Nearly a quarter century ago, the mischievous developers at Midway married video games and sports in a way never before seen. SI gathered those involved—behind the scenes and on the screen—to reminisce about the coin-gobbling basketball game
NBA FANS of a certain age speak of the 1990s in reverent tones, nostalgic for a bygone era in which physical play ruled and larger-than-life stars made jaws drop. And nowhere was that style more apparent than on the virtual courts of NBA Jam, an over-the-top video game in which the league's actual stars—minus one contractually excluded Chicagoan—bullied and somersault-slammed their way through a cartoonish brand of two-on-two ball. Dunkers launched as if powered by jet packs. Hot shooters saw the ball literally catch fire. In the absence of fouls, defenders full-arm shoved. It was absurd. And it was an absolute smash hit.
When Midway released Jam, in April 1993, the game shattered arcade revenue records like digitized backboards, birthing new entries in basketball's exclamatory lexicon (Boomshakalaka!) and eventually spawning sequels and spin-offs. Nearly a quarter century later, SI assembled the game's makers and stars—in some cases one in the same—to recount how the phenomenon came to be, why the NBA was so slow to sign on and how everyone from Shaq to Macaulay Culkin couldn't get enough.
MARK TURMELL / Midway developer / We saw at a trade show that Atari was working on a game, Primal Rage, which used photographs to create stop-motion little dinosaurs that fought. We decided to make a basketball game using that technology. Williams, our parent company, had bought Bally, and Bally had made a game called Arch Rivals that used hand-drawn animations to depict two-on-two basketball.
JOHN CARLTON / Midway developer / You could punch people in Arch Rivals—that's where we got the idea of knocking a player over in NBA Jam.
SHAWN LIPTAK / Midway developer / We looked at Arch Rivals, which was very tongue-in-cheek, kind of funny, and were like: We can do something much more modern, with better graphics.
NEIL NICASTRO / Midway president / For an arcade game, you've got to cram enough fun and adrenaline into a minute and a half so that someone will put in another quarter. You've got to make it sensational.
TURMELL / I started cruising around Chicago, going to playgrounds and to DePaul's basketball arena to find a couple of players to model for us.
STEPHEN HOWARD / NBA Jam model; NBA forward / Turmell came into the gym at Alumni Hall and said, "Hey, do any of you guys wanna help make a video game?" I was like, "Sure."
TURMELL / We went into a TV studio, painted a wall and set up a camera. We had players run back and forth and mimic basketball moves.
HOWARD / When I was negotiating with Mark I said, "I have the potential of playing in the NBA, so I need to get more money." He ended up paying me double what he paid the other guys.
CARLTON / At that point they were just doing very simple, realistic dunks. I put that footage on a floppy disk and gave it to Mark to digitize.
TURMELL / I would show these dunks to Eugene Jarvis, who made Defender and Stargate, and he was like, "Make that a little faster, a little higher."
CARLTON / The next day Mark gave me a call: "Come on over; I just got one of the dunks in the game." He had exaggerated it to the point where the player was taking off at the top of the key, jumping 20 feet in the air—a classic NBA Jam--style dunk. I was just dumbfounded, like, "Come on, we need to make this realistic!"
SAL DIVITA / Midway developer / More and more, people reacted positively to [the exaggerated dunks], like, "You have to do this!"
JONATHAN HEY / Midway developer / Then we started taking that a little further—triple somersaults 30 feet in the air, windmills, insane alley-oops....
HOWARD / You know how when you're on fire and you tumble over and spin when you dunk? To film that they set me on a picnic bench; there was a mat on the floor and I would just tumble over, like stunt work. We did that for about five days. It was pretty monotonous work.
CARLTON / I was down on the monster dunks, I have to admit. I loved the NBA for what it was; I didn't want to turn this into a clown show.... But within 24 hours I was converted.
TURMELL / I recognized right away: Everyone loved jumping to the height of the top of the backboard.
