate. In offices adjacent to Quicken Loans Arena in Ohio, staff members of the Cavs Legion gathered around a table as they prepared for the NBA 2K League expansion draft. The team wouldn't have a pick that day, but the organization was looking to trade their former first-rounder, Brandon "Hood" Caicedo.
Anselimo's phone rang.
"How do you feel about coming to Cleveland?" Cavs Legion manager Anthony Muraco asked. Muraco had just traded Caicedo to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the third overall pick. Anselimo sat atop his draft board.
Anselimo said he'd leave tomorrow if the Cavs wanted him.
Anselimo met his new manager a few months ahead of the inaugural season of the NBA 2K League. Muraco had interviewed Anselimo over video chat in early 2018 as the Cavaliers evaluated the prospective players, but the Bucks picked Anselimo before Cavs Legion could draft him.
As league play began, the two kept in touch. Muraco and Anselimo spent time together after games, be it at their hotel in New York or out on the town.
When Muraco wanted to rebuild the Cavaliers' lineup, Anselimo was one of the first players who came to mind.
"Tim was ecstatic," Muraco said. "Half of it was the realization that he was still alive and that he was still able to do what he wants to do and what he loves to do. The other was that he was being put into a great situation, that we were going to support him with anything he needed: his own apartment, physical therapy through the Cleveland Clinic, a health plan, all of that stuff."
Anselimo had his second chance. He moved to Cleveland in March and began training for the second season of the NBA 2K League.
Anselimo began seeing an occupational therapist multiple times a week in Brandon, Florida, a suburb outside of his hometown. From various exercises to wraps to electronic stimulation, Anselimo's first steps toward recovery were excruciating. The surgeon fused two of Anselimo's bones in his thumb together, restricting movement that prior to the shooting was instrumental to the center competing professionally in games.
Anselimo was also shot in the middle finger on his right hand, resulting in a bone shatter at the tip, as well as tissue and nail bed loss. Anselimo didn't see on his August release forms that he was shot a fourth time, something UF Health surgeon Dr. Marc B. Kaye told ESPN in March. "[The middle finger bullet] was more of a punch and then it kept going."
Doctors told him he'll never have 100 percent function again, but for now, being capable of competing professionally was his goal. Being selected by the Cavaliers was a start.
Physical pain has been only half of his battle.
At night, Anselimo often found himself dreaming of being a victim of another shooting, running for his life once again. When at restaurants, he always sits facing the exit. And sounds such as fireworks and loud car noises easily startle him. Jacksonville left unseen scars, too.
"Obviously I try to think about that day as least as I can, but unfortunately, just the way that your brain works, it does come to mind a lot," Anselimo said. "I still suffer from, unfortunately, a fair amount of PTSD.
"Whenever I like have a bad dream and can't go back to sleep and stuff, it usually gets pretty rough. I try to just stay like away from anything like violent-related, whether it's on social or TV or Netflix. I try to watch something funny, like I'll go to any type of classic show or movie I like that's pretty funny to me and just kind of try to ease my mind off of the situation a little bit."
Since August, Anselimo has put a focus on going to the gym as a coping mechanism. In the eight months since, he has lost 60 pounds and has taken his physical health more seriously. Shrapnel still remains in Anselimo's chest, with doctors opting not to remove it for fear that they might damage him even more than the shooting did, but it doesn't worry him. It motivates him.
"Eight months ago, I thought life was over, didn't feel I had the strength to continue any goals of mine," Anselimo wrote on Instagram in April while chronicling his weight loss journey. "After months of depression and asking myself, 'why me?' I told myself it was time for a change."
Before returning to New York to compete in the regular season, Anselimo was one of 10 players invited to Austin, Texas, to compete in an exhibition match on March 16 at the South by Southwest conference, pitting NBA 2K League rookies versus veterans.
The day before, a gunman in Christchurch, New Zealand, livestreamed himself on Facebook as he killed 50 people and injured another 50. Like the shooting in Jacksonville, which was broadcasted live on Twitch, the public display of violence was intentional. At first, Anselimo wanted to cancel his trip. Again, thoughts crept in about what could happen that next day.
Anselimo decided to go, and for the first time since Season 1 of the 2K League, he set foot on stage, controller in hand, clad in a red-and-gray Cavs Legion sweatshirt and hat.
"I was pretty nervous," he said. "Overall, a lot of anxiety and a lot of trying to find my zone, to keep peace mentally and trust that I was going to be OK."
"I told you, I'm back!" Anselimo yelled across the stage at his opponents after throwing down a Eurostep dunk.
Anselimo sat back down, locked in. He was back in Long Island City at the same studio where he started an esports journey just a year ago. But this time, he had more to prove, more to work toward, a life and career to rebuild. In that moment, Anselimo got the confidence boost he needed.
He wasn't just back. Anselimo was asserting his dominance over the league.
In the background, more than a dozen of Anselimo's family members and friends sat in the stands of the NBA 2K League Studio in Queens. His mother, stepfather, brother, cousins, grandparents and others cheered him on. "o-LAR-RY!" they screamed, dominating the sound in the small studio.
Anselimo held his controller in what's known as the claw, a modified grip that replaces the thumb's function using the pointer finger. After months of practice, the alteration doesn't quite feel natural, but Anselimo feels he's just as good now as he was when he started, a sentiment echoed by his team. Cavs Legion is currently 3-3 and in the midst of a bye week, and Anselimo averages 5.7 rebounds and 10 points per game.
"He's doing, with 50 percent motor skill in his thumb, what some people can't do in a lifetime," Muraco, the Cavs Legion manager, said.
Anselimo doesn't want to be known as a victim. Jacksonville might have changed him, but he's working every single day to make his life better, whether it be on the virtual court or off of it.
As he walks down the stairs to the stage in front of a crowd of hundreds of people before each game, Anselimo remembers that he's living his dream. The lit Cavs banner, the zipping spotlights around the studio and the headset he wears are all there for a reason. This is what he's meant to do, and he's no longer taking any of it for granted.
"A lot of people would just tell me that I'm inspirational," Anselimo said. "I didn't let this defeat me."
Dale Mauldin and David Fleming contributed to this story.