NBA Jam might well be heralded as a sports game classic for years and years to come. But in light of recent pop culture events, it's fun to remember how a classic rivalry was so ingrained in the sport of basketball at the time, it even found its way into Jam's code.
ESPN aired the first couple episodes of its 10-part documentary series The Last Dance, all about Michael Jordan and the historic 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls. Years before that season, Jordan's Bulls and the Detroit Pistons formed a ferocious rivalry, with the Pistons instituting a "Jordan Rules" defense to specifically limit Jordan's impact on the game.
NBA Jam was released in 1993, and quickly became a massive hit. In the years since, we've learned more and more about its development, with all of its odd quirks and hidden Bart Simposon references. But in 2008, there was one more bit of trivia to learn: buzzer beaters were, in fact, rigged in the Pistons' favor when they played the Bulls.
In a 2008 interview with ESPN (thanks to Joshua Rivera for pointing it out), developer Mark Turmell discussed a rumor about Chicago player Scottie Pippen's ratings dropping when he played certain teams.
"It's true, but only when the Bulls played the Pistons," said Tumell. "If 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. There was the big competition back in the day between the Pistons and the Bulls, and since I was always a big Pistons fan, that was my opportunity to level the playing field."
While Pippen repped the Bulls in NBA Jam, MJ himself didn't appear in the arcade game because he pulled himself out of the licensing of the NBA. But, secretly, Jordan and Gary Payton both wanted to be in Jam. According to the interview with Tumell, there are versions of NBA Jam out there with both on the roster.
NBA Jam has since become a historic part of arcade culture, with entire books written about its development and impact. Though it's seen a number of ports over the years, even now, it stands as a fascinating commentary on basketball at the time. Also, there are virtually no sports airing at the moment due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, so it's a great time to get back into old rivalries and arcade classics.