This is a story about the new NBA Jam for the Nintendo Wii. It is also a story about the 1990s, the NBA's waning cultural cachet, Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, Asian-Jewish relations, Roenick in NHL '94, nostalgia, and God.
Why Did They Do This To Us?
What or where, exactly, is the NBA in 2010? Teams recycle their worst jerseys for nationally televised games. Everyone's shoe is a re-issue. Kobe and Rondo do the Dream Shake while the rest of the league warms up to a modern version of a Doug E. Fresh song. In Milwaukee, Brandon Jennings has usurped the high-top-fade revival started by Brandon Rush. Half the league has worn No. 23 at some point in their careers.
When any cultural institution hits this sort of self-referential skid, it almost always means that the form has died. As David Berman of the Silver Jews said, "Punk rock died when the first kid said, ‘Punk's not dead. Punk's not dead." Hip-hop died when Nas turned it into Schrödinger's cat. The NBA has been blessed with several lives, but I don't think it's a stretch to say that the league's lack of any current identity — the endless self-referencing, the cannibalization of its greatest star since Jordan — might signal the beginning of the game's final chapter as a relevant American sport.
Consider the two basketball video games for the 2010-2011 season. For the first time in its history, the 2K Sports series released a game with a retired player on the cover. Instead of hyping up the changes to the game play, which are significant and welcome, the game's designers chose instead to create something called the Jordan Challenge, in which the player can try to recreate MJ's greatest moments. That same day, EA Sports released its much-hyped remake of NBA Jam. A cultural touchstone for at least two generations of gamers, the format of the original arcade version—two-on-two superhuman basketball—has been filtered out through succeeding generations of shitty "urban" games. In many ways, the decline of the league from the Jordan Era can be explained by what happened when NBA Jam became NBA Ballers—while the former was about turning NBA players into superheroes on the court, the latter was geared toward accumulating wealth, buying rims for cars, and flat-screen TVs. Even though there were only two players per side, the concept of the team was paramount in NBA Jam and the players in those games were inextricably tied to their partners. Brad Lohaus and Blue Edwards will always be linked together in my mind, as will Charles Barkley and Thunder Dan Majerle, and Wayman Tisdale and Spud Webb. NBA Ballers, on the other hand, was about grinding up levels as an individual, accumulating different "moves," which can then be used to purchase luxury items. It's too depressing and bad and misguided and offensive to even really discuss, but it's where we find ourselves in 2010, and we have no choice but to embrace the return of the old superhuman basketball — even if it's inherently problematic for the NBA.