Rep after rep, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis bounce the ball back and forth with each other—until finally, Ulis picks his spot and makes his move. He has, unknowingly, set the stage for Booker, who darts forward to take the lead, as instinct and precision culminate in a single moment.
These teammates and best friends form the backcourt of the emerging—and very young—Phoenix Suns. But right now, they aren't soaring in transition. In fact, neither is even holding a basketball.
They're playing pingpong.
Here in Booker's apartment, backdropped by a series of his framed jerseys, neither Booker nor Ulis is letting up. Then Booker goes in for the win, his paddle pounding the ball, escaping Ulis' return with breakneck speed. The champion flexes and unleashes a gleeful roar, living up to his jersey number.
You could say he won the match, except that Ulis doesn't let Booker keep score in games he's better at.
"Competitive," according to Ulis, is the word that describes Booker best. "Doesn't matter what it is. If he flips a coin heads or tails, could he really be upset about losing? It'll ruin his whole night. It's hilarious. He'll just go to the back of his room and pout."
Their connection stretches far beyond table tennis. Booker, a second-year shooting guard, and Ulis, a rookie point guard, have been tight since middle school. From underrated high school prospects who made unconventional sacrifices to garner notice, to fighting for minutes on the loaded 38-1 Kentucky Wildcats, Booker, 20, and Ulis, 21, are bound by shared experiences and by living in the same apartment complex 15 minutes outside of Phoenix.
They don't live together, but they might as well. Despite having separate pads, Booker and Ulis operate like roommates, with Ulis dropping by Booker's place for bourre battles and pizza dinners. Barely legal, the rising Suns recently showed off their own kind of side hustle: down-home fun.
The Great Escape
Find yourself someone to break the rules with, and you've found a friend for life. That's true for Booker and Ulis, whose first bout as teammates was in middle school, when they participated in the Nike Elite 100 camp in St. Louis. On the final day of camp, stir-crazy and feeling rebellious, Ulis, Booker and teammate D'Angelo Russell sneaked out of their dorms.
As they tell it, each floor was patrolled by security, so they avoided the elevators and made a beeline to the staircase. They sneaked to the bottom floor and propped the door open so that it wouldn't lock behind them. Then, they made a run for it. The exhilaration of slipping out was short-lived, though. They soon discovered there wasn't much for middle schoolers to do in the dead of night in St. Louis. They ended up buying slushies at a nearby gas station, walking back to camp, laughing and reveling in their escape.
"It was the thrill of sneaking out that got us," Booker recalls. Ulis, who used to dress up every Halloween as Will Smith's character in Wild Wild West—U.S. Army Captain James West—had finally embarked on his first covert scheme, which solidified a bond between the two. "It was really just about sneaking out, being able to do it. That helped build the friendship, both sneaking out, not one person being scared to do it," Ulis says.
Since then, Booker and Ulis have transitioned into homebodies. Booker can usually be found reclined on his black leather sofa, gripping a controller and staring at a game of NBA 2K17 on the TV screen. Next to the television, a custom portrait of Michael Jordan hangs on the wall. His Airness superimposed against his monologue in Nike's famed "Failure" commercial is Booker's motivation for all things he tackles, including Call of Duty and 2K, in which he rarely chooses his own character.
Everything I do, I talk trash. I wanna win, so I just try to get in people's heads. It usually works. I'm at my best when I'm talking. — DEVIN BOOKER
"It's crazy," he laughs, "because my whole life I always imagined myself being on a video game. Now that I'm on there I don't really play with myself much. I get frustrated sometimes. You feel like you can do more in real life than they let you do in the video game." Instead, he elects to run with Damian Lillard or James Harden.
Ulis, on the other hand, has a general aversion toward video games, but he wiped the dust off his controller and played with his character for a week straight when the game was released. While Ulis isn't a certified gamer, he does enjoy watching Booker do his thing. "When he plays, he does talk a lot, so there's a very entertaining side of it," Ulis says.