CARLTON / I said, "But we can't have John Stockton taking off from the top of the key and jamming it over [Dikembe] Mutombo. Nobody's going to want to play that. How about each player gets certain specialties—if it's Stockton, he never gets the ball stolen from him, and so on. I really wanted to protect the individual players' identities."
TURMELL / One day Jamie [Rivett, a Midway developer,] and I were walking to Burger King for lunch. I said, "We need some kind of mode you get into—something to bring more excitement to this." He said something about how we could go into a "fire mode." So we strategized over lunch and came up with: If you make three shots in a row, you get on fire for a period of time or a handful of shots. We went back to the office and implemented the feature that afternoon. It was a game-changer.
HEY / When you're on fire you can goaltend, your shooting percentage goes to like 95%, you can pretty much wipe out the other team....
TURMELL / Sal hated the fire mode. I said, "We need some flames on the basketball," and Sal said, "No, I'm not gonna give you flames."
DIVITA / It was too ridiculous, too gaudy. I wanted to maintain the purity of the sport. We toned it down to where it was acceptable.
LIPTAK / Ultimately the fun factor won out. It wasn't supposed to be realistic. It was an escape from reality.
JOSH TSUI / Midway developer / A lot of sports games back then were just trying to mimic the sport. This felt like the sport, but it also felt like a crazy arcade game.
TURMELL / It was so clear that we had lightning in a bottle.
Nearly as memorable as NBA Jam's gameplay was its unique sound.
HEY / It was proposed: "Let's get Marv Albert in the game." But his fee would have been way too much.
TIM KITZROW / NBA Jam announcer / I was performing with Second City [improv group] at the time. It was around the heyday of all the big names: Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Tim Meadows....
TURMELL / Kitzrow had done some voice-overs for a couple of pinball games and he was a friend of the sound department.
KITZROW / It was a $50-an-hour nonunion gig, and when you're young and waiting tables, that's great money.
HEY / I watched [real] games and listened to people announce, and I put together 95% of the Jam script. I spent at least a month doing that.
KITZROW / It's funny how small the script was—literally two pieces of paper with all the lines.
HEY / You couldn't really go into a long description of the play; the second you score, the other team's going the other way.
TURMELL / Tim asked, "Could I ad-lib a couple things? We said, "Do whatever." It was magic.
KITZROW / I realized I was going to be like a carnival barker, getting people up to the cabinet. If you were in an arcade, you should hear that voice and be like, Wow, what's going on over there?
HEY /Boomshakalaka—[Kitzrow's line on particularly gnarly dunks]—I put that in the script at the suggestion of John Carlton.
CARLTON / That's my claim to fame. I'd been going through a funk phase, listening to a lot of bands from the '70s, including Sly & the Family Stone. I'd just listened to "I Want to Take You Higher." They actually say "boo-laka-laka-laka" in the song—I just misquoted it.
HEY / Mark Turmell wanted a phrase for blocking the ball: "Get that s--- out of here!" Of course, that wasn't gonna fly with the NBA. I recorded it, though, and all that stuff went into a subfolder of rejected lines—"he's got him by the balls" and stuff like that.
KITZROW / There was only one line that made the game that I thought was kinda stupid: razzle-dazzle. I wasn't buying anyone saying that. But it's just a great line, and now I love it.
Before anyone would hear Kitzrow's calls, Midway had to get the NBA on board, and at that point no pro sports league had ever licensed a coin-operated game. The NBA was not eager to be the first.
MICHELE BROWN / NBA licensing director / Arcade games were primarily in bars at the time, and that's not the image we wanted. Midway had to convince us this would not discredit our brand.
ROGER SHARPE / Midway licensing director / The stigma was that coin-operated amusement games were only available in seedy little hangouts, and that couldn't have been further from the truth. It was my task to educate them.
TURMELL / The NBA, of course, came back pretty quickly and said no.
SHARPE / There was a topless place in Times Square that had video games in it. There was another place on Eighth Avenue where you could see a pinball machine in the front window of a peep show as you went to Port Authority bus station. I'm not casting any value judgment on anybody at the NBA, but I sensed that maybe some of their employees might have seen that.
TURMELL / We said, "Hey, that's not the case." And to prove it we went out and shot footage of some entertainment centers around Chicago—bowling alleys and family locations.
SHARPE / I'm not willing to give up. I fight for what I believe in. I was a pest.
BROWN / Roger was convincing. We had a lot of conversations about how Midway wanted to change the perceptions of branded games by having credible properties.
SHARPE / I won't say it was at the 11th hour—maybe at 9:30 or 10—but in the end we were able to secure the license.
BROWN / It boiled down to money. Based on their forecasts and proven distributions, the numbers were significant. And we wrote into the contract that if the games were placed in disreputable locations, we would pull the license for cause.
TURMELL / The royalty, I believe, was $200 per cabinet, with a minimum guarantee—a couple hundred thousand dollars. Not big numbers. We were elated, but that game created so much work—80 hours a week—that we didn't spend much time celebrating. We didn't have much of a social life.
CARLTON / I'd work all night and not go home. That was common.
SHARPE / We'd go through rosters, deciding who was on each team. There was a good give and take.
TURMELL / We decided who seemed to be the two stars for each team. If we didn't know, we'd dig in and try to figure out, O.K., who's performing well? I remember looking at newspapers. Hey, did you see what Laettner did last night? We laughed about putting [Mavericks guard] Mike Iuzzolino in because we didn't really know him. He might've had a good night that week.
MIKE IUZZOLINO / Dallas Mavericks guard / I'm probably the most obscure player in that game. Mr. Irrelevant. The guy that gets drafted last. And that's O.K. At least I'm on there.
MARK PRICE / Cleveland Cavaliers guard / It felt like you'd arrived a bit, being picked to be in the game.
CARLTON / It would have been awesome to have had Michael Jordan doing dunks that no one else could do. But he didn't need us.
SHARPE / Jordan wasn't allowed to be part of anything NBA-licensed. [MJ had opted out of the players' association's licensing agreement.]
DIVITA / Doing all the [players'] heads was the hard part. We didn't have the photography the NBA has these days. We had to scour magazines for photos and record real games, marking the times and going back to rip the right frame. We even requested slides and videos from the NBA.
NICASTRO / When you saw your favorite player on the court doing cool stuff, it was like, Oh s---, this is different, this is cool—just like when you saw people kicking the crap out of each other in Mortal Kombat.
Internal tests of the game were fervent and frequent, and in the field players responded with unprecedented enthusiasm.
TURMELL / I'm a big gambler. Every game we tested got competitive. We'd gamble for vending machine products. With Jam it escalated into cash.
CARLTON / I lost at least a couple hundred bucks playing that game.
TURMELL / I'd work on the game until four or five o'clock p.m. and then say, "I got a bunch of changes in, come and give this a shot." We might play for a couple hours, have dinner, and then I would work some more, till 10 or 11, then play a bit more.... Six months in we had something worthy of testing. We brought it to Dennis' Place in Chicago, one of our favorite arcades. The way the business works, they said, you'd know on the first day if you had a hit game.
NICASTRO / We thought the numbers were screwy. We hadn't yet tested anything that had made that much money.
CARLTON / Anything over $1,000 a week was considered a good game. Mortal Kombat was making about $1,200 to $1,400. The second week NBA Jam was out there, it made something like $2,200 in a week.
NICASTRO / We heard reports that operators said the game was broken. That got us all upset. Why don't we know what's happening? Well, get out there and check it out, goddammit! It turns out the cash boxes were stuffed. The coin mechanisms couldn't take any more quarters.
CARLTON / Sal and I went to see what the hell was going on. We walk into the arcade and there are like 20 guys standing around while four players play. They were watching it like they're watching an actual basketball game, cheering every basket.
TURMELL / They'd do a dunk they'd never seen before and start screaming and running around.
LIPTAK / All the stuff that we thought was fun and hoped the public would think was fun, we saw it.
TURMELL / Testing, though, showed that if you were blowing out your opponent—even if you were winning—you weren't paying money to continue. If you were getting blown out, why would you pay more? So I put in a rubber-banding system, which we called CPU Assistance.
HEY / Mark [Turmell] is from Detroit. He set it so that if you were playing as the Bulls [who were dominating the NBA at the time] against his Pistons, your shooting percentage would be completely awry, especially near the end of a close game.
CARLTON / He says he coded the Bulls to always throw a brick at the last second. I always played as the Bulls and he always played as the Pistons, and he won most of the time—so maybe he actually did that.
TURMELL / Nobody really detected it at the time....
As encouraging as the testing phase was, few expected the response the game received upon release.
LIPTAK / If a game sold around 2,000 units back then, that was the break-even point. The Terminator game came out around that time and sold like 10,000 units. We were like, It would be great if we could do that. Then we shipped over, like, 20,000 units.
EDDIE ADLUM / RePlay magazine publisher /NBA Jam entered our chart at No. 1. It's very strange for that to happen.
HEY / The operators were like, "Make the coin boxes bigger because we've gotta empty this thing every hour!"
ADLUM / The video game business was on its way down, but this was one of the few machines that was really kicking butt.
TURMELL / One arcade in Chicago set a Guinness world record: $2,468 in one week. I still have that earnings report. You'd see NBA Jam at the top, making four times what the No. 2 game was making.
BENJAMIN HOCHMAN / St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist / There was a Tropicana Lanes where I grew up, in Clayton, Missouri. It was a big deal when they got NBA Jam.
J.E. SKEETS / NBATV host / The first time I played was at the 7-Eleven in my small town in Canada. I vividly remember trying to convince my mom to give me quarters.
BRANDON KRISZTAL / KOA NewsRadio producer / At the Jewish Community Center in Dallas we'd be playing it for hours on end. It makes me think about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hours rule.
TREY KERBY / NBATV host / If you could dream up the way a kid wants to play basketball, that's exactly what NBA Jam was. It got rid of all the boring stuff: free throws, backcourt violations.
KITZROW / There was a bigger crowd every time I went to the arcade in Chicago, people lined up seven or eight deep with their quarters piled on top of the cabinet, calling for next.
CARLTON / A year later I'm on vacation with my wife in Bologna, Italy. We're walking down the street and there's an arcade. I figure, I'll see what kind of games they have over here. I walk in and there's NBA Jam, right in front, people all around it. It was so bizarre.
TSUI / People felt very competitive, not just in the arcade but in restaurants and bars and bowling alleys. The key thing: It was a four-player game, so you had four people at a bar, whoopin' it up, screaming when big things happen, and that attracts other people. It had a big spectacle around it.
STEVEN L. KENT / Video game historian / Before NBA Jam, basketball games looked like Double Dribble, with animated cut scenes if you slammed the ball, kind of Leroy Neimanesque.
HOCHMAN / The instant you saw NBA Jam, you realized this was the next level. It reminds me of Babe Ruth in baseball: Before him you had Home Run Baker and all these guys hitting eight, nine ... 14 home runs. Then comes Babe Ruth hitting 40, 50, 60. That was the disparity.
SHARPE / Everything before Jam tended to be more simulation-based. We were as far away from that as anybody. Tim Kitzrow's play-by-play? My god, this is a party.
SKEETS / There were all these cheats in the game, hidden characters. That blew my mind. Some kid from out of town would show up and he'd know about a code, and you were like, What?!
TURMELL / We had a code where if [a designer] put in his initials and a number, then you could play as him. You'd go into an arcade and challenge somebody, then pull up your head and they'd do a double take and freak out—How'd you do that? Of course we had better stats than everybody else. I had the best stats.
KITZROW / I'd walk up behind guys playing and yell out, "Ugly shot! Get that stuff outta here!" They'd say, "Hey, you sound like the guy." I'd say, "I am the guy!" Then I'd walk away.
CARLTON / I was in a bar playing pool and this guy at the next table goes, "He's heating up!" [a line from the game]. I'm like, No way is he quoting a game I just helped put out. His next shot went in and he goes, "He's on fire!" Oh my god, that was weird.
KITZROW / Same thing at the gym. I'd play basketball at the YMCA and I would ask some kid his name. Then I'd say, "Jeffrey, from downtown!" "You sound like that guy from the video game." "I am, man! I'm Mr. Boomshakalaka!" All the kids would gather around; it was this pied piper situation. "Say my name! Say my name!"
DIVITA / We talked about putting cameras on the game so a customer could get his actual face onto a character, but the effort was more than we wanted to deal with. Plus, for any game with a camera there's the TTP factor. Time To Penis. How long is it gonna take before somebody puts their penis on video? Any time there's a camera on anything, that always happens.
PRICE / I'd go into arcades to see if they had NBA Jam. I played as myself a few times. I made a lot of threes.
KENDALL GILL / Charlotte Hornets guard-forward / I was interested in seeing myself, whether I had the high-top fade. They pretty much had it down.
HOWARD / My first year in training camp with the Jazz, [guard] Tim Legler and I would literally spend all of our per diem in the arcade on NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat. No kid could match that. Kids would see these stacks of quarters and go, "I guess I'm not gonna play."
GLEN RICE / Miami Heat forward / I'd go to the mall arcade and there'd be lines out the door. But they'd let me cut. They'd be like: "Omigod, it's Glen. Let's play with the Heat. You be Rony Seikaly and I'll be you." And I'd be like, "Oh no. I love Rony, but I need to be me."
HOWARD / I was playing against the Blazers in Utah one time and during the game [Portland forward] Tracy Murray was like, "Hey man, how'd you get in NBA Jam?" [Beyond being a game model, Howard was also a secret character.] He said, "My brother always plays as you and I can never beat him; you're just automatic." I laughed and told him, "Yeah, I actually made the game."
TURMELL / After we showed Jam at the 1993 NBA All-Star Weekend in Utah, Shaq reached out to us.
SHAQUILLE O'NEAL / Orlando Magic center / I bought a couple machines and had tournaments at my house. One of my friends was in the arcade industry; I'd call him [on road trips] and say, "I'm coming to Philly, do you know anybody?" I'd have them put the game in my hotel room. I was young and had so much money, I didn't really care. Rent it for a night, two nights, the weekend....
TURMELL / Shaq told me the players would hang out and gamble on it.
O'NEAL / Penny Hardaway was good. I used to play as Chris Mullin and Reggie Miller all day. All day.
RICE / I purchased a cabinet. We didn't get any sleep in my house, we played that game all the time. We would have to get the buttons replaced.
CARLTON / One day, I'm sitting at my cubicle at Midway and I hear this little voice behind me say, "Carlton! Hey, it's Carlton!" I turn around and there's Macaulay Culkin looking at me.
TSUI / I think he was filming Richie Rich. He wanted to stop by and meet the people who made Mortal Kombat. The next thing you know, the kid and one of his brothers are running around the studio.
CARLTON / He goes, "I always play as [your secret character]." And then he walks away.
TURMELL / Gary Payton got a hold of me and wanted to be in the game. [Payton was still on the verge of breaking out; the Sonics were represented in Jam by Shawn Kemp and Benoit Benjamin.] I told him what we would need, not thinking anything would come of it. It's a lot of effort, like nine images for the head.... Then I received photographs in the mail, Payton standing in front of a wall at all these angles. Then he said, "Oh, I'm buddies with Ken Griffey Jr., and he wants to be in the game.... And Michael Jordan wants to be in the game."
DIVITA / [Griffey] did send us shots of him wearing a backwards baseball hat.
TURMELL / I did a special version of the game with the three of them in it. I sent that to Payton. I was happy to do it, but it was pretty early in his career. It wasn't even clear it was the right move.
KRISZTAL / It's obviously a ridiculous video game. I played the other day and John Stockton had a bunch of blocks, a bunch of dunks. You have to suspend reality.
IUZZOLINO / I was a lot better in the game than in person. I could dunk in the game.
HEY / In the arcade people just started talking back to the screen, "Boomshakalaka!" or "I'm on fire!"
HOCHMAN / Getting on fire was one of the coolest things you could do in 1993. It became part of the lexicon. We'd be at eighth-grade basketball practice, making layups, going, "Boomshakalaka!"
SKEETS / That was ingrained in any pickup game. If you hit two shots in a row, you were on fire. You didn't even have to wait for the third. My friends and I recorded each other dunking on a six-foot rim, yelling "Boomshakalaka!" Thank God YouTube didn't exist.
RICE / My teammates would say it quite often about me: "He's on fire!" And then Harold Miner would dunk: "Boomshakalaka!"
After the success of the original arcade game, NBA Jam would gain further esteem a year later when an updated Tournament Edition —including a choice of a third player for each team—was released in the arcade and on home game consoles, through Acclaim Entertainment.
KENT / The real eruption for NBA Jam was as a console game.
DIVITA / In arcades you can only hit so many people.
NICASTRO / We had a deal with Acclaim to port our coin-op games out for home use. They made a lot of money, we made a lot of money. But we made less than if we'd gone straight to the home market ourselves.
KERBY / I had a Super Nintendo at my dad's house and a Sega Genesis at my mom's house. And I had NBA Jam for both of them. It was awesome.
HOCHMAN / The idea that NBA Jam could be in my house, at my fingertips whenever I want? What a sensation. I remember being in my basement for hours playing that game. The books I could've read....
LIPTAK / Then we had the whole debacle of losing the license [to the NBA Jam name] in 1996. Acclaim ended up getting it.
DIVITA / They made their own version [NBA Jam Extreme, for consoles and arcades], and it was an abomination.
In 2009, with its arcade division long-shuttered due to industry decline, Midway folded. And yet NBA Jam's legacy survives, both in its influence on games like NFL Blitz and MLB Slugfest, and in the modern versions of Jam, on consoles and mobile platforms. (EA Sports owns the rights). Still, for many the original reigns supreme, even 24 years later.
HEY / It was a perfect '90s thing. It epitomized this new era of bravado and energy and personality.
HOWARD / Two years ago I was an analyst for the Pelicans. Driving into the parking lot one time, I roll down the window and the attendant goes, "He's on fire!" I go, "Why'd you say that?" He says, "NBA Jam, baby!" I just cracked up.
KRISZTAL / I was at a house party four years ago, playing beer pong against a college kid, and he goes, "I'm on fire, you gotta give me the ball back." I go, "What do you mean?" He goes, "I made three in a row." I said, "Oh, like NBA Jam—you're on fire." He had no idea what I was talking about.
PAUL KERMIZIAN / Owner of Barcade retro arcade chain / We have an NBA Jam: Tournament Edition at [all seven locations]. It's one of the most popular games we have. It's essential. We wouldn't open a location without it.
KERBY / They cracked the code. It was just a simple, superfun version of basketball.
LIPTAK / On a sad note, it's kind of hard to top that. It sets a high bar. I haven't had a product that successful since.
KENT / The game has a huge legacy. Developers—on football games, baseball, golf, boxing—started putting in codes, balls caught on fire, players became unstoppable.... All that was popularized by NBA Jam.
HEY / I teach in the game-development department at DePaul. I always ask my students, "Who's played NBA Jam?" Many of them have, some form of it.
SKEETS / I played the arcade, played the console—and now, at 36, I'm still playing it at a friend's house on a Friday night.
SHARPE / It was a masterpiece, everything coming together at the right time. The game endures.
"I'd been going through a funk phase, listening to Sly & the Family Stone. I'd just listened to 'I Want to Take You Higher.' They actually say 'BOO-LAKA-LAKA-LAKA' in the song—I just misquoted it."
"Anything over $1,000 a week was considered a good game. Mortal Kombat was making about $1,200 to $1,400. The second week NBA Jam was out there, it made SOMETHING LIKE $2,200."
"Tim Legler and I would literally spend all of our per diem on NBA Jam. No kid could match that. Kids would see these stacks of quarters and go, 'I GUESS I'M NOT GONNA PLAY.'"