In spite of everyone’s best efforts, professional basketball started yesterday. This is a noteworthy year for the NBA, but not because it is strike shortened. Even a casual fan such as myself remembers that the last lockout was only in 1999 (Spurs rule!). No, this year is noteworthy because, with Shaq’s retirement, NBA Jam Tournament Edition no longer features any current NBA players.
Until this year it was still possible to watch Shaq O’Neal hobble up the court wearing a Celtics jersey of all things, then turn on your Super Nintendo, where Penny Hardaway passes to a young Orlando Magic Shaq, who scores by soaring through the air in a flaming, multiple-flip dunk. No more.
It is worth noting that certain versions of the game feature Grant Hill on the “Rookie Team,” and apparently like many elderly people Grant Hill is in Phoenix these days. Grant Hill, like his baseball counterpart Ken Griffey Jr., was once a young, affable, talented athlete, whose career was plagued by injuries and who never really made good on his vast potential. They didn’t burn out, they faded away.
NBA wasn’t the first basketball video game, but it was one of the first feature real NBA teams and players, albeit with notable exceptions. Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan controlled the rights to their own names and had their own video games.
Jordan or no, NBA Jam’s impact is hard to overstate. While some basketball purists may deride its obsession with amazing slam dunks, it actually contributed to many a young man’s love of basketball. To wit, it was the first time that many of us had heard the phrase “Boomshakalaka,” which is now pretty much ubiquitous. The 2-on-2 format rendered running the Triangle offense impossible, but with only 4 players on the court, attributes such as one’s ability to do soaring dunks (or merely puny lay-ups) were well-defined. And to be fair, sometimes going for a really elaborate slam dunk came at the expense of actually getting the points, as while you were spinning through the air–flash bulbs popping–the other team was getting in position under the rim for a block. Also–and this seemed to happen all the time as a kid–if your player was needlessly showboating as the quarter or game ends, tough. A super dunk, when a mere jump shot would do, can cost you a game.
The background, like every depiction of a crowd on Super Nintendo and its generational companions, is pretty amusing but not very good. The announcer is the most remembered sound effect for a good reason. But there are small, loving touches even in the crowd: an anti-smoking ad at the scoring table, the way they raise their hands in solidarity, and the lack of a home team or away team bias.
And as a game, NBA Jam is simple but fully realized. With merely three controls, you can shoot, pass, block, shove, and steal. Shooting is fairly nuanced–open and turbo-assisted shots go in more frequently than ones with opposing players in your face–but can still be frustratingly arbitrary. Also, as much as the programmers at Midway tried to create a 3D environment, both your avatar and the ball are always the same size (regardless of distance), making depth-perception heavy activities like rebounding or chasing a loose ball nearly impossible.
NBA Jam, and the Tournament Edition in particular, are emblematic of a certain school of thought for sports video games–that for some reason didn’t work out in NFL Blitz–namely that one need not be beholden to rules of the sports or physics. A video game is subject to video game rules, sports or no.
Midway is now defunct, but EA Sports bought the rights to Jam, and brought it back in 2010, this time for Wii. I haven’t played it, but the Wii seems like a natural fit for Jam. It is a system based around fun, reality be damned.
But my interest in video games has likely peaked with the Tournament Edition back in 1994. The fact that all the players depicted in the game are now gone serves only as a reminder of how much time has passed.
The career arc of athletes is so brief within the scheme of life. I remember having a Green Bay Packers poster featuring Dorsey Levens, Antonio Freeman, Robert Brooks, Vonnie Holiday and Brett Favre that was dated almost immediately upon printing. One by one the players were traded, injured, left football due to a scandal involving minors and a hot tub, etc etc.
Sports stars, particularly if you’re an on again off again fan like myself, are sort of like your pets. They age so fast. Watching Shaq struggle up the floor against the Heat (to whom the Celtics would eventually lose) was not only a bummer for me, I remember it bummed out Magic Johnson who mentioned it in the post-game. Shaq was a young upstart once, taking over the league after Jordan left. Favre was a young upstart once, taking the mantle from Steve Young and Troy Aikman–although oddly John Elway out-dueled Favre in a Super Bowl, seemingly in a time warp since Elway seems to belong to the 80s and early 90s, having once lost to Joe Montana early in his career as a young upstart.
Its why we need the Simpsons to go off the air, and we need Pavement to be broken up and why it’s a good thing that the Bears didn’t call Favre. We can’t be nostalgic about the 90s if they don’t go away. It has been a decade.
Let it go.
So thanks for the memories, Shaq. I look forward to your talk show.