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 player absences in various basketball video games that you may not remember.
What’s a sure sign that someone has been playing basketball video games since the 90s? They remember a time when sim titles weren’t guaranteed to feature every player in the NBA! These days, the agreement with the Players’ Association allows all active players to be represented in licensed video games. Roster updates will take care of anyone who’s missing at launch, adding new players as the season progresses. Back in the day, we had to resolve player absences ourselves, either by customising our own rosters, or downloading community-made updates whenever possible.
Even if you don’t remember those days from personal experience, you’ve probably seen and heard people like me talking about them! As such, prominent examples of player absences like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley are well-known. There have been some other noteworthy player absences through the years however, some of which have likely been forgotten. Since I enjoy NBA and basketball game trivia, I’m sharing five examples of potentially overlooked player absences that I recall. Please note that I’m referring to players who were absent when they were still active in the league, so historical players that remain unlicensed in NBA 2K don’t count here.
1. David Robinson (NBA Live 95 PC)
When you think of the player absences that we needed to account for in roster mods for video games back in the 90s, once again, the names that spring to mind are likely Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. Both players retained control of their likeness rights, and while they did appear in titles released earlier in the decade, by the mid 90s they were locks to be absent and often replaced by Roster Players. They weren’t the only future Hall of Famers that needed to be added to the rosters of NBA Live 95 PC, though. San Antonio Spurs All-Star David Robinson was also missing, the only time that he wasn’t included in the official rosters of NBA Live while an active player.
Why was The Admiral AWOL? He was the face of NBA Action ’95: Starring David Robinson! Developed by Double Diamond Sports, the game was exclusive to Sega Genesis. Unlike the earlier release David Robinson’s Supreme Court, The Admiral isn’t the only real player in the game, as NBA Action ’95 features full team rosters. It’s just that it also had the exclusive rights to his likeness, both in-game and on the cover. NBA Live 95 PC replaced Robinson in the Spurs’ lineup with Moses Malone, who’d played his last game by the time NBA Live 95 PC came out. Meanwhile, Robinson was replaced by “All-Star Center” – a Roster Player – on the Western All-Stars squad.
2. Shaquille O’Neal (Most 1996 and 1997 Season Games)
There was a time when an exclusive deal kept Shaquille O’Neal out of most of the annual NBA video games, and no, it wasn’t Shaq Fu! There’s a reason that a blurb on the back of NBA Live 97 boasted “NBA Live has Shaq”: it was the only game that did that year. In fact, he was exclusive to NBA Live 96 as well. Fire up the original NBA ShootOut (aka Total NBA in PAL regions), NBA Full Court Press, or any other 1996 or 1997 season game that wasn’t made by EA Sports, and the Diesel won’t be on the Orlando Magic or Los Angeles Lakers. It represents one of the last times that an active player couldn’t appear in all NBA-licensed games due to an exclusive deal.
What’s funny is that the game Shaq signed on to be the face of never actually came out. Yes, he was the cover player for NBA Live 96 on PC and PlayStation, and that did come out, but I’m talking about Slam: Shaq vs. the Legends. This cancelled Sega Genesis game was set to star Shaq and a handful of licensed NBA Legends, including Julius Erving. A prototype has leaked, and is playable on an emulator. Although there was never an official release, the game still had an impact through causing Shaq to be absent from other titles. Of course, Konami just stuck a Shaq lookalike in NBA in the Zone 2 along with a fake MJ and Chuck, which the NBA wasn’t too pleased about.
3. Latrell Sprewell (Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside)
As a game released in the 1998 season, Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside was yet another title wherein Michael Jordan was replaced by a Roster Player. Like other 1998 season releases however, Charles Barkley did officially appear in the game, and can be found on the Houston Rockets. Shaquille O’Neal was no longer exclusive to NBA Live, so he joined the cover player in Los Angeles. Due to the fact it only featured 12-man rosters, there are a number of player absences in Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside by default. As far as notable examples are concerned though, the absence that stands out the most is Latrell Sprewell, then a Golden State Warrior.
If you know your NBA history, you’ll recall why that is. In December 1997, Sprewell was involved in an altercation in practice that culminated in him choking head coach P.J. Carlesimo. The Warriors attempted to void his contract, and while that decision was overturned, he was suspended for the rest of the season. Courtside wasn’t released until April (and June in PAL regions), coinciding with Sprewell’s banishment from the league. Therefore, he’s nowhere to be found in the game. The incident is often mentioned when Sprewell’s name comes up, but its impact on Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside may fly under the radar, as its late release made his absence rather unique.
4. A Number of Rookies (NBA Live 2002)
I’ve written an entire article about these player absences, but to that point, there’s no way that I can leave them off this list. In the days before official roster updates, it was a given that most games would launch with a handful of missing players, thanks to the roster cut-off date. Aside from holdouts like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley – and other exceptions on this list – the big names were usually accounted for, as were the key rotation players. Once games began to be updated for the season they were set in, this included the current crop of rookies, with the exception of games that were affected by a lockout. NBA Live 2002 wasn’t one of them, but it was missing rookies.
Granted, there were only five missing rookies who were on a roster when the season tipped off, but they were rather significant player absences. Those players were Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler, Tony Parker, Earl Watson, and Eddie Griffin. Chandler, Curry, and Griffin were all top ten picks; top five in Curry and Chandler’s case, and both were Bulls. Parker was a regular starter, and Griffin also played significant minutes. Unfortunately, all were signed after the roster cut-off date, though they were included in NBA 2K2 as it was released later. As I said in my previous article, it’s weird that the Bulls delayed those rookie signings, but that’s Jerry Krause for you.
5. Yao Ming (NBA Live 2003 Console)
The aforementioned player absences wouldn’t be the last time that a prominent first year player would be missing. Indeed, the very next year, the same fate befell the number one pick, Yao Ming. If you’ve been following the hype surrounding Victor Wembanyama, there was similar buzz around the 7’6″ Yao Ming all those years ago. The prