Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games, as well as the real NBA, and other areas of interest to our community. The feature is presented as either a list of five items, or in the form of a Top 5 countdown. This week’s Five is a list of five players that you may not recall appearing on a game cover.
Although cover players have no bearing on the quality of basketball video games – some of the best releases have featured unpopular choices in that regard – they’re still one of the first things that we picture when we think of specific games. Enthusiastic basketball gamers will most likely be able to name the cover player of any given title they’re familiar with, at least when it comes to the main face of the game. Things get trickier when it comes to the international versions, where regional cover players are used to appeal to the local market.
In recent years, announcing and promoting regional/alternate covers has become a bigger part of the preview season. Several years ago, however, those covers weren’t always well-known outside of the markets that received them, with some flying under the radar for many years. As such, one can be forgiven for thinking that some of them are bootlegs or the work of Photoshop, but physical copies of the games prove that they’re legitimate. Although these versions are usually identical to the main release – except their language in some cases – there’s a certain novelty to them, making them sought-after collectibles. Of course, tracking them down often isn’t cheap or easy.
1. Arvydas Sabonis (NBA Live 2001)
A lot of basketball gamers – and I must include myself here – forget that Arvydas Sabonis was actually NBA Live’s first international cover player. In our defense, the World Wide Web was still in its relative infancy back then, and the preview season for basketball video games wasn’t anything like it is in the social media age (or even what it would become just a few years later, for that matter). An exclusive Lithuanian cover wasn’t a common talking point compared to other conversations about NBA Live 2001; namely, the delay of the PC version, and the absence of an official patch that had been planned, but was scrapped due to a lack of resources and a small team.
With that in mind, consider this an attempt at making up for that oversight, as well as a correction to any previous articles that cited other names as being the first regional cover player. Incidentally, the Arvydas Sabonis cover isn’t easy to get a hold of. It rarely shows up on eBay, and like most international covers, it’s usually expensive (though one has recently surfaced). I’ll freely admit to being a slightly obsessive collector when it comes to basketball video games, and I do enjoy adding oddities and rarities whenever it’s in the budget. I probably won’t ever own the Arvydas Sabonis version of NBA Live 2001, but I’ll be sure to always remember it from now on.
2. Michael Jordan (NBA Live 2002)
MJ’s appearance on the Japanese cover of NBA Live 2002 arguably isn’t as obscure as Arvydas Sabonis’ NBA Live 2001 cover, but not everyone is aware of it. I’d seen it a couple of times on eBay, and originally wondered if it was a bootleg. It’s legit though, making it the only video game with a cover that features Michael Jordan sporting a Washington Wizards jersey. It’s interesting that he was only featured on the Japanese cover, while Steve Francis was the face of the game everywhere else. MJ was likely more well-known in Japan, but if EA were able to license him, you’d think he’d be the worldwide cover player; especially since his comeback was obviously a big deal.
This is one of the more affordable international covers for collectors to get their hands on. Glancing at some recent listings, they’re a little more expensive than what I paid for it a couple of years ago (particularly when you add in postage), but they’re not too unreasonably priced. Keep in mind that unless you have a Japanese console, the only way to actually play the game will be on an emulator. Of course, if you’re a collector then you probably already own a playable version of the game for your region and hardware, and it’s the just the cover you’re interested in. Incidentally, a render of MJ also appears on the Japanese cover of the first NBA Street instead of Stretch Monroe.
3. Raul Lopez (NBA Live 2004)
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Marc Gasol was the first Spanish player to appear on the cover of an NBA video game, be it a regional release or otherwise. You would be incorrect however, as that honour goes to his former teammate on Spain’s national team, Raul Lopez. Drafted the same year as Gasol, Lopez wouldn’t debut in the NBA until the 2004 season, appearing in all 82 games for the Utah Jazz. He also graced the Spanish cover of NBA Live 2004, interestingly wearing the Jazz’s black alternate jersey that they wore from 1999 through to 2004. Gasol would eventually become the face of the Spanish versions of NBA Live (and later NBA 2K), but Lopez was first.
As you may recall, this regional version of NBA Live 2004 also resulted in Spain’s national team being included in the game. They were unlocked by default in their home country, but were hidden in all other regions. On PC at least, they could be activated by changing their TEAMCODE value in the database. The Lopez cover can be found on eBay at fairly reasonable prices, albeit slightly more expensive than versions with Vince Carter on the cover. Unlike NBA Live 2002 however, there is a PC version of NBA Live 2004. As such, if you want to easily play the Lopez version of the game, you can track down a PC copy and not have to worry about region locks.
4. Yuta Tabuse (NBA Live 06)
Out of all of the potentially forgotten cover players from different regions, Yuta Tabuse is very likely the most obscure, not to mention the most interesting. Known as “the Michael Jordan of Japan” – ironic given MJ’s Japanese-exclusive NBA Live 2002 cover – Yuta is still playing professional basketball in 2021. His time in the NBA was very brief however, amounting to just 17 minutes of court time in four games for the Phoenix Suns in the 2005 season. That still gives him the distinction of being the first Japanese player to play in the NBA, and although he never returned to the league, he did have further stints in the D-League and participated in Summer League play.
His popularity resulted in Yuta appearing on the Japanese cover of NBA Live 06. He was actually in the game as a result of signing with the Los Angeles Clippers during the 2005 offseason, but by the time NBA Live 06’s rosters were finalised, he’d been cut and was subsequently in the Free Agent pool. This means that Yuta was the first Japanese player to appear on an NBA video game cover, the first free agent to be a cover player, and thus the first non-active player who wasn’t an NBA legend to be the face of an NBA-licensed game. At 5’8″, he’s also the shortest cover player. If you want to collect that cover though, good luck! I’ve yet to see it appear on eBay.
5. Luol Deng (NBA Live 09 & 10)
Contrary to Yuta Tabuse’s NBA Live 06 cover, I’m guessing that Luol Deng’s appearance on the cover of NBA Live 09 and NBA Live 10 in the United Kingdom is more widely known, but probably still not universally so. Deng was born in Sudan (in an area that is now part of South Sudan), but immigrated to England and became a British citizen in 2006, eventually playing for their national basketball team. As such, when EA Sports decided to have a regional NBA Live cover for the United Kingdom, Deng ended up being the man for two years running. It also makes him one of the few cover players from the Chicago Bulls, along with Michael Jordan and Derrick Rose.
Interestingly, it seems as though Deng’s covers ended up in other PAL regions. Copies have surfaced here in Australia, and while some of them may be imported, it does appear that we received some Deng versions along with the main covers featuring Tony Parker and Dwight Howard. I’ve seen them appear on eBay from time to time, and I picked one up for just a few dollars, making it one of the cheapest alternate covers to collect. If you want a playable copy and you’re in an NTSC region, you’ll want to opt for the PlayStation 3 version, given that the console is region-free. As with the other examples of course, if you already have the game, it’s a fun collectible.
Do you recall these players being on the cover of games in certain markets? Who are some of the other regional cover players, or otherwise unusual cover players, that you can recall? Have your say in the comments below, 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.