When NBA Jam creator Mark Turmell first began working on the legendary video game in 1993, there was one major challenge: He wasn’t a big NBA fan at the time. So Turmell sat down with sound designer Jon Hey in January 1993 and pored through the rosters they received from the NBA. The two would peruse newspaper boxscores for days, looking for players that would pop so Turmell could make final decisions on who to include in the first edition of the game.
“Remember, this was pre-Internet,” Turmell said. “(If) there was somebody that was excelling at that time, that caused me to put them into the game. I guess it was probably Mike Iuzzolino of the (Dallas) Mavericks. If I were to go back and look at his career, I bet you that he had a stretch right at the time when I was making the rosters, where it looked like it wasn’t really a flier.”
Turns out two of Iuzzolino’s three career double-doubles came in January of 1993.
“That’s kind of how it went down.”
While Turmell may not have nailed every roster choice, the game became an instant hit when it was released in April 1993. Fans flocked to arcades to launch fiery jump shots, throw down high-flying dunks, partake in ruthless defense and, of course, repeat the many catchphrases. It became one of the most popular arcade games of all time.
On Saturday, the LA Clippers will celebrate the 25th anniversary year of the video game classic when they host the Sacramento Kings for NBA JAM Day. Fans will be eligible to receive an NBA Jam t-shirt with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and someone could even win an original four-player arcade machine of NBA Jam.
🗓: Jan 13th 🆚 SAC
🕧: 12:30PM PT
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) January 12, 2018
Tim Kitzrow, the original voice of the game, will be heard throughout the Kings-Clippers contest — during pregame introductions and timeouts, perhaps even voicing over Griffin’s memorable dunk over Jazz center Rudy Gobert in October.
Griffin puts Gobert on a poster
Blake Griffin throws down a powerful one-handed jam over Rudy Gobert.
“I’m certainly fond of Blake and DeAndre,” Kitzrow said. “I call them the Boomshakalaka Brothers. You know, they’re just two of the best in the game for those crazy poster facials.
“And for my over-the-top superlatives, like ‘You be the peanut butter, and I’ll bring the JAM!,’ ‘I can’t go to work without my donuts, you bring the coffee, and I’ll bring the dunkin’! Boomshakalaka!’ … I mean, all of those things, for me, I couldn’t have written a better script of me working with a team that’s in a great market, that’s got these great power dunkers.
“(Griffin) reminds me more of NBA Jam than any other player because of the way he dunks. He doesn’t look real, he looks like an A.I. or something.”
Turmell said when he initially created players for the original game, it was solely about their physical attributes. Players had no stats or skill ratings because he didn’t want NBA Jam to be a simulation-style game.
But things changed when his team wheeled one unit into an arcade and watched gamers test it out.
“That first night, there was a guy playing and he picked Utah,” Turmell said. “And he was playing some other team. And he would hit the steal button. And he had (John) Stockton. And sometimes he would slap the ball away; he would steal it. And I heard him trash talking to the other guy, ‘Don’t even put it on the floor next to Stockton. He’ll take it every time!’
“It struck me, because all of the players at that point in time were identical. There was no distinction between them, other than size and width.”
That night, Turmell and his art partner went back to work in the studio.
“We figured out how to squeeze in the various stats,” Turmell said, “and did the coding over the next couple of days to actually have players steal better, shoot better, run faster, do all of the obvious things that weren’t in that first test location. So once I established the categories, we only had room for so much with the tiny little font on the team select page. That dictated the number that we’d allow.”
They ended up with four meters for player attributes: Speed, 3-pointers, dunks, and defense. They added clutch in the Tournament Edition game, which Turmell said was a much better game. (Chris Webber had a “zero” in clutch in the arcade version of Tournament Edition.) Turmell, who was a big Detroit Pistons fan — and, thus, hated the Chicago Bulls — famously even tried to rig late-game situations that involved the Bulls and Pistons. If the Bulls were in a close game with the Pistons and took a last-second shot, there was a special code in the game that would cause those shots to be bricks more often than normal.
“Nah, I didn’t know anything about that,” Scottie Pippen said. “But I’m sure it was, they were beating us back in those days. But we were the better team, and the better players. But I’m sure they had a code in us somehow to kind of, keep us down.
That wasn’t the only challenge for that Bulls squad, of course. Michael Jordan was never featured in NBA Jam because he owned his own likeness. Pippen acknowledged that it would have been scary if Jordan was included.
“It probably would have been a little unfair,” Pippen said. “But it was good that you kept the excitement there, and I think all of the players were able to sort of carry the torch. But it would have been great to have Michael in that game.”
Electronic Arts (EA) Sports re-booted the franchise in 2010 and still has the rights, but Kitzrow is working with Microsoft to possibly get the game resurrected for the 25th anniversary.
“I can’t speak anything to the specifics, but I can tell you there is movement in the works to get it done for the 25th year,” Kitzrow said. “So I’m hoping that we get a remake that does justice to the original.”
Turmell also hopes that a re-boot could happen this year. But he doesn’t have a role in any plans at the moment.
“I helped on the reboot of the franchise (back in 2010),” said Turmell, who left EA for Zynga in 2011. “They did a pretty good job. But there’s so much more that can be done. It’s really sort of an untapped category, to have that over-the-top NBA action with the official license. It’s a great brand.”
Saturday’s event will be another highlight in the legacy of NBA Jam — a game Turmell believes helped popularize the league.
“I have so many letters and comments over the years where people said, ‘I wasn’t an NBA fan until the game,'” Turmell said. “And then they became fans of the NBA. So I think in a very small way, in that era, there in the early ’90s, it actually had some inflection onto the popularity of the NBA. That game made a billion dollars in 1993. One quarter at a time. A billion! So that touched a lot of people.”