I’ve spent a lot of time writing about baseball games these last couple of months. It’s only natural. Baseball is my favorite sport after all. I don’t feel like I’m doing anyone a disservice by writing solely about baseball, but a little variety now and then can’t hurt.

Basketball is not my game. I tried playing it when I was a kid and found that my two main skills, free throw shooting and fouling other players, weren’t a recipe for a star hoopster. Subsequently, I only enjoyed it when winning or losing didn’t matter to anyone involved. I loved playing 21 and horse during PE in both elementary and high school and to this day still love the idea of just shooting a ball around, not that I ever do. At the end of the day basketball is just a fun game that I can’t take seriously. At least I can’t take it seriously enough to watch others play.

That’s why I love NBA Jam.

It’s a basketball game that doesn’t take the sport seriously. While winning and losing may be a personal matter within the game, there’s no season riding on it. There are no teammates to ridicule or be ridiculed in the locker room after a blowout loss. There isn’t a shred of remorse or hurt feelings when a game is over. Just another couple of coins dumped into the slot. There have been several games released with the NBA Jam name, and many more similar games of varying quality under different titles. All hipster douchebaggary aside, the original arcade cabinet is still the best version available if you can find a place that has one. It had balanced teams and it just sounds and feels right. Plus it had Shaq and Barkley so there.

When you play NBA Jam on the original arcade cabinet, you are playing a caricature of one of the most exciting and storied times in basketball history. It was a time when old greats faced off against young new stars, new dynasties were being formed as old standbys crumbled, the NBA was taking chances by drafting new talent from Europe and for the first time sent its top stars up against the increasingly tough talent in the Olympic games. That’s not even mentioning that Micheal Jordan had just forced his name into the world’s collective consciousness, whether they liked it or not, by winning his third consecutive championship ring and five MVP awards in the process. (Two regular season, three finals.)

So why is NBA Jam still such a popular game? How has it endeared itself to so many fans? What’s the magic? What’s the trick? The gimmick? What’s the secret?

For one, it’s fast. The 3 minute quarters blink past without a care. It’s really a testament to how great a game is when people don’t even realize they are being duped into dumping extra coins in a game due to a fast counting clock. Then there’s the gameplay. Through all the shoving, turbo passes, flaming dunks, and shattered glass you don’t even realize how much time really goes by or how many games you’ve played. You put in your first quarter, you play, you look up and your pockets no longer jingle and its been three hours. What the hell?

Another reason people like NBA Jam is the flamboyantly comical art style and presentation. Between the static player photographs put on what seems to be a single body that is repeatedly pallet swapped and re-sized, and commentary provided by Tim Kitzrow it’s hard not to smile while you watch and listen to the game. Everything is so over the top that there’s no room for rational basketball rules. I mean, how do you call a foul in a game where you can set the net on fire with a dunk? How could you allow the game to stop just because the ball goes out of bounds when any given player jumps higher than the rim? You just can’t. It’s an arcade sports game at its core and NBA Jam does it so right, there’s no way to really improve it. Even the newest version on the Wii, PSN, and Xbox Live is just the same game with updated rosters and visuals.

There is, however, an underlying theory as to why people love NBA Jam. One that is buried within the confines of sports history and the evaluation of what was happening in basketball between 1991 and 1993. The 1980’s were a period of rising popularity for professional basketball. Starting in 1979 when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the league, star player after star player emerged culminating in a virtual renaissance in the NBA. The 80’s saw the retirement of some of the game’s most storied players including Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Julius Irving, and Walt Frazier. But while these greats were taking a seat players like James Worthy, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullen, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Micheal Jordan were easily making names for themselves in a sport that was fast becoming a contender for the worlds most popular sport. Basketball was clearly evolving and it would take a loss on the world’s stage for America to understand just how far the sport had come.

In 1988 the US men’s basketball team finished third in the Olympics. Third. They lost to Russia and Yugoslavia. What was happening? All the time the US was sending college kids to play in the Olympics in basketball the rest of the world was sending its best players to compete and they were getting better every year. The best players from the United States were in the NBA and weren’t allowed to play in the games due to their professional status. In effect, that gave the US a huge disadvantage. Sure nine of the players on the Russian and Yugoslavian teams that beat the American team ended up playing for the NBA at some point and with varying success, you may remember Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, and Drazen Petrovic, but that was no excuse. So in 1989 when the worlds governing body over international basketball, the FIBA, decided it was cool to allow professional players to compete the stage was set for something crazy to happen.

The 1992 US men’s basketball team featured eleven NBA players and one guy from Duke (pfft they couldn’t get one more?). Not only did they tear up the world qualifying tournaments, beating the six teams they played by an average of 52 points, but they flew through the Olympics with ease. They averaged 117 points per game and beat the opposition by an average of 44 points per game to win the gold medal that year. It was a great moment in sports history and The Dream Team is one of only eight complete teams to be elected to the basketball hall of fame. Combine that with basketball’s general rising popularity and you have a country ready to eat up anything basketball related. NBA Jam couldn’t possibly fail in at atmosphere like that.

NBA Jam represents a time in sports history where everything was on an upswing and a time in video game history when new avenues of game development were being explored. These two elements combined to bring about a classic game that painted a bombastic and flashy picture of American culture. One that I dearly miss and has yet to be matched.

Stay tuned for part two, The ghosts of Reggie Lewis and Drazen Petrovic.

Boomshakalaka.

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