Should NBA Jam Be in the NBA Hall of Fame?

Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

Tim Kitzrow has lost track of how many retro video game conventions he’s attended.

The longtime voice actor—best known for his color commentary in the classic arcade game, NBA Jam—appears at so many of them each year that it’s practically become his full-time job. Billing himself as “Mr. Boomshakalaka,” in honor of one of his more memorable catchphrases, he crisscrosses the country, signing autographs for throngs of gamers and basketball fans of a certain age.

“They come up to me and say that my voice helped define their childhood,” says Kitzrow, who is somewhat in disbelief that he’s still talking about an arcade game released over 30 years ago. But such was the magnitude of NBA Jam, whose high-flying dunks and cartoonish take on basketball captivated gamers when it was released in 1993. “People from their 20s all the way to their 50s tell me they grew up on Jam,” he says.

Keeping the game’s legacy alive at conventions across the country is all well and good, but Kitzrow—along with other key members of the NBA Jam design team—have been spending the past few years lobbying for a loftier goal: They want to see their game inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Yes, an arcade game enshrined in Springfield, alongside the likes of Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, and Michael Jordan.

Or, well, something like that. Any sort of recognition would do.

“It’s worthy of that, as crazy as it seems,” says Mark Turmell, the game’s lead designer. “NBA Jam broadened the appeal of the NBA, especially in that era.”

Behind the scenes, Kitzrow has been leading the charge, suggesting for years to various executives and insiders that a dedicated NBA Jam display within the Hall, featuring arcade cabinets and memorabilia, would make for a modern, fan-favorite exhibition.

“Will it actually happen?” Turmell continues. “I’m not really sure… but it puts a big smile on my face just to imagine it.”

Those dreams almost became reality back in 2018. Kitzrow was invited to that year’s induction ceremony and pitched the idea to a variety of key basketball luminaries, none bigger than former NBA commissioner David Stern. Although Stern oversaw the sport during one of its most productive periods in the 1990s and early 2000s, he was seemingly unaware of the legacy of NBA Jam.

Kitzrow explained to him that the game had earned more than a billion dollars in its first year in the arcades—significantly more money than the film Jurassic Park made in theaters that same year, and all of it coming in the form of quarters.

“Stern’s eyes popped out of his head,” Kitzrow laughs. “He said, ‘I had no idea… we weren’t even paying attention to video games back then.’”

But conversations stalled when Stern passed away in January 2020. The pandemic struck shortly after, and everything fell by the wayside. But with the game having just celebrated its 30th anniversary, the NBA Jam team remains hopeful that recognition may yet be in the cards.

“I haven’t let go of that dream,” Kitzrow says.

NBA Jam: still an arcade essential.

NBA Jam, Where Are They Now?

NBA Jam: still an arcade essential.
Erick W. Rasco/Getty Images

In some ways, adding NBA Jam to the Hall of Fame seems like a no brainer. Released in 1993, it proved to be an enormous hit, becoming one of the top-five highest grossing arcade games of all time alongside the likes of Pong and Pac Man, introducing a whole new era of fans—especially kids—to the NBA.

But according to Sal DiVita, another key designer of NBA Jam, it was a slog to convince the NBA to sign off on the game at all back in 1993. The league’s top brass associated arcades with the then-seedy Times Square, and it took a significant amount of time to sway them towards even agreeing to a licensing deal.

“I’m also not sure how much the game really helped the NBA’s bottom line,” DiVita explains. “But what it contributed to the awareness of the NBA was substantial. It convinced a lot of new people who didn’t really like basketball—including myself, in fact—to start following the league.”

In 2019, Reyan Ali published a book detailing the game’s creation and impact. “It’s hard to put into words just how popular it was at the time,” he says. “There were arcade games and sports games before it, but nothing like this—it was the right technology, the right cast of players, and the right branding. A perfect storm coming together.”

Ali notes that the game’s rise to prominence coincided with Michael Jordan’s first three-peat, a time in which the NBA began to explode globally. A big part of that popularity surge, Ali argues, was due to NBA Jam, which shipped arcade cabinets internationally across Europe and Asia and turned many of the NBA’s players into household names.

“I grew up in Pakistan, and the NBA just wasn’t a thing there in the ’90s,” he explains. “Nowadays, of course, you can keep track of it through social media, but my first exposure to basketball was NBA Jam… it was so captivating and interesting that I got fanatically into the NBA.”

Another major aspect of NBA Jam’s lore was the sheer number of actual NBA players who were obsessed with it. Michael Jordan—whose personal licensing deal famously kept him off arcade rosters—requested a unique cabinet made just for him in which he was a playable character. Famous ’90s all-stars such as Shawn Kemp and Larry Johnson, among a host of others, owned cabinets. And Shaquille O’Neal would bring a SEGA Genesis with him on road trips, playing with teammates and betting on their games on a near nightly basis.

“Shaq used to play the game as a type of wish fulfillment,” Ali says. “He’d always play as a three-point shooter, guys who could do things that he couldn’t do in real life. I found it all so funny: Kids at home were wishing they could be Shaq, while Shaq was wishing he could be Chris Mullin.”

And from a broader perspective, a Hall call for NBA Jam would also be significant for video games in general. According to Carly Kocurek, an arcade historian and assistant professor of Digital Humanities and Media Studies at Illinois Institute of Technology, recognition from Springfield would be “a moment of traditional sports acknowledging the importance of video games as part of people’s experience of it.”

She adds, “Games are often viewed as derivative, lesser things, but there are also times when they’re a massive part of popular culture. NBA Jam is important not just for games but for sports, sports marketing, and how we think about business and licensing.”

Although there hasn’t been a new NBA Jam game in more than a decade, the series seems far from over. A documentary is set to be released later this year, and Turmell says that he is frequently approached about ideas to revive the series or create newer, modern versions.

“Things have changed so much in the arcade business,” he says. “Everything is a big showcase kind of piece now, but I could imagine a big, triple monitor thing… huge screens like at Dave & Buster’s. I look forward to taking on a project like that at some point.”

And Kitzrow says that he’s been having revived talks with Hall-of-Fame executives, who are exploring some possibilities.

“I think they get it,” says Kitzrow, who today also lends his voice talent to NBA teams in addition to a host of other video-game and TV projects. “This was an important moment of two different billion-dollar industries coming together… You could set up an exhibit with the old artwork, the blue-screen videos, all the Homage t-shirts, all the subsequent licensed video games that came out. Imagine the draw of that.”

In the meantime, Kitzrow will continue to spread the gospel of NBA Jam at retro gaming conventions near and far (he even officiated a wedding of an NBA Jam superfan last fall). And whether or not a Hall call ever truly materializes for the arcade classic, he says he’s most happy just hearing kudos from the game’s adoring fans.

“They tell me, ‘Thanks for the happy memories,’” he says. “That’s a pretty cool feeling—a pretty cool legacy to have.”

Originally Appeared on GQ