Booker doesn't shy away from the observation. "Everything I do, I talk trash. I wanna win, so I just try to get in people's heads. It usually works. I'm at my best when I'm talking. When I'm sitting there silent, I feel like I'm not at my best."
Ulis sits beside Booker, a "TRAP GOD 1017" T-shirt, referencing Gucci Mane's mixtape, hanging off his 5'9" frame. "When I was growing up, he was my favorite rapper. I'm an old Gucci fan. New Gucci, I don't know. I don't know too much about him right now."
When Ulis isn't in the mood for spectating, he'll leave Booker to his gaming obsession and head to Booker's bedroom to listen to music—Chicagoan rappers like G Herbo and King Louie dominate his current playlist—or power up Netflix. Ulis recently finished watching Pretty Little Liars. Figuring out the true identity of "A," he thought, was weird.
Views From The 480
If an unidentified flying object ever obstructs your view of the Phoenix skyline, call your local NBA star. When he's not gripping the controller, Booker's fingertips can be found at the controls of a DJI Phantom 4 drone—a gift from Brandon Knight—that he uses to take shots of the cityscape.
Visible from his balcony, past the endless strip malls and parking lots, the desert shrubs and interstate highways connecting each suburb, lies his favorite thing about Phoenix—the mountain views. "Being able to wake up to that every morning is a blessing. When I was choosing where I was going to live, the view is what sold me. All my friends that come over from out of town, that's the first thing I show them."
There are times he drags Ulis out to fly the drone, even though, as Booker puts it, "he's not really an outdoors guy."
This summer, the Suns embraced the local culture and trekked to the summit of Piestewa Peak, a 2,600-foot mountain, embarking on a difficult trail that raises hikers nearly 1,200 feet. "It was something I said I'd never do when I got to Phoenix," Booker admits. "But once you actually get there, the feeling of accomplishment, the view, being able to see a 360-degree view of the whole city, there's nothing like it."
There comes a moment when every elite prospect realizes growth rarely happens in comfort zones. Prior to his sophomore season of high school, Booker stepped out of his. His father, former professional basketball player Melvin Booker, sensed in his son a special ability and offered him a career-making opportunity: If Devin were willing to move to Mississippi, his father would cut his overseas career short to train him. But he would have to leave Grand Rapids, Michigan, his lifelong home, his mother and his friends as well as a recruiting market in which he was already well-regarded.
Around the same time, Ulis was tearing up the neighborhood circuit in Lima, Ohio. But with a population of just 38,000, no level of domination could move the needle for his NBA chances. His father, James Ulis, a district store manager for Nike, lived in Chicago, though, and Tyler opted to move in with him.
We had to keep our hands clean. … We missed out on what? Maybe parties, going out with friends, having a little extra fun but not anything that really matters. — TYLER ULIS
And so, as teenagers, both Booker and Ulis left safe umbrellas of familiarity to test the unfamiliar, to isolate themselves from distractions and focus solely on their crafts.
"Moving was a big decision," Ulis says. "I had to go play in a bigger market to get my name out there, and Chicago is the best place to do it." Among top recruits like Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor, Ulis played himself into becoming a 5-star prospect.
"People say we're the same person," Booker says. "We do have the same story, moving with our dads from living with our moms and leaving our childhood friends. That's what triggered our friendship—having the same goal and trying to compete at camp. Some kids are there because they've been good their whole lives. But me and Tyler were there with a point to prove."
The experience alone couldn't have prepared them for the constant grind of the NBA, Ulis says, but those early sacrifices helped prime them for the low-key lifestyle they live in Arizona.
"We had to keep our hands clean," Ulis says, "basically grow up at an early age, because of who we were and who we were trying to become. We never wanted to jeopardize that in any way. We missed out on what? Maybe parties, going out with friends, having a little extra fun but not anything that really matters."
