Participating in “the biggest reality series ever” changed Stukes’ life.
Northern New Mexico College Men’s/Women’s Assistant Basketball Coach Tj Stukes is no stranger to the entertainment industry. Stukes played more than 1,300 games as a pro for the Harlem Wizards for 12 years. He has been a contestant on “The Cube,” appeared in “Hustle,” “Valentine’s Date,” “Chicago PD” and in commercials for Lowe’s, Verizon and Adidas. But being a contestant on the Netflix reality show, “Squid Game: The Challenge,” tops all that.
“I will tell you that this was an experience that I thought I had achieved,” Stukes said. “I’ve been on multiple Netflix movies and TV shows. I’ve been on game shows. I’ve been in web series. And this is by far the biggest thing I’ve ever done, head-over-heals, 110 percent.”
“The Challenge” is based on Netflix most popular show, “Squid Game,” which had 1.65 billion hours viewed in its first 28 days and has now reached 2.1 billion total hours watched by subscribers around the world. The No. 2 most popular title, “Bridgerton,” had just 625 million hours watched in the first month.
Contestants compete in a series of children’s games such as Red Light/Green Light and Marbles. In the TV series, succeeding in each challenge is literally a matter of life or death.
“The Challenge” has 456 contestants (as did the series) who compete for a $4.56 million prize. Netflix is marketing the show as “the biggest reality series ever with the biggest prize ever.” The first installment of the 10-episode series airs Nov. 22, 2023.
Stukes initially ignored announcements recruiting players for the reality show. But when he saw a tweet that read, “This is the last day and the last hour to apply,” he decided to do it. He had a call from the production staff 20 minutes later.
“After that it was whirlwind,” Stukes said. “We filmed in London, and I was cut off from the world, literally. No phone, no watch, no internet, no TV, no anything. It was just me and 456 other people from 35 countries around the world. And we were literally locked in a set.”
Competing in the reality show pushed Stukes to his limit.
“It’s called “The Challenge” for a reason. That whole experience challenged me further than I’ve ever been challenged in anything I’ve ever done. I played pro for 20 years, and I’ve pushed myself over and over and over again to smash through my ceiling,” Stukes said. “This was the furthest I’ve ever pushed myself in anything I’ve ever done in my entire life. Just that first game I curse myself out maybe thousands of times. Pushing myself and hitting that ceiling face first and then smashing through it over and over again, over and over again, in just the first game.”
According to Stukes, the reality show follows the TV show in many ways, but also throws in some curveballs to set it apart from the series. He said the production is huge.
“It wasn’t superglue and tape. It’s going to blow people’s minds, like it blew ours, because it was very, very, very grand,” Stukes said. “And the staff were phenomenal. They had to deal with 456 people, and they were outnumbered maybe eight or 10 to one. They helped us at every turn. They were courteous and thoughtful and they did all they could.”
As in the TV show, contestants were given only minimal amounts of food during the four and a half weeks of filming. Stukes went in at 255 pounds and came out 221 pounds.
“I came home, I looked at that plate of food that was made for me and I literally cried,” Stukes said. “I was trying to hold it in, but I was just bawling, because it was food.”
The physical challenges were the least of it for Stukes.
“Physically, I’m 6’8”, 250 and I’m ready for anything. But emotionally, mentally, that whole experience pushed me to a level that I never knew. And I thought I knew myself,” Stukes said. “The only thing that could have prepared me for this reality show is life, literally. Like losing people, dealing with that sadness, being empathetic, being sympathetic, and being vulnerable. That was my strength the entire time in the reality show. That was my superpower, being vulnerable and opening up to people, genuinely.”
Stukes said he’s never been afraid of taking chances, “because the worst thing that can happen is you fail but you get back up.” He put himself in the lead many times on the show because he was not scared.
“However, I was a fearless listener, too. I listened to a lot of people. I got to know people, because we were cut off from the world and all we had was each other,” Stukes said. “With basketball, you have to get to know the person next to you. And I got to know the people next to me, whether it was bad or good, and saw the ugliness of humanity and the beauty of humanity on that show many times. You can succumb to the ugliness or rise and see the beauty. And I rose to see the beauty of many. I didn’t allow the negativity to get to me.”
Stukes said he made some amazing relationships.
“Once people watch it, I hope they can appreciate what we went through,” Stukes said. “I say what ‘we’ went through because as much as it’s an individual thing, it wasn’t, at the same time. We made bonds there that are going to be timeless.
“Just to put the realization of how intense this whole experience was, it completely changed my outlook on life. 180. It made me appreciate what I did have and appreciate also what I don’t have. I’m glad to say that I represented the people around me with honor, with respect and humility.”
Stukes can’t wait for the world to see the show. He hopes being on the biggest reality show in the world opens doors for him to help other people. “Maybe I can reach people or inspire people, because most of my life that’s what I’ve been doing on a small scale.”
The show premiers Nov. 22 in all 75 Netflix territories (more than80 countries). People can view the official trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O61C8zc8Znk.
“As people anxiously wait for Season 2 of the TV show, this is going to be their fix,” Stukes said. “I promise you, this is going to be for the ages.”