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When NBA Jam dunked its way into arcades in 1993, players discovered just how fun basketball can be when freed from rules, refs, and gravity itself. But just a few years after Midway's billion-dollar hit conquered the world, Midway, publisher Acclaim, and video arcades themselves fell off the map. How did a simple two-on-two basketball game become MVP of the arcade, and how did this champ lose its title?

Journalist Reyan Ali dives deep into the saga, tracking the people and decisions that shaped the series. You'll get to know mischievous Jam architect Mark Turmell, go inside Midway's Chicago office where hungry young talent tapped into cutting-edge tech, and explore the sequels, spin-offs, and tributes that came in the game's wake.

Built out of exhaustive research and original interviews with a star-studded cast -- including Turmell and his original development team, iconic commentator Tim Kitzrow, businessmen and developers at Midway and Acclaim alike, secret characters George Clinton and DJ Jazzy Jeff, Doom co-creator John Romero, and 1990s NBA demigods Glen Rice and Shaq -- Ali's NBA Jam returns you to an era when coin-op was king.

256 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2019

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Reyan Ali

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 30 reviews
Profile Image for Caleb Ross.
Author 38 books184 followers
October 17, 2019
(click the image below to watch the video review)

NBA Jam Boss Fight Books book review

I’m reviewing all of the Boss Fight Books releases, so subscribe to my YouTube channel to be sure you don’t miss future reviews.

This is Boss Fight Books’ biggest release ever, coming in at 256 pages, and while boasting about page count could be seen as an attempt to validate its product in a world where thick books reign supreme, Boss Fight Books has never trafficked in girth. So when I read a statement from this publisher bragging about page count, I know there’s a reason for it. And that reason: NBA Jam the book is full of more and deeper interviews than a Boss Fight Books title has ever attempted before (or at least the ones I’ve read; I imagine Chris Kohler’s Final Fantasy V entry is characteristic of his many years in games journalism). This isn’t to dismiss what Boss Fight Books has done in the past. Most of their books are really, really good. NBA Jam just feels like a new frontier for the publisher, one that puts them on par with other video game histories. NBA Jam would fit comfortably alongside Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner, The Tetris Effect: The Game that Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman, and even Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made by Jason Schreier, though the latter book is a collection of smaller narratives rather than a single long one.

As a fan of Boss Fight Books, there is something to fear with this possible new approach. But I’ll save that for later. For now, let’s dive into NBA Jam by Reyan Ali.

This book isn’t just about the titular game. In fact, the first 25% of the book isn’t about the game at all, but instead is about the environment that allowed the game to be made. Ali spends a lot of time building a proper case for why the game had a hard time being made but also why the arcade loving, competition hungry gaming scene of the 1990s made NBA Jam’s success seem inevitable. On the “hard time being made” side you’ve got Midway who has been through company absorptions and name changes—from Midway Manufacturing Company to Bally Midway to Midway Games and others—and all the internal strife such changes imply, but on the “inevitable success” side you’ve got a take on the sports video game genre that hadn’t been fully explored yet, and so was positioned to be loved by not just gamers and sports fans but by professional basketball players themselves. Without Ali spending time with all of this pre-development history, the true impact of NBA Jam the game would be lost on the reader.

The next 25% of the book is about getting the game made. Here Ali builds upon a lot of the important personalities that he introduced in the previous 25%. Lead designer and programmer Mark Turmell takes the focus for much of the narrative, but this feels appropriate given his title. Of particular interest is when Ali explores the early tensions between what developer Sal Devita called the game’s “exaggerated reality”—the iconic impossibly high jumps and flaming dunks—and the initial desire by some, including developer John Carlton, to keep the game grounded in reality. This feud never reached the level of creator feuds like that between John Carmack and John Romero as detailed in Masters of Doom, but that’s probably because these guys, Turmell and Carlton, aren’t ego maniacs like Romero and Carmack seem to be. In one particularly humbling passage a fight between two developers over a feature ends when one developer implements the argued-over feature and the other, without any ego at all, simplys agrees that the addition is good. Exchanges like this make me have hope for humanity.

The second half of the book explores the rise of the game with substantial page space given to secret characters. For anyone who knows anything about the NBA Jam games, the existence of secret characters like George Clinton, John Elway, Will Smith, tons of political figures, and even the development team members themselves, is a much loved aspect of the game. Ali interviews some of the celebrity subjects and overall it seems celebrities loved being a part of the wackiness.

In this second half of the book, Ali also explores the rise and fall of arcades, meaning, unfortunately, the rise and fall of Williams Bally/Midway, as the company was, for better and for worse, linked closely to arcades. Regarding this slow denouement into bankruptcy Sal Divita would have some harsh words for the late-term management and marketing teams.
“The marketing people would say, ‘Midway is good at over-the-top games. Midway is good at doing sports games.’ The reality is that Midway isn’t good at doing anything. It’s the people. Mark is good at doing sports games. Boon and Tobias are good at doing fighting games. Midway is not a person. It doesn’t have a brain. It doesn’t know how to do anything.”

And ultimately this is the fate of Midway. The people that made the company great were no longer there to make the company great.

Now, about my earlier stated fear of this possible new approach to Boss Fight Books. What Ali’s book lacks, which has been very present in other Boss Fight Books, is the author’s personal connection to the subject game. I would have liked to see some of that, but at the same time I cannot fault the book for avoiding it. This is not a memoir. Not even close. It’s a document of the history of a game franchise and the tumultuous existence of its creators.To force the personal story would sacrifice the amazing narrative Ali has created, and so I absolutely understand not including a personal connection with this book, but I hope Boss Fight Books doesn’t abandon the personal approach entirely.

Do I recommend this book? Absolutely. I’m not a sports game fan or even an arcade game fan, but the story Ali tells here is so interesting and well-researched that it doesn’t matter. If you like video game history, you need to buy this book.
Profile Image for Eric Mesa.
697 reviews17 followers
November 6, 2019
I love the various titles in the Boss Fight Books series; all the moreso when they involve games that meant a lot to me. NBA Jam (which I had filed in my head as NBA Jams), is one of those games that my brothers and I sunk countless hours into. We were always more into arcade or silly sports games like Ken Griffy Jr. for the SNES or Midway's NHL game for the N64 than sports sims. NBA was right in that perfect spot where it wasn't too focused on b-ball and having lots of players on the screen. Instead it was fast-paced and easy and fun and silly - great for pre-teen to teen Eric and brothers.

This book gives a short history of Bally and Midway (which eventually merged) before jumping into the history of NBA Jam. There's a lot I never knew because I never played it in the arcades, only in the home ports. Even though I was the right age for it, I didn't really spend a lot of time at arcades. Most of my arcade time was either at Chuck E Cheese, this one pizza place that had Pac Man and Space Invaders, and bowling alleys when we got bored of bowling but the adults were still at it.

Reyan Ali was able to get lots of interviews and notes to really transport me back to 1992 and all the ups and downs involved in the production of the cabinet. Ali also does a good job explaining things so that anyone who was either too young or not around to experience NBA Jam can understand the video game and arcade landscape in the 90s.

This is one of the better Boss Fight Books (they've almost all been great, but this is in the top tier) and I recommend it to anyone who's into game, but especially anyone with fond memories of NBA Jam.
Profile Image for Peter Derk.
Author 24 books336 followers
November 23, 2019

Great time.

Okay, the first 10% of the book, I was worried. I was reading the same video game origin stories that those of us who travel in the world of video game books have read dozens of times. The milk jug filled with quarters! Damn that jug!

Sometimes, with video game books, it's a little like Spider-Man movies. We don't need to go ALL THE WAY BACK.

But, NBA JAM pretty quickly gets on track, and it's a fun read from there.

The book is well-researched, but it works as a narrative. You don't feel that thing you get with some books, that feeling of "Okay, we get it. You did a shitload of research. I don't need to hear everything you learned." There was a great balance.

You can tell Ali is a fan of not only the games, but the people who made them. And they truly are an interesting crew, especially Tim Kitzrow, the voice of NBA Jam. This dude is unbelievable. He made Marv Albert look like a lazy sack of sacks.

Kitzrow has a web site where you can throw him a few bucks and he'll record messages, outgoing voicemal, and so on. I'm SO tempted, although I can't decide what I'd ask him to say.

