Welcome to another edition of The Friday Five! Every Friday I cover a topic related to basketball gaming, either as a list of five items, or a Top 5 countdown. The topics for these lists and countdowns include everything from fun facts and recollections to commentary and critique. This week’s Five is a list of five cover players that won NBA titles in the same season their game came out.
Last week, I listed five players who graced video game covers in the same year that they made the NBA Finals. More specifically, I was referring to players who made the Finals, but were ultimately the runners-up. Obviously, cover players who won titles while being the face of a game technically qualify as examples for last week’s list as well. However, I did want to draw a distinction between the cover players who “only” made it to the Finals that same year, and those who actually won titles. While both are accomplishments and interesting trivia, the latter is naturally rather more special.
To that end, the number of cover players that won titles in the same year is smaller than the already select group of names who made the Finals while being the face of NBA Live, NBA 2K, or another title. As I noted last week, publishers like EA and 2K are no doubt more interested in a player’s popularity and marketability than whether they’ll be in the Finals, or NBA Champions. I have no doubt that they’re happy when it does occur, but given that it’s a gamble even if they ink a deal with a player from a contender, it’s a bonus boost to the brand at the end of the day. NBA Champion cover players are something that a handful of titles can boast however, including these five.
1. Dwyane Wade (NBA Live 06)
When Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat defeated the Detroit Pistons in the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals, he’d already had one of the most successful seasons for an NBA Live cover player. Jason Kidd was the only other face of NBA Live that had reached the NBA Finals in the same season, just a few years earlier. I wrote an article – which I later revisited in the very first Wayback Wednesday – observing that Wade now had the opportunity to take the next step and become the first player to win a championship and grace the cover of NBA Live in the same year. That opportunity became a reality when the Heat infamously came back from 0-2 to win the title.
Although Wade was the first NBA Live cover player to win a title that same year, he’s not the first example in the history of basketball gaming. Notably, Toni Kukoc – who appeared on the alternate cover of NBA ShootOut ’97 – did so almost a decade earlier. He’s also not the only 2006 season cover player to win a championship; more on that in a moment. Of course, Wade being the Finals MVP made his accomplishment stand out. He was a great choice before the season even began, as he was a rising star who’d reached the Conference Finals the year before. Miami were also a good bet to get over the hump and at least reach the NBA Finals, so EA Sports definitely chose wisely.
2. Shaquille O’Neal (NBA 2K6)
Visual Concepts didn’t do a bad job when choosing their 2006 season cover player, either. Shaquille O’Neal was no stranger to video game covers by 2005, and was still a huge star in the league in every sense of the term. He was starting to slow down, but he was still a major force in the middle for the Miami Heat in his second year with the team. With the Heat looking to challenge Detroit’s place atop the Eastern Conference, and with Shaq having considerably more star power and appeal than Ben Wallace, it was no surprise that he replaced him. As EA Sports had done with Dwyane Wade and the NBA Live 06 cover, 2K was betting on Shaq and the Heat being must-see TV.
And, just as it did for EA, the choice paid off for 2K. As noted above, the Heat won the 2006 NBA Championship, making Shaq the first NBA 2K cover player to win the title in the same season. Wade’s stock was higher as the Finals MVP, though the Xbox 360 version of NBA 2K6 was better-received than NBA Live 06. In any event, for the first and only time, NBA Live and NBA 2K both featured cover players from the same team, and the eventual NBA Champions at that. Shaq went on to appear on the NBA 2K7 cover as well, while NBA Live 07 featured Tracy McGrady. Neither choice proved to be as fortuitous as the cover players for the 2006 season titles had been.
3. Pau Gasol (NBA Live 09, Spanish Cover)
With all due respect to Tony Parker, he stands as one of the more baffling choices of cover players; not just in the NBA Live series, but basketball gaming as a whole. It’s not that he wasn’t a star in his own right, but the timing was unusual. Parker was an entire year removed from winning his third championship with the Spurs, a series in which he was named the Finals MVP. He usually didn’t rank among the most popular NBA players either, though his marriage to Eva Longoria arguably gained him some mainstream attention. To that point, when he was announced as the cover player of NBA Live 09 – the main cover, not just the French version – it was underwhelming.
If EA Sports were set on featuring an international star on the cover of NBA Live 09, they would’ve been better off going with Pau Gasol, who was once again relegated to being the face of the Spanish cover. Alongside Kobe Bryant, Gasol helped the Lakers to return to the NBA Finals in 2009, where they defeated the Orlando Magic. Funnily enough, Parker’s 2007 title coincided with his appearance on the French NBA Live 07 cover, marking the second time in three years that one of NBA Live’s international cover players won titles as the face of the game in their home country. It may be why Parker got the NBA Live 09 cover, but in hindsight, it should’ve been Gasol instead.
4. Kobe Bryant (NBA 2K10)
At an NBA Live community event, I remember the question being raised as to why players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James weren’t appearing on game covers. We were told that it usually came down to expense, as well as demands such as wanting their name in the game’s title. Maybe it was an excuse on EA’s part, or maybe those superstars had a change of heart. Either way, both Kobe and LeBron went on to be NBA 2K cover players without altering the series’ branding. Of the two however, only Kobe joined the list of cover players who won titles in the same season. He earned that distinction when he won his fifth title while being the cover player of NBA 2K10.
The Black Mamba had been the obvious choice when 2K struck a deal to feature his likeness on the NBA 2K10 cover. His Lakers were back atop the West, reaching the Finals in 2008 and winning it all in 2009. Kobe was continuing to climb the all-time scoring charts, and was generally considered to be the best player in the league. Anti-MJ pundits hadn’t yet hitched their bandwagon to LeBron, making Kobe the other name in the GOAT debate du jour. Divisive as he could be, he was still very popular. Being a defending champion with a good chance of going back-to-back was incentive enough I’m sure, and Kobe delivered where NBA Live 10’s Dwight Howard did not.
5. Anthony Davis (NBA 2K20)
While the 2022 NBA Finals do not feature a current cover player, it hasn’t been that long since the face of a game went on to win the championship in the same season. The most recent occurrence came in 2020, when NBA 2K20 cover player Anthony Davis won the title with the Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron James was the Finals MVP of course, but there was no denying that the acquisition of Davis in the offseason propelled them back into title contention. In any case, it added to the short list of NBA 2K cover players who won titles in the same season, following the near miss with Stephen Curry in NBA 2K16 (a cover he shared, coincidentally, with Anthony Davis).
Davis’ appearance on the NBA 2K20 cover is interesting for a couple of other reasons. When Davis was announced as the game’s cover player, he was still officially on the Pelicans. However, after declining to sign an extension and demanding a trade during the 2019 season, a deal was already in the works by mid June. By the time NBA 2K20 was released, he was officially a Laker, setting him up to be a champion and 2K cover player in the same year. The cover notably depicted Davis in a generic jersey. Given the seemingly inevitable split with New Orleans, 2K were no doubt prepared to avoid an outdated cover; especially after what happened with Kyrie Irving and NBA 2K18.
Do you remember these examples of cover players winning titles in the same year their games were released? Does it make those games any more special, or help them to stick in your mind? Share your thoughts in the comments, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next Friday for another Five.