NBA Jam, a classic arcade game with an iconic voice, still ‘on fire’ 30 years later - The Athletic

Tim Kitzrow figured a copied article, spotted in the cafeteria at the headquarters of Midway Games Inc. about one year after NBA Jam was released, was a prank.

It said the basketball arcade game, one of Midway’s products, brought in $1 billion (with a B) worth of quarters in its first year. Car Racing Game Machine

NBA Jam, a classic arcade game with an iconic voice, still ‘on fire’ 30 years later - The Athletic

Kitzrow, the famous voice of NBA Jam, still is inclined to believe that the article was something of a joke. But roughly 30 years ago, he — admittedly not a big video game player during this time — ventured out to some arcades to see what the fuss was about.

He couldn’t believe what he saw.

“My voice is out in this arcade, so let me see how people respond,” Kitzrow said. “When I saw 10, 15 people around screaming and yelling, it was like people trying to catch Mick Jagger on the way to the stage, or something like that.

“So then I went, OK, we’ve got Beatlemania here.”

And guess what? The two-on-two game featuring some of the biggest stars in the NBA indeed brought in $1 billion in its first year of circulation — all in quarters.

Thirty years later, riding some of Kitzrow’s memorable in-game catchphrases (“Boomshakalaka!” “He’s heating up!” “He’s on fire!”), NBA Jam has become one of the most popular arcade games ever. Released in 1993, the game featured multiple NBA players who are now Hall of Famers, including Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Reggie Miller, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Mitch Richmond and James Worthy, among others.

NBA Jam also had Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley in its early version, but they were removed from later versions because of licensing issues. (O’Neal’s rights could be obtained, while Barkley made a similar game called Barkley Shut Up and Jam!) Two other Hall of Famers, Michael Jordan and Gary Payton, were not included from the start because of standard licensing deals. Jordan had an exclusive rights deal with Nike. There were special editions of the game made that included Jordan, Payton and baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.

With the game a two-on-two setup, playing with natural tandems was a must for many gamers. Stockton and Malone with the Utah Jazz made a natural combination. With no Jordan available, the Chicago Bulls had Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. Ewing and John Starks were a go-to duo for the New York Knicks.

Mixing and matching lineups was a big part of the fun. Each team had four players to choose from.

“You could go with two guards,” Richmond said. “You could get a big guy to try to block shots.”

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Kitzrow was pursuing acting and comedy when he was hired for the game to read lines inspired by Marv Albert. For $50 an hour, Kitzrow read lines that would become a part of NBA lingo — ones that are still used today. They were catchy, funny and the perfect complement to the over-the-top action of the game.

It still amazes Kitzrow that the gig, for which he earned a total of $850, led to one of the most popular sports video games to hit an arcade.

“It’s the most unlikely scenario in the world,” Kitzrow said. “Of all the great songs that have been written, one-hit wonders and everything else, it’s the idea that a video game has that same kind of nostalgia and that sweet spot for people, that it comes back and resonates 30 years later like any great one-hit wonder.”

The two-on-two format was unlike other simulation games, such as Electronic Arts’ 1989 game Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs. NBA Jam wasn’t supposed to be realistic. Players were overly acrobatic with their shots. The smallest guards dunked on everybody. The big men hit 3-pointers from deep — particularly after Kitzrow said, “He’s on fire!” A player would be “on fire!” if he made three consecutive baskets.

The game was slightly impractical in some ways, but still enjoyable, and that resonated with fans, as well as the players themselves.

“I’ve still got NBA Jam in my house, the version from way back when,” said Richmond, who in his 14 NBA seasons spent time with the Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Lakers but played with the Kings in the game. “(It was) me, Wayman Tisdale, Spud Webb and Lionel Simmons (on the Kings). It was a different type of game because you’re doing different flips in the air and jumping to the moon. It was a fun game when it first came out.”