Nice work, Mr. Ali and Boss Fight Books.
Profile Image for David.
Author 41 books81 followers
November 10, 2019
In an afterword, NBA JAM author Reyan Ali revealed he'd worked on the book for four years. The result was worth every second of that time.

I went into JAM expecting to learn how one of my favorite arcade games, and one of the most influential titles ever, was made. I got that in spades, plus a detailed history of the rise and fall of Midway, my favorite coin-op developer, and an in-depth examination of the evolution of sports titles and how NBA Jam (the game) influenced the genre—all written in prose that positively pops. Ali mentioned MASTERS OF DOOM author David Kushner as an inspiration, and it shows in the best way.

NBA JAM is one of the best deep dives into the culture and making of video games I've ever read, and should be read by everyone whether they dropped quarters into the world's best b-baller or not.
1 review
October 21, 2019
Like many others in 1993, I spent a lot of money at the arcade, dropping token after token into NBA Jam. I was ten years old at the time, and our state basketball team, the Chicago Bulls were tearing through the NBA for championship gold for the third year in a row. NBA Jam was the perfect combination of everything I was enthralled with at the time - The Bulls and video games, even if the game didn't have Michael Jordan in it.

26 years later, Boss Fight Books had announced that one of the books they would be releasing in 2019 would be by Reyan Ali on the story behind NBA Jam. I was initially pretty shocked at the announcement. In my mind, NBA Jam was just a simple sports game and probably had a pretty minimum amount of history behind its development and rise to fame. I was very wrong. Reyan's book took me to school on just how great of a story NBA Jam had behind it and opened my eyes to how much love was put into this game.

NBA Jam (the book) does a fantastic job of not just documenting some of the trials and tribulations of the game during development but also digs deep and points out some significant moments in the developers' past experiences that would help shape NBA Jam. After reading the book, I'm almost ashamed that I didn't realize just how much legendary talent was behind this incredible arcade game. Mark Turmell, Eugene Jarvis, and Roger Sharpe are only a few of the people that had a hand in releasing this game to the masses, and its all detailed in this book. How did Midway bounce back when the NBA Jam franchise was basically snatched away from them? You need to read the book to find out, trust me; it's worth it.

It is very apparent that Reyan Ali spent several years researching and speaking to people involved not just with developing the game, but those who were involved with it as fans too. These fans range from FAQ writers to even NBA superstars like Shaquille O'Neal. It is incredible how much of an influence NBA Jam had, and now it is carefully curated in this book. If you've ever played a game of NBA Jam, you owe yourself to hear the story behind this game.
Profile Image for Patrick.
3 reviews
December 24, 2019
Absolutely fantastic read for anyone that is interested in arcade games, game development or just enjoyed playing the old Midway sports games. It goes beyond just the history of NBA Jam and documents the careers of everyone involved in making the game as well as the turbulent history of the company Midway Games.
Profile Image for Dale Kulas.
108 reviews
April 8, 2020
I had this book per-ordered for awhile based on the amount of interviews conducted going into it and combined with it taking four years to compile I had high expectations going in. Ali did not disappoint with a quick, but thorough history on everything that lead up to NBA Jam, its breakthrough success in the arcades, at home and with the NBA players on the road and the many ups and downs with the franchise and publishers at Midway and Acclaim in the years that followed. Interviews from developers and NBA players are featured throughout the book that help paint a picture on every vital aspect of NBA Jam and why it became a hit in arcades and has a lasting impact to this day.

