The zone. That semimythical place that all athletes strive night in and night out to reach. When LeBron James went off for a career-high 61 points against the Charlotte Bobcats recently, he said, “It felt like I had a golf ball, throwing it into the ocean.”
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Chase Budinger knows a thing or two about that feeling, and the pressure that comes along with it.
“When I was playing,” he says, “I was getting close to my other high and once I finally beat it by 10 or something, then I was able to relax a little bit and just keep going. Once you’re past it, the pressure goes away. The pressure is in getting close.”
Just how far did Budinger sail past his previous career high? He nearly doubled it, finishing with an unfathomable 327 points.
In Flappy Bird.
The mobile game sensation might have been taken down from the iTunes App Store and Google Play, but that hasn’t stopped it from consuming nearly the entire Timberwolves’ locker room. Budinger is at the top of the team leaderboard right now, and by a mile.
"Ricky [Rubio] is second," explains Ronny Turiaf, who brought the game to the team and seems to be the makeshift commissioner of the Wolves’ Flappy Bird league. "He has 187, and I’m third. I got 113."
Though Turiaf’s quest for second recently turned tragic. "Two days ago I was at 112 and one of my friends texted me and he made me lose,” he says. “So I told him that right now I’m not very happy with my friendship with him."
Budinger will be difficult to top; he has a deep yet nuanced understanding of the game and what it takes to win. "All you do is tap the screen," he says. "The bird flaps and you gotta go through tunnels. The way to do best at that game is you need to be somewhere alone and quiet. I think on the plane is a good time to play. Or on the bus, even though you’re moving a little bit."
"Right now," says Turiaf, "Chase is claiming that when you play without the sound, it helps you get better."
Apparently, there’s one player who needs to put it on vibrate. Asked who on the team is the worst, Turiaf replies, "By far, and I mean by far: Corey Brewer."
"I think his high is six," Budinger says.
Brewer, trotting through the locker room behind Budinger, growls, "Get off me, man. I got seven. Seven's my high."
"I kinda gave up when the scores starting getting to over a hundred," Robbie Hummel says. "Because I’m never going to get that. I was, like, 48. And at the start, that was in the mix. I stopped playing because I got so far out of the competition."
But even those who are out of contention keep tabs on the contest, which everyone says has been a source of excitement during a largely disappointing season for Minnesota. "It's fun when everybody's on the same page and playing and competing against each other," Rubio says.
As in any competition, though, accusations of impropriety are bound to surface from time to time. Photoshopped high scores were rampant on the Internet at Flappy Bird’s height, but Budinger insists everything's on the level within the Wolves organization.
“I tried to cheat and take a picture from the Internet, but they wouldn't believe it,” Rubio confirms. “I just have to practice,” he says.
Turiaf is more concerned that Budinger has been juicing, so to speak. “He plays on a different phone. He plays on a Samsung, I play on an iPhone,” he says. That gives him an advantage? “Ricky and I feel like it does, because his phone is bigger. Bigger resolution, so we feel like he has an advantage.”
Although creator Dong Nguyen recently told Rolling Stone that he’d consider bringing the game back, right now there’s no way for Turiaf and Rubio to upgrade to a Flappy Bird-equipped Samsung.
“Unless Samsung wants to call me right now,” Turiaf says. “This is me just trying to let them know that I'm looking for a Samsung, so if they want [me] to do any kind of appearance, all they have to do is just call me up and I'd be more than happy to do something with them. Hello, Samsung! Hello! Hi! I'm available, and I’m not expensive.”
Just don’t call him while he’s playing Flappy Bird.