Best Custom Jerseys NBA NBA Jam, an arcade classic with an iconic voice, is still ‘on fire’ 30 years later

NBA Jam, an arcade classic with an iconic voice, is still ‘on fire’ 30 years later

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Tim Kitzrow thought a copied item, seen in the Midway Games Inc. headquarters cafeteria about a year after the release of NBA Jam, was a joke.

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He said the basketball arcade game, one of Midway’s products, generated $1 billion (with a B) in quarters in its first year.


Kitzrow, the famous voice of NBA Jam, is still inclined to believe the article was some kind of joke. But about 30 years ago, he (admittedly not a big video game player during this time) ventured to visit some arcades to see what all the fuss was about.

He couldn’t believe what he saw.

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

“So I said, okay, here we have Beatlemania.”

And guess what? The two-on-two game featuring some of the NBA’s biggest stars raised $1 billion in its first year of circulation, all in quarters.

Thirty years later, using some of Kitzrow’s memorable in-game catchphrases (“Boomshakalaka!” “It’s heating up!” “It’s on fire!”), NBA Jam has become one of the most popular arcade games. of all times. Released in 1993, the game featured several 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. .

Tim Kitzrow is the voice of NBA Jam, which celebrates its 30th anniversary. (Courtesy of Tim Kitzrow)

NBA Jam also had Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley in its first version, but they were eventually removed from later versions due to licensing issues. (The rights could be obtained from O’Neal, 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 beginning due to standard licensing agreements. Jordan had an exclusive rights agreement with Nike. Special editions of the game were made that included Jordan, Payton and also Major League Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.

Since the game was a two-on-two setup, playing with natural tandems was a must for many players. Stockton and Malone with the Utah Jazz were a natural fit. Without Jordan available, the Chicago Bulls had Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. Ewing and John Starks were the New York Knicks’ favorite duo.

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 trying to block shots.”

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 part of NBA lingo, and are still used today. They were catchy, fun, and the perfect complement to the game’s over-the-top action.

It still surprises Kitzrow that the job, for which he earned a total of $850, led to one of the most popular sports video games hitting arcades.

“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 in between, 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 other. great one-hit wonder.”

The two-on-two format was different from other simulation games, such as Electronic Arts’ 1989 Lakers versus Celtics game and the NBA Playoffs. NBA Jam was not supposed to be realistic. The players were too acrobatic with their shots. The smaller guards pounced on everyone. 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 a little clunky in some ways, but it was still enjoyable, and that resonated with fans as well as the players themselves.

“I still have NBA Jam in my house, the old version,” 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 do different jumps in the air and jump to the moon. “It was definitely 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 turned out 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 among players.

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

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 part of a video game that used real players, something many previous basketball games had not done.

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

“We had an old team and they didn’t play video games,” Brown said. “I was like the youngest guy in the game. Ed Pinckney and Joe Kleine didn’t want to play video games. … YO I didn’t really play with anyone on the team back then because it was something new for everyone. Maybe his children played it.”

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

Drexler said his family still challenges him to play.

“My youngest son, Adam, tries to get me to play from time to time,” he said. “He has been trying to catch up for a long time. He will be 30 next month.”

Kitzrow was surprised by 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.

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

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

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

“There have been many stories about a person losing a loved one, a brother, a father, a son. They come and say every time I hear your voice, it just resonates with 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 also continue to pass on the game’s legacy. Kitzrow said he met former NBA guard Steve Smith in Chicago and that he was surprised to hear Smith’s reaction.

Smith, a 14-year NBA veteran who played with six teams, told Kitzrow he still played on the original arcade console. Kitzrow couldn’t believe that 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 that I met you. You know, I was 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 is a place for NBA Jam in the modern world of video games. The NBA 2K franchise reigns supreme when it comes to modern basketball simulation games, but there’s nothing like NBA Jam. It doesn’t require an extreme amount of strategy. In essence, it is a game full of slightly over-the-top fun.

Thirty years later, it generates a lot of nostalgia. Children and adults enjoy it alike.

“Nowadays it has an almost cartoonish effect compared to realistic games,” Kitzrow said, “but it still attracts people.”

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


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