Drexler played for the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets during his 15-year NBA career. He was with the Blazers when the game was released. Drexler said it proved to be a great marketing tool for the NBA and that the game was “groundbreaking” with its graphics.

Drexler added that NBA Jam quickly became popular with players.

“A lot of guys played it on their days off,” he said. “The guys who were considered gamers.”

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Dee Brown played 12 years in the league with the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic. Brown, a member of the Celtics when NBA Jam was released, said it was exciting to be a part of a video game that used real players, something many previous basketball games hadn’t done.

Brown’s teammates on NBA Jam were Kevin McHale, Reggie Lewis and Robert Parish. Brown, however, said he had a tough time getting his Boston teammates interested in playing the game with him — even with Lewis and Brian Shaw being players closer to his age.

“We had an old team, and they weren’t playing video games,” Brown said. “I was, like, the youngest dude on the game. Ed Pinckney and Joe Kleine didn’t want to play video games. … I really didn’t play with anybody on the team back then because it was kind of new to everybody. Maybe their kids played it.”

Kitzrow recalled when the NBA celebrated its top 75 players at the 2022 All-Star Game in Cleveland, there were several NBA Jam arcade consoles set up. Drexler said the league gave players who were a part of the 75th-anniversary team an arcade version of the game. Richmond said he doesn’t play the game much these days, but he recently went to his game room to turn it on, just to make sure it still works.

Drexler said he still gets challenged to play by his family.

“My youngest son, Adam, tries to make me play every now and then,” he said. “He’s been trying to catch up for a long time. He’ll be 30 next month.”

Kitzrow was amazed at the game’s popularity in the early 1990s. He was the voice of multiple games, including NFL Blitz, but NBA Jam still resonates in a way he didn’t anticipate.

To him, NBA Jam wasn’t just a game; it was a community of fans.

“I had no idea that there was a real culture, a real tribe, a real fan base of people. I thought it was just a momentary thing,” Kitzrow said. “I thought these games would be in the bars and out of the bars in two years and a new game would take its place.”

There have been several versions of NBA Jam released, but the original arcade version still connects with fans. Kitzrow travels the country participating in retro video game conventions where his voice brings up fond memories for those who grew up on the game.

“There have been lots of stories about a person losing a loved one, a sibling, a father, a son. They come up and say every time I hear your voice, it just resonates, the happiness and love,” Kitzrow said. “And then they start crying and say, ‘You were part of the happiest time of my life, my childhood.’”

Players are still passing on the legacy of the game, too. Kitzrow said he met former NBA guard Steve Smith in Chicago, and he was surprised to hear Smith’s reaction.

Smith, a 14-year NBA veteran who played with six teams, told Kitzrow he still played the original arcade console. Kitzrow couldn’t believe Smith, who was on the Miami Heat when NBA Jam was released, was so excited to meet him.

“‘I can’t wait to tell my kids I met you. You know, I was just playing with them last night,’” Kitzrow recalled of the conversation with Smith.

Based on all the fans, young and old, who still flock to the arcade version, Kitzrow believes there’s a place for NBA Jam in the modern video game world. The NBA 2K franchise reigns when it comes to modern-day basketball simulation games, but there’s nothing quite like NBA Jam. It doesn’t require an extreme amount of strategy. At its essence, it’s a game full of slightly exaggerated fun.

Thirty years later, it provides plenty of nostalgia. Children and adults enjoy it equally.

“It has an almost cartoonish effect today compared to realistic games,” Kitzrow said, “but it draws people in still.”

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(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photo: Sam Forencich / Getty Images)

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NBA Jam, a classic arcade game with an iconic voice, still ‘on fire’ 30 years later - The Athletic

Arcade Sports Jason Jones is a staff writer for The Athletic, covering Culture. Previously, he spent 16 years at the Sacramento Bee, covering the Sacramento Kings and Oakland Raiders. He's a proud Southern California native and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Follow Jason on Twitter @mr_jasonjones