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The story of how NBA Jam became a video game and sports phenomenon

A review of Reyan Ali’s NBA Jam.

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Courtesy of Reyan Ali

If you’re of a certain generation, NBA Jam was your, well, jam. The arcade video game was one of the big hits of the early 1990s before pivoting to home consoles.

And in a book released last year, Reyan Ali goes through the history and the various ups and downs of the history of NBA Jam in a book by the same name, released by Boss Fight Books.

Even if you’re like me, and grew up in a cash-strapped home in the ‘90s where you had five random games for your console and that was good enough for 10 years, Ali’s NBA Jam book does a good job explaining some of the cultural touchstones that came from the game, such as the “Boomshakalaka!” calls on dunks and the backstory behind the voice actor who performed all the announcing on the game for years.

The book makes a compelling case in three different respects. First, the game is a bridge of sorts between the heyday of the arcade era and the home gaming era. In developing NBA Jam, the game’s creators in Chicago had to work within the confines of arcade cabinet parameters, such as making the game two-on-two, and it proved to be a surprisingly popular format.

Second, in the split between “arcade-style” and simulated games, where the action in the video game is supposed to represent as close to reality as possible, NBA Jam reveled in the players leaping well over the basket to deliver a devastating dunk and other arcade-style tricks, and the public ate it up. While Ali doesn’t tackle the contrasts with a series like NBA2K, a sim game that has its fair share of detractors, the subtext is clear: Many gamers like the cartoonish aspects of video games, even sports games, and are not necessarily seeking reality in a virtual setting.

The third argument developed in the book is that NBA Jam and the NBA fed off the popularity of each other to make the video game a true smash hit. The game was the first to be licensed by the NBA, and the ability to play as most NBA stars (Michael Jordan was a notable omission, something the book discusses) and as real NBA teams was certainly appealing to gamers. And after the NBA kickstarted its modern era of popularity starting in the 1980s, the launch of a game like NBA Jam showed a league understanding of popular culture, willing to take on uncharted partnerships like licensing with an arcade video game company to develop a new kind of game, and seeing it add to the NBA’s desirability.

Even Shaquille O’Neal, a big fan of NBA Jam, took to shattering backboards in real life — coincidence?

Courtesy of the author

As someone who’s not much of a gamer, I found Ali’s NBA Jam to be informative and accessible, and a quick read. And with the NBA arguably the league in American sports with the strongest subcultures, NBA Jam explains how an arcade game became a phenomenon, and continues to resonate to the present day.

You can buy NBA Jam in paperback or kindle edition over on Amazon.