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.
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.
The video game industry, which is almost always a few years ahead of the curve, understands that the league, as a product, is kinda broken, at least here in America. The only workable option is to recycle and rebrand until the public runs out of nostalgia. What does it say about the modern NBA, after all, that the two biggest video-game releases are expressly designed to transport you to the 1990s?
It says: The NBA's not dead, man. The NBA's not dead.
On Tuesday, Oct. 5, I borrowed my friend's Wii and bought the new NBA Jam. At 6:42 p.m. on Oct. 12, I put down my Wii remote, having led Bird and McHale to their 37th straight win in Campaign Mode. When one decides to play a video game for a week straight, mostly by oneself, it is important to set goals and keep a greater, preferably spiritual purpose in mind.
We'll get to mine in a moment. But first, let's talk about stiffs. One of the many appeals of the original was the barbershop-style discussion it would invariably inspire. It helped that the game was played in an arcade, where guys could stand around and yell at one another about who sucks and who doesn't, and what Gary Payton makes, and why the game is cheating for the white guy, and why Tim Hardaway isn't ever given his proper respect. In such a context, stiffs were vitally important as comic relief. The designers of the new version knew they had to evoke the same smirking disbelief that we registered years ago when we watched, say, Rony Seikaly helicoptering and somersaulting above the basket. They knew we needed stiffs.
Which brings us to Bryant "Big Country" Reeves.
Luckily for me, Kotaku published a list of unlockable players before the game's release, and it took only one quick scan for me to find what I needed. Buried deep down on the list, in the Grizzlies section, was the following note. "Unlock Bryant Big Country Reeves: Win 100 games."
My mission was clear. I would win 100 games. I would explore this world of familiar-but-new dunking simulacra. I would make a pilgrimage to Big Country.
LOOK AND FEEL: It's hard to find any fault with what EA did with the game's presentation, especially given the exhausting need to pander to the nostalgics and the Wii's limitations. The graphics are updated, but still have funny nods to the old game. The music is still repetitive and awful. The intro screen and team select page are prettier, sure, but they are still easy to navigate. It's clear each detail was discussed, argued, improved upon, and then subsequently shaved back whenever it jibed too much with the feel of the original game.
The best decision the designers made, though, was to keep the old game's extreme depth perception problem, which turns the simple act of grabbing a rebound into a game of binocular soccer. Games like NBA Jam work best, I think, when they inspire debates between players about who most deserves the grace of God. The best way to achieve this effect is to make part of the game absolutely arbitrary and frustrating. In the Madden franchise, that used to mean lots of fumbling and false start. In NBA Jam, it's binocular-soccer rebounding.
Here's a transcript of a conversation I had with one of my fellow travelers. He is a Jew. I am an Asian. Please forgive the language.
"What the fuck, dude. How did you get that rebound? The ball was on the other side of the fucking court."
"Clearly, it wasn't."
"Clearly, it wasn't? Why do you sound like such an asshole?"
"Quit your bitching."
"Rick Sanchez was right,. What is this Jew control over video games? Stop making it cheat for you."
"I feel the need to point out the irony of an Asian man discussing Jewish conspiracies to control a video game company based in Japan. They put in Yi Jianlian, but not Casspi! I mean, Jason Thompson is on the Kings squad. They couldn't throw us a bone and replace him with Casspi?"
"I knew this Jewish girl in high school who had the last name Love. Do you think Kevin Love is part Jewish?"
"You are too dumb for words."
Sports video games are not complete without these sorts of exchanges. How else do we question God?
Wii CONTROL: Again, the game's designers did a wonderful job incorporating the feel of the old game with some fun, but not overly complicated Wii remote motions.
To shoot, you lift the Wii remote up to jump and then snap it back down to release the ball. It takes a couple of runs to get the hang of it (the tutorial is worthless), but after only a few tries, it begins to feel natural and you stop thinking, "Oh shit, how do I shoot again?" The rest of the game is controlled by buttons, but the placement and the responsiveness of the shooting motion make for a faster-paced, more fluid game.
CROSSOVERS AND SPINS: Along with the fun-to-use shooting motion, there is now a crossover button and a spin-move button. Of all the new features in the game itself, these are by far the most welcome and evolutionary. In the old version, small guys could always get stopped by a big posting up around the free throw line. If the small shot a three, the big could jump and block it. If the small ran into the lane, the big would just swat any lame dunk attempt. The crossover button now allows guys like Rondo, Chris Paul, and Deron Williams to get by bigger defenders. On particularly nasty crossovers, the defender will actually fall down.
NEW GAME MODES: There are several new game modes, all of which are tedious and pointless. 21 was an interesting idea, I guess, but it plays like the old Doctor J Versus Bird game I had on my Apple IIe. Smash, a fighting style game in which each team has to break the other team's backboard, is as much fun as playing Mortal Kombat on a controller with only one working button.