The back third of the book touches on the other various iterations of NBA Jam and eventually the downfall of the original creators at Midway. Even being a fan of the game since it first debuted, I came out of this book learning plenty of new facts and insight from the creators and its many fans that I cannot help but give Ali's NBA Jam my highest recommendation.
Profile Image for Brandon Kazimir.
19 reviews
January 18, 2023
This is my first book in this series and I hope to read many more, as I've enjoyed the 33 1/3 series and really dig the idea of the concept of that series being applied to video games. The amount of research that went into this book was impressive and it was really engaging learning about the rise and fall of NBA Jam, Midway, and coin-op games as a whole. The only thing that brought this book down for me were all of the typos. I wouldn't say the book is riddled with them, but they definitely pop their head up somewhat consistently, and a couple of them are pretty egregious. With how mind-boggingly difficult I imagine it would be to conduct the research and contact interviewees for this book, I often wonder how the relatively easy act of proofreading seems to fall under the cracks, especially when the work is otherwise of a very high caliber.
Profile Image for Zeke.
224 reviews12 followers
August 2, 2020
A fun look into the making of an essential piece of 90s nostalgia. It's not an especially well crafted book but was still so great to revisit the game I was most obsessed with as a kid - there are lots of great nuggets sprinkled throughout the book that made me want to deep dive online even more (I am VERY tempted to pay to have Tim Kitzrow record my voicemail message, for example), though some of the scene-setting and game developer details could have been trimmed and I would have loved to read more about the game's heyday and global impact. Nonetheless, if you were as into Jam as I was, you'll enjoy reading this. (And I've got $20 that says nobody beats me on the Sega Genesis if I get to pick the Hornets with Grandmama & Zo).
Profile Image for Thomas Maluck.
Author 2 books31 followers
May 13, 2020
I was relatively uninterested in this game compared to the RPGs and wonky indie games, but this turned out to be one of Boss Fight's best books by far. A fun and interesting deep dive into the development of a blockbuster game, its enduring popular appeal, the people who made up the company behind it, and where the roller coaster continued from there.
177 reviews
January 4, 2021
A fun and informative read about the creation, reception, and legacy of NBA Jam. At points the book widens it's scope too much - it takes too much time setting up the history of the earliest video games and the arcade scene. But when it's focused on fun anecdotes and getting into some of the nitty gritty of the creation of the game it's a good time.
185 reviews
August 4, 2020
Getting to know the crew behind and story of a key piece of my childhood made it all seem better, which is nice these days.

Fingers crossed that someone with the rights relaunches this at some point.
Profile Image for Kaleb.
203 reviews1 follower
August 8, 2020
Nostalgia overload! The book was well researched! This felt like a documentary in book form. I love thinking of the good old days playing NBA JAM on my Sega Genesis! Tons of great stories for those who enjoy gaming!
Profile Image for Michael.
240 reviews1 follower
January 9, 2020
Kind of like Hackers by Steven Levy, but about one specific video game.
Profile Image for Josh Spilker.
Author 8 books22 followers
March 18, 2020
Excellent breakdown of the making and cultural impact. Lots of other info about coin-op games too
Profile Image for Vsevolod Zubarev.
53 reviews3 followers
April 3, 2020
The best documentary book about video games that I've read? Definitely better than the overhyped Masters of Doom. And I didn't even know NBA Jam existed before reading it.
Profile Image for Paxton Holley.
1,438 reviews8 followers
June 14, 2020
Really good delve into the history of the video game NBA Jam; how it was made, who made it, and the legacy it left behind.
1 review1 follower
November 6, 2020
I'm sure there's already another review that says this, but boomshakalala.
Cool profile of interesting people. After reading, you see their personality as you play the game.
July 26, 2021
Great info, the research shows.

This is a great read about the game that took so many of my quarters in college. I always used the Spurs.
Profile Image for Riley Lahd.
3 reviews1 follower
February 8, 2022
Not only an excellent history of an iconic game (that I had never played, but hunted down a cabinet after the book hyped it up so much), but also a great breakdown of the arcade industry and Midway.
Profile Image for Michael.
13 reviews
July 10, 2022
If you're interested in how NBA Jam came to be and everything it spawned this is a great quick read.
Profile Image for Dan Seitz.
393 reviews3 followers
July 14, 2022
A fairly in-depth look at a hugely popular arcade game that also looks at the collapse of an era of gaming more generally.
Profile Image for Edgar Guevara.
Author 1 book1 follower
February 3, 2021
A fine trip down memory lane. Just finished a great read from @nbajambook. A must if:
1) You're a Basketball fan
2) You love Video games
3) All of the listed choices
Profile Image for Ian Riccaboni.
3 reviews
February 25, 2020
Colorful, Concise Just Like the Game Itself

This NBA Jam is much like the game it is written about: bright, colorful, full of details but welcoming and addicting.

Reyan Ali does a great job moving the narrative while providing the appropriate context. The most-avid NBA Jam fans stand to learn something from this.
Profile Image for Greg Otto.
53 reviews4 followers
December 29, 2019

If you like NBA Jam, you'll love this book. A lot more interesting than you would ever imagine. Buy the book!
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