Despite million-dollar contracts and heightened visibility, Booker and Ulis are not the stereotypical club-all-night dudes. They each value the responsibilities that come with being a pro. "I feel like a grown man sometimes," Booker says. "I'm around my friends that are still in college and I feel so much more mature because I have so much more responsibility than them right now."
Ulis is the older of the two, having turned 21 in January. But he considers himself de facto underage until Booker's birthday. Escapades in Vegas, bar-hopping in Phoenix—all that can wait. "If there's places he can't go, then we don't like those places," Ulis says. For now, the stand-up comedy of Kevin Hart and Katt Williams or—if Ulis is picking—the filmography of Denzel Washington will tide them over.
Zero To 100
There are moments, whether at dinner at Mastro's Steakhouse (Ulis' favorite restaurant) or cruising together in the city, when the absurd serendipity of their lives snaps into focus. "It's crazy how this worked out," Ulis says. "There's no way we're on the same NBA team."
But good fortune allows one to view every moment that led up to it—even the sad ones—with rose-colored glasses. Take a late-night conversation at the zenith of Kentucky's 38-1 season that he recalls, oddly enough, when asked to tell a funny story.
Everybody, including Booker and Ulis, was firing on all cylinders. It felt like they could never lose. Why, then, was the fiery point guard moping around?
"What's wrong?" Booker remembers asking Ulis, who was his roommate. "We just won a game. We both played well."
"You're about to leave me next year," Ulis said. "Aren't you?"
It's crazy how this worked out. There's no way we're on the same NBA team. — TYLER ULIS
Booker's name was rocketing up mock draft boards. Declaring entry into the NBA draft—being a one-and-done athlete—was looking like a real possibility. In truth, Ulis was equal parts sad and elated. "He was telling me to go," says Booker, whom the Suns drafted with the 13th pick in 2015.
In that moment, the two were merely best friends coming to terms with charting separate courses. They couldn't have fathomed the awe of what was coming next—milestones like stepping out under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden in NBA uniforms or the fact that Drake, hip-hop's gatekeeper for athletic admiration, would ask Booker for his jersey so the rapper could rock it at a show in Phoenix.
"He kept saying he was gonna wear it at halftime. I thought it was intermission time or something," Booker says. "But he came out in it to start [the concert], and it just caught me way off guard. This new era of rap that's coming up, I always listen to. Migos and Lil Uzi and 21 Savage, but lyrically, I think Drake and Jay Z are the best at it," Booker says. "That was a big moment in my life."
Back on that night in Kentucky, Booker and Ulis couldn't have imagined they'd be enjoying such spoils of success together. Booker remembers ending the conversation that night by telling Ulis he would see him next year in the league.
On June 14, 2016, just nine days before draft night, a report from Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler claimed Ulis suffered from significant hip issues and could need surgery down the road. Ulis denied the report, but it caused his draft stock to plummet. "I was upset most of draft night," Ulis says now. "I was falling so much."
In the lead-up to the draft, Booker, looking after his friend as he always has, took every opportunity to pitch Ulis to Suns general manager Ryan McDonough. But when Phoenix traded the 13th and 28th picks and snagged Marquese Chriss, Booker assumed his dreams of reuniting with his backcourt partner were shot. Things grew more agonizing as the night progressed: The first round ended, and Ulis was still on the board.
"Once we dropped past that," Booker recounts, "we're like, man, we don't know what's going to happen."
That's when Booker got a call from McDonough. The Suns brass couldn't believe how far the floor general had dropped—he was much higher on their internal mock draft board, and they saw him as a steal in the second round. With the 34th pick in the draft, McDonough informed Booker the Suns chose Ulis. Booker's prediction of hooping in the NBA with Ulis came true that night. But Booker didn't imagine it would play out like this.
"I thought I'd be playing against him, not with him," Booker says, "It's crazy how that worked out."
Seerat Sohi is a freelance writer who has been published at ESPN, Sports on Earth and the Triangle Offense. Follow her on Twitter @DamianTrillard.