11 Essential Talking Points on NBA Jam


For those of a certain generation, the thought of basketball players flipping thirty feet in the air and shooting literal fireballs into smoking hoops isn't odd—it's the most natural thing in the world. That's thanks to NBA Jam, which was originally released in 1993 and quickly became the most popular arcade game of all time.

Here are some little-known facts about the game that had you and all your friends screaming "Boomshakalaka!" until the arcade closed.

1. It Started Out As A Standard Sports Game

Based on Midway’s previous (non-NBA licensed) game Arch Rivals, NBA Jam began as a straightforward 2-on-2 basketball simulator. It wasn’t until creator Mark Turmell began fiddling with the slam dunk sequences that the game got its trademark, gravity-defying jams. “I didn't even intend to do anything over the top,” Turmell recalled to ESPN The Magazine. “I put in the velocity and the height, and it looked cool, then I kept going higher until it was clearly unrealistic but still entertaining. Once that happened, we completely shifted the focus of the game.”

2. It Was Designed Quickly

It took Turmell and his team of designers just 10 months to make the first version of the game. They finished two months ahead of schedule in order to secure a 20% royalty bonus.

3. It Was Supposed To Include Different Camera Angles

Midway made the above video in 1992 as part of their pitch to the NBA in order to secure licensing. In it, they tease two features that never made it into the actual arcade game. When players dunked, the camera angle was originally supposed to switch to a vantage point behind the action. Also, on breakaways, the perspective was going to assume the character’s point of view as they sprinted to the hoop.

4. The Bulls Were Programmed to Choke

Turmell, a Detroit Pistons fan, gave his team an advantage when they played the arch-rival Chicago Bulls in the original arcade version of the game. “When the Bulls played the Pistons [and] there was a close game and anyone on the Bulls took a last second shot, we wrote special code in the game so that they would average out to be bricks,” Turmell revealed.

5. The NBA Got $100 For Every Arcade Machine Sold

Midway had to work hard to obtain licensing from the NBA. The league was initially reluctant to associate its brand with arcades, which NBA executives viewed as seedy locales. When the game developers finally convinced the league to come aboard, the agreement included a $100-per-machine royalty.

6. It Made Almost $1 Billion In Quarters In Its First Year

Reports pegged its revenue at a little over $900 million. There were over 20,000 machines, and some machines made over $2,000 a week. (One unit holds the world record amount for money made over one week: $2,468.)

7. A Version Exists That Features Both Michael Jordan And Gary Payton (On The Same Team)

Ever protective of his brand, Jordan wouldn’t agree to licensing terms for NBA Jam and was absent from the game. Gary Payton also wasn’t a featured player, as programmers selected Shawn Kemp and Benoit Benjamin (and later Detlef Schrempf, for the console version) to represent the Seattle Supersonics. Mark Turmell recalls making a special version featuring both those players after Gary Payton asked him to:

“One day, I got a phone call from a distributor out on the west coast who told me that Gary Payton was willing to pay whatever it cost to get into the game. So we told him what to do in terms of taking photographs, so he sent in photographs of himself and Jordan, saying, ‘We want to be in the game, hook us up.’ So we actually did a special version of the game and gave both players all-star, superstar stats. There are only a handful of these machines, but Jordan and Payton did end up being in one version of the game.”

8. Shaquille O’Neal Took An 'NBA Jam' Unit With Him Wherever He Went

Shaq loved the game so much that he bought two full arcade units—one for home, and one that was shipped around the country as he traveled so he could play in his hotel rooms.

9. The Narration Was Rushed

NBA Jam's iconic commentary and catchphrases (written by composer Jon Hey) had to be read by first-time video game voice actor Tim Kitzerow as quickly as possible. ”There was such limited space on those machines,” Kitzerow told IGN, “that we literally had to go over, ten or fifteen times, something like ‘He's on fire!’ as fast as we could until it was ‘H’s o'fire!’...I think that it was, well, just not very good. But it was only because of the restrictions.”

These quick-fire reads didn’t prevent Kitzerow's exclamations from becoming some of the most repeated catchphrases of the '90s, eventually permeating pop culture and entering the traditional sportscaster’s lexicon.

10. The NBA Nixed A Gory Hidden Court

NBA Jam is famous for its hidden characters like Bill Clinton and Frank Thomas, but there was also supposed to be an unlockable court designed to look like a Mortal Kombat level (Mortal Kombat was also a Midway-designed game). The "Kourt," which had a hoop made of bones and featured a bloody skull as the ball, was vetoed by the NBA.

11. Its Creator Says The Game Has A Haunting Glitch

Croatian NBA star Dražen Petrović tragically died in a car accident in 1993. He was initially put in the game, but his likeness couldn't be removed in time before it shipped. Here, Mark Turmell told ESPN the Magazine about an eerie glitch that was discovered shortly thereafter:

"One night we were playing Mortal Kombat and there was a Jam machine next to it, and all of a sudden the game started calling out 'Petrovic!' 'Petrovic!' And this only happened after Petrovic had died. Everyone started freaking out. Something weird was going on with the software, and to this day, if you have an original 'NBA Jam' machine every once in a while it will just yell out 'Petrovic!'"