Sometime in early 2002, in the closing seconds of a tied ballgame between the Lakers and Hornets, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant pump faked, got his defender in the air, and faded away from a buzzer-beating jumper that hit all net.
The play was straight out of a video game. Granted, he didn’t dunk from half court or anything crazy like that, but the play was impractical, bordering on unrealistic.
Watching a clip of that game’s final seconds on YouTube now, in 2017, it appeared that the last play was drawn for Shaquille O’Neal, who was isolated in the low post against Elden Campbell. A lob inside to the big fella would’ve been the smart play. But Bryant was the ultimate video game player, and in a sign of things to come in his career, he anointed himself a hero and took matters in his own hands.
Bryant’s heroics spoiled the 37-point performance of Baron Davis, a forever underdog and my go-to guy from NBA Live to NBA 2K. I owed it to him to get his revenge.
So in the NBA Live 2002 version of that game, with matters in my own hands (via a busted Playstation 2 controller), Davis still scores in the high 30s, but I gifted him with a different ending. What happens instead is that in the final play, Bryant never touches the ball. Davis intercepts the inbounds pass and—powered by the R1 turbo boost—runs the length of the floor for a tomahawk dunk at the buzzer. Hornets win by two.
There lies the appeal of video games, recreating moments that allow you, the one with the controller, to put matters into your own hands, to tweak history, to beat Kobe, if only temporary and imaginary, in the confines of your own bedroom. You can anoint yourself a hero and not have to deal with the consequences. That’s the fun part.
The fun started, at least for me, at a simpler time before shots sticks and turbo buttons were abused. My first virtual tip off was on Double Dribble, a generic, bland basketball game void of any characters and branding. It was challenging, in that it challenged your mind into imagining that Faceless Player in Green is Larry Bird. My favorite part is the shootout bit at the start where you have to shoot at baskets to adjust the time and pick your team.
Then NBA Jam came in ’93 and it was an eye-opener, like listening to Ultraelectromagneticpop! for the first time. It ripped apart everything that Double Dribble, Tecmo NBA Basketball, Bulls Vs. Blazers, and other 5-on-5 sim-style games stood for, threw the remnants in a box, and spray-painted the catchphrase “Boom Shaka Laka” all over it.
NBA Jam—in its very immaturely loud voice—promised rapid-fire bursts of happiness with every through-the-roof dunk and disrespectful block. Almost every day for at least year, NBA Jam was a fixture on my SNES like an altar in the middle of the room. It never saw its cardboard box again, until it was dislodged from the console by its more responsible kuya: NBA Live 95.
The Live series from EA Sports (“It’s in the game!”) was a game-changer in many ways because it succeeded in tastefully mixing the fast-paced fun of NBA Jam and the seriousness of the 5-on-5 format. For another year, I would play full 82-game seasons using different teams (the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors were favorites), in 4-minute quarters.
On summer days when you can just drop everything (God bless those days), I’d play long 8-minute quarters and recreate the greatest games I watched on TV. Without YouTube, I turned to NBA Live 95 to relive the big time moments from the big name stars. As a scrawny kid with asthma who doesn’t have game, that was really all I had.
All tidbits of conventional basketball wisdom, I’ve picked up on my pixelated quest to bring my ‘93-‘94 Rockets to the championship. Everything—who plays for which team, what position do they play, can they shoot 3s, how pick and roll works, substitution patterns, defensive adjustments—I’ve learned it all in hours and hours of gameplay.
When I was feeling extra confident, I’d throw away a couple of games and lose on purpose to position myself as the 8th seed in the playoffs, where I can pull off one of the biggest upsets in NBA Live history. This was way before the concepts of tanking and narrative hijacked my vocabulary.
In lieu of portals to escape reality and create an alternate universe where Shawn Kemp can dunk from the three-point line, are video games. For me, it helped, sort of, transcend the parameters of my vertically-challenged (as in short) and nerdy self. I haven’t played in an important, all-or-nothing championship game in any organized liga, but I have played in a Game 7 of an NBA Finals as the starting point guard of the ’07 Warriors in NBA 2K. But video games are much more than vehicles to promote suspension of disbelief, and titles like NBA Live and NBA 2K were proof of that.
I graduated to NBA 2K (about the same time I graduated college) after almost a decade of NBA Live. The 2K series was the one that finally got it right. It provided the complete experience, a culmination of all the lessons imparted by 90s video games. The gameplay was realistic, the strategies were legit, the moves were awesome, the possibilities were endless.
My memories of 2K that linger the most are the ones that were played tournament-style with a few friends (shout out to Elvis, By, and Gregg) at least once a week on a weeknight, in a house in Katipunan, taking a short break to check who made it past the next round in American Idol, then resuming the friendly competition up to the wee hours of the morning. It wasn’t exactly life-changing nor productive, but it made unemployment tolerable.
If you won, you get bragging rights; if you lost, you get to say, “Good game!”, go to 2K jail, and wait awhile before the controller is passed back to you. The waiting sucks the most, but patience is a key to winning. I learned that from video games, too.
Photos from IGN.com