NBA Jam: 25 Years Later and Still The Greatest

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My first time playing NBA Jam marked a seminal moment in my childhood. I still remember it quite vividly.

Following the recession of the early 1990s — and commensurate with the shift in ownership of resorts from mob-tied entities to corporations, as Ace Rothstein laments at the end of Casino — Las Vegas transitioned to a family-friendly image.

I grew up just a 3 1/2-hour drive away from Sin City in Northern Arizona, less than half the time it takes to reach Southern California. This new, sanitized Las Vegas promised carnival rides, midway games and arcades for kids — everything Disneyland offered at a discount, so long as no one in the family harbored a gambling problem.

Las Vegas became a no-brainer vacation destination for my family, traveling on the salaries of two public school educators. Hand my brother and I our swimming shorts and sunscreen for the pool, and a $20 bill each to spend at the arcade, and were pretty much accounted for the duration from breakfast until dinner.

I played arcade video games before first spotting NBA Jam; The Simpsons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle stand-up machines were always a blast during birthday parties at Castle Golf, my hometown’s equivalent to Golf-N-Stuff or Boomers. But neither was particularly fun without partners.

I also had a particular affinity for Street Fighter II, especially when Capcom introduced the big-screen version. However, I was often rendered a spectator, as older boys with far more experience logged at arcades dominated the machines.

NBA Jam was different. It caught my attention immediately, first, because it was basketball. My obsession with sports, basketball in particular, began around third grade. My dad coached for years and years, and by 1993, my brother was developing into a promising player. It wasn’t going to take much of a nudge to get me into the game, but the 1992 Dream Team provided the ultimate catalyst in transforming my interest into obsession.

NBA Jam first hit arcades right at a time when I was exchanging my action figures for trading cards and began memorizing stats and starting lineups.

As much as I enjoyed watching the junior high-and-high school-aged kids play Street Fighter II, or trying to figure out the controls on WWF WrestleFest, a basketball video game spoke to me in a way those others could not.

Bonus! I had a cup full of quarters, and not a soul was at the machine. Those first few moments are seared into my memory in a way similar to other pivotal moments of my life: My college graduation. My wedding day. The birth of my son.

Twenty-five years later, I the voice still echoes:

Welcome! To NBA JAM!

I chose my team: Charles Barkley and Dan Majerle. Yes, the San Antonio Spurs roster featured two of my all-time favorite NBA players — David Robinson and Sean Elliott — but at this young stage in my life, I was a blasphemous dual-fan. The first basketball game I ever attended featured Elliott at the University of Arizona (though I was too young to remember it well), and Robinson was my single favorite player, but I was committed to the local Suns, having watched as many games on the local TV-45 broadcasts with Al McCoy.

It wasn’t for another few months, after I learned Tom Chambers was being moved to the hated Utah Jazz, that my Suns fandom began to wane. But in that moment, I joined the rest of the state with Suns fever.

Perhaps it was my budding knowledge of the game that gave me an advantage. Maybe it was playing with the Barkley-Majerle tandem, which Deadspin ranked as the second-best lineup in the original NBA Jam. Beginner’s luck may have had a factor.

Whatever the reason, I was instantly good at NBA Jam in a way I had never been with any other video game. I got quite a bit of mileage out of my initial few quarters, before eventually hitting a snag on my climb up the NBA ladder.

I never did beat the Chicago Bulls in the arcade version, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. I like to think of it as my own small protest for the Bulls featuring Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, rather than Michael Jordan. Jordan owning his own branding rights instead produced Chaos in the Windy City.

For as great as he was on the court, Jordan’s video-game savvy more closely aligned with his front office acumen.

MJ or no, NBA Jam was a game-changer for me. We didn’t have an NES in our household, but Acclaim’s conversion of the Midway arcade title was the impetus for me to save chore money and purchase a Sega Genesis.

Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal were both missing from the home versions, along with Jordan. Their respective signature video game titles — Shut Up and Jam! and Shaq-Fu — were two of the worst video games I ever played.

Imagine my outrage when I learned that Shaq owned an NBA Jam stand-up cabinet he had shipped for road trips while he stuck us video game-playing youth with Shaq-Fu. 

Shaq also had a streetball game in the works, which I remember reading about in detail in an issue of SI For Kids. But after Shut Up and Jam!, the video game seemingly decided one trash streetball game bearing the name of a single NBA player was enough.

Moreover, NBA Jam had already perfected the fast-and-loose model.

The popularity of NBA Jam may have contributed to simulation titles stepping up their quality. Shortly after the home release of Jam, EA Sports expanded its former Playoffs-only titles like Bulls vs. Blazers and NBA Showdown to feature every team in the NBA, full rosters and Create-A-Player mode.

NBA Jam: Tournament Edition rode the wave of both the original NBA Jam’s popularity, as well as the growing popularity of console gaming in the mid-1990s. It featured some memorable additions, like hot-spot scoring and hidden rookie teams.

Later titles in the two-on-two genre added new bells and whistles, but never quite recaptured the magic of the original. After a split with Acclaim in which it lost the Jam branding, Midway introduced NBA Hangtime — a fun arcade game, but that lacked the charm of its predecessor.

EA’s NBA Street was a hit in college, an ideal party pregame title, but it wasn’t NBA Jam. Jam dropped in something of a Golden Age for arcade video gaming, and the boom of consoles thanks to the Sega-Nintendo war spread the game’s influence on two fronts. Friends and I would plan nights around playing both NBA Jam, and fellow Midway release Mortal Kombat II. 

NBA Jam also exuded a quality that’s difficult to quantify if you didn’t experience it firsthand. As a budding hoops junkie into that era, I could sniff fraudulence. Jam resonated in such a way that suggested the people behind the game were just as enthusiastic about basketball as I was. 

NBA Jam was a true game-changer with a cultural legacy still felt and seen today, whether through reboots of the franchise, or on clothing

That deserves a hearty Boomshakalaka. 

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