All these game modes are played on a glowing black court. Apparently, the game designers did not learn the lesson from midnight disco bowling: just turning down the lights, painting shit neon, and playing ABBA will not magically turn bowling into something better. Only beer and tranquilizers can do that.
As was true in the first game, each player's attributes are mostly worthless, as the designers have emphasized team parity at the expense of individual accuracy. In the new NBA Jam, Stephen Jackson and John Wall have the same speed rating. Kevin McHale is stronger than Dwight Howard. The inaccuracies abound, but they are mostly immaterial— nobody who plays NBA Jam ever looks at those little numbers, and the choices we make are never guided by the actual video game strength of a particular player.
Instead, our choices of players and teams are informed entirely by our own perceptions and projections of the NBA itself. For example, let's say Allen Iverson was completely useless in some hypothetical version NBA Jam and was flanked by Tyrone Hill or Eric Snow, and let's say that Deron Williams had 10s across the board and was paired with a dead-eye Kyle Korver. Would you ever choose Williams/Korver over Iverson/T.Hill? I suppose that question is directed at people who have souls and don't live in Utah.
So, what do we actually care about? What makes one NBA Jam character better than the next guy? Why do we still wax nostalgic over Shawn Kemp and Grandmama?
After hours of breaking down film, we came up with the following four categories.
1. THE DUDE IS A FORCE OF NATURE
Unlike its predecessors, which clunkily tried to approximate the game of basketball, the creators of the original NBA Jam understood that our fascination with basketball does not come from the game itself, but from how its best practitioners could occasionally transcend the limits of the human body. We can hem and haw about fundamentals and bounce passes all we want, but the engine of the game runs on dunks, no-look passes, and unbelievable shooting accuracy. The simple genius of NBA Jam was that it took those skills and supercharged them. Guys who could dunk from the free throw line could now dunk from half court. Guys who could hit five threes in a row could now hit 20. Every pass was now no-look, every block was emphatic.
In a superhero movie, there is always a scene in which the hero tests out the limits of his new powers. NBA Jam, really, is nothing more than the cage-match version of that scene. So, when picking your superhero, the most important thing you must identify is that he has at least one supreme superpower. Otherwise, you're stuck with Punisher, or, someone even lamer, like Jubilee or Jean fucking Grey.
2. THE DUDE CAN BOMB THREES
In the original version, was there a better feeling than catching fire with Reggie Miller and watching the grim, silent faces of your opponents as they tried desperately to stem the tide? THREE BOMBING, like FORCE OF NATURE, has very little to do with the reality of the game (almost any non-center can go on a three-point tear). Rather, we gravitate toward certain players because of the fear they strike in the hearts of our competitors — the crushing feeling of watching Chris Mullin lob up three after three after three, knowing that there isn't a goddamn thing anyone can do about it.
3. THE DUDE IS GULLY
Without a doubt, the most important determining factor, but also one that is vague, eternally open to interpretation and shrouded in weird, arbitrary, and perhaps even eugenic reasoning. For example, in the Tournament Edition of the first game, the gulliest teams were the Sonics (Kemp and Payton) and the Hornets ('Zo and Grandmama). Not surprisingly, those were the two teams everyone used. It's true that these were also two very good teams, but certainly not comparable to the Rockets (Hakeem and Mad Max), which nobody ever picked, or the Barkley Suns, which were ruined by Kevin Johnson's devotion to God.
Gulliness, though, should not be equated to "keeping it street." Although the two have several parallels, gulliness in NBA Jam is something earned on the court, a toughness and a FTW swagger that transcends our easy associations with race, hip-hop culture, and the lives of basketball stars. Again, it is mostly ineffable, but it is something we all can intuit. Shawn Kemp is gully as fuck in the first NBA Jam, but Harold Miner is about as ungully as they come. Why? Who can explain? But we all just know it's true.
On a related note, this Rae track is as gully as it gets.
4. THE DUDE'S RACE
Some players are white. Others are black. Two are Asian. The Beastie Boys are in the game. As is Charlie Villanueva.
We abstained from ranking every player according to the above criteria — abbreviated in this section as FON (force of nature), FIRE (three-bombing ability), GULLY (gulliness), and RACE (race) — but here are the highlights, including the unlockables. We've also included a few players who are not in the game (denoted by an *), but really really really should be. The number in parens in their total score. Note: You can find the full rosters on Kotaku; a list of unlockable players is here.
ALLEN IVERSON (29)
FON: 10/ FIRE: 9/ GULLY: 10/ RACE: Black
If A.I. had been in the arcade version, there would have been fights over who got to play with the Sixers. A clear winner, even if only by a half-point margin. Who wouldn't pick A.I. every time?
STEFAN URQUELLE* (27)
FON: 9/ FIRE: 8/ GULLY: 10/ RACE: Black
So effing gully. Only weakness is that he sometimes can't make it to the game, due to complications with the Urquelle conversion machine. (see Tamir Goodman below)
LARRY BIRD (26.5)
FON: 8/ FIRE: 10/ GULLY: 8.5/ RACE: White
A bit of a surprise, but the potential of Bird catching fire and bombing threes on everyone is just too appealing. His gulliness only raises eyebrows because of his race. Again, the criteria system is colorblind.
JOHN STARKS (26.5)
FON: 7.5/ FIRE: 9/ GULLY: 10/ RACE: Black
LARRY JOHNSON: (24.5)
FON: 8/ FIRE: 7/ GULLY: 9/ RACE: Black
Move along, PLZ. No surprises here.
KEVIN DURANT (24)
FON: 8/ FIRE: 10/ GULLY: 6/ RACE: Black
Of all the players ranked above a 23, Durant's gulliness was the most in question. Our resident hater said that Durant's gulliness was merely an approximation of gulliness. Others argued that Durant was just Bird without rings. Either way, the FON and FIRE elements will probably not change much.
DRAZEN PETROVIC (23.5)
FON: 5.5/ FIRE: 8/ GULLY: 10/ RACE: I abstain from this one.
I remember hearing the Chuckster and Kenny talk about how Petrovic was not only the toughest, most competitive Euro to ever play in the NBA, but that he was probably one of the toughest, competitive guys in the history of the game, regardless of continent of origin. Kenny said, "He kept coming at you, kept coming at you, he didn't give a crap what you would do to try and stop him." That's about as close as you can come to describing gully.
I won't comment on how the recent ESPN documentary changes this rating, because I'm still not done crying.
BARACK OBAMA (23.5)
FON: 7/ FIRE: 8/ GULLY: 8.5/ RACE: Black
Gulliness mostly earned in the Jeremiah Wright speech.
LEN BIAS* (23.5)
FON: 8.5/ FIRE: 6.5/ GULLY: 8.5/ RACE: Black
LeBRON JAMES (23)
FON: 10/ FIRE: 9/ GULLY: 4/ RACE: Black
The gloves come off! Before The Decision and the ridiculum of his Twitter feed, before quitting against Boston, LeBron was around a 7 in gulliness. After that 2007 Detroit playoff game, he was sitting at a solid 9. Now, it's tough to see him ever cracking a 5. This is entirely his Twitter account's fault. It's awful.
From a pure gameplay perspective, LeBron is the most dominant player to ever step on the NBA Jam court. He dunks everything; he shoves with ease; he blocks shots and runs from baseline to baseline with Hardaway speed. But his dominance brings up the following existential question: When playing against another human, can you choose the Heat and still claim to have a soul?
Here's a list of other teams in other video games. If you choose them, it means you are headed straight to some nether realm where your body just floats in vast, empty nothingness.
5. The American Dreams, Baseball Stars
4. Miami Heat, new NBA Jam
3. Los Angeles, Blades of Steel
2. Oakland Raiders, Tecmo Bowl
1. Chicago Blackhawks, NHL '94
This list, in turn, brings up its own subcategory, related to LeBron. Which is: If you played with the Blackhawks in NHL '94 and became a Jeremy Roenick fan as a result, should you be chemically castrated? It is similar to the Michael Owen in FIFA 2001 question, which, of course, is the same as the LeBron in the new NBA Jam question. Another list!
You deserve to be chemically castrated if you used the following players in a video game and became a fan as a result of the experience:
5. Wayne Gretzky, NHL '93
4. Bo Jackson, Tecmo Bowl
3. Michael Vick, Madden 2004
2. LeBron James, new NBA Jam
1. Jeremy Roenick, NHL ‘'94
SCOTTIE PIPPEN (23)
FON: 8.5/ FIRE: 7/ GULLY: 7.5/ RACE: Black
RICHARD DUMAS* (23)
FON: 8/ FIRE: 6/ GULLY: 9/ RACE: Black
HAKEEM OLAJUWON (21.5)
FON: 9.5/ FIRE: 5/ GULLY: 7/ RACE: Black
RAJON RONDO (21.5)
FON: 9/ FIRE: 3/ GULLY: 8.5 / RACE: Black
Rondo was the most weirdly engineered player in the game. He can't shoot, he can't dunk, but he should obviously somehow be a dominant force on the court. What the designers did was make him a 10 in steals and a 100 percent ankle breaker. Still, he's kinda useless.
JOSH SMITH (21.5)
FON: 8.5/ FIRE: 5/ GULLY: 8/ RACE: Black
SARAH PALIN (21.5)
FON: 8/ FIRE: 4/ GULLY: 9/ RACE: White
This is why God created comments sections. Sarah Barracuda, straight to the rim! And how gully was that first RNC speech?
JOHN WALL (21)
FON: 9/ FIRE: 6/ GULLY: 6/ RACE: Black
STEPHEN JACKSON (20.5)
FON: 5/ FIRE: 7.5/ GULLY: 8/ RACE: Black
He and Gerald Wallace are the only twosome in the new game who could possibly challenge Payton and Kemp on the gully scale. I mean, it's close, right?
MASTER P* (18.5)
FON: 5.5/ FIRE: 5/ GULLY: 8/ RACE: Black
YAO MING (18)
FON: 8/ FIRE: 6/ GULLY: 4/ RACE: Asian
BRYANT "BIG COUNTRY" REEVES (16)
FON: 4/ FIRE: 3/ GULLY: 9/ RACE: White
More on him in a bit.
MICHAEL BEASLEY (15.5)
FON: 5/ FIRE: 5.5/ GULLY: 5/ RACE: Black
In Big Head mode, Beasley looks like he is posing for the cover of High Times. I don't understand how the designers made him look so goddamn stoned, but I suppose it might have something to do with what I said earlier about how we just project our NBA fantasies and assumptions onto the little people running around the screen.
TIM DUNCAN (14)
FON: 8/ FIRE: 4/ GULLY: 2/ RACE: Black
TAMIR GOODMAN* (12)
FON: 4/ FIRE: 6/ GULLY: 2/ RELIGION: Jewish
This was argued for two hours, and a lot of mean things were said on both sides, so let's set the record straight here: refusing to play on Saturdays is pretty gully, but not being good enough to make the team is way un-gully. If Tamir had shown up to Cole Field House, dropped 22 a game, and if Maryland had lost every Saturday game because he hadn't played, he would crack an 8. Sadly, none of this happened.
DWIGHT HOWARD (11.5)
FON: 9.5/ FIRE: 1/ GULLY: 1/ RACE: Black
Whatever. He's a fraud. Holden Caulfield would have hated him.
MIKE DUNLEAVY (4)
FON: 1/ FIRE: 3/ GULLY: 0/ RACE: White
Go get your shinebox. And your box of nickels. It tickles, to see you try to be like Mr. Pickles.
Greatest remake of an arcade game ever. The fact that all these cross-generational comparisons can be made is a testament to EA's faithfulness to the original. But just as important, the gameplay was updated and improved so that two grown-ass men, without the assistance of banned substances, could make it through 100 games without throwing the Wii remote through the television. The upcoming releases on Xbox and PS3 should bring slight changes, as they have the benefit of much more power, but they will most likely lack the fun, if somewhat shallow, appeal of the Wii. Meaning, like all Wii releases, NBA Jam is more of a group activity than an actual game, better suited for parties where a bunch of polite people have collectively decided not to fuck one another. But we all go to those parties sometimes, right?
One final note: For those of us over the age of, let's say, 28, the nostalgia we feel over this new NBA Jam is a little misdirected. There is just no way to re-create that sweaty, nasty atmosphere of NBA Jam in the arcade—the shit-talking, the yelling, the smell of raw male ass. The set-up of the game — if everyone put in enough quarters to play a full game, the winning team stayed on for free — was the closest some of us got to holding down a court. That weird double-fantasy, wherein you are winning both in the game and in the arcade itself cannot be replicated on any console. Certainly, this is not the fault of the game's designers, but no discussion of nostalgia over this game can be complete without pointing out the fact that the game grew to its prominence as a game played by a bunch of men who like to yell at one another in a darkened public space.
As for Big Country? Our mission ended in failure. We never did see his beatific mug on the player select page of the game. But not because we didn't try. We did win 100 games, most of them with the Celtics. But in a rather chilling development, it turns out that the game has something that is now known as the Big Country glitch. Every unlockable player is, in fact, unlockable, with the exception of the great Big Country himself. There is massive speculation on the internet now over whether or not this was some cruel joke promulgated by EA. I prefer to think that the game's designers — and perhaps the NBA, too — were trying to teach all of us a valuable lesson about impermanence and the importance of living in the moment. The Big Country era is gone, they're telling us. We now have Harangody, Scal, and the ghost of Paul Shirley, Forget the past and future. Live in the now. A memory quest is the worst sort of samsara — on the borderlands of every Big Country, there will always be another Big Country.
Jay Caspian Kang lives in San Francisco. His recent work has appeared in The Morning News, Free Darko, TheAtlantic.com, and the Awl. Follow his work on his Twitter and on his Tumblr. Thanks to Adam Kaplan and Team Free Darko for their help on this piece, and thanks to Owen Good for the videos and screengrabs. For more about NBA Jam, check out Kotaku's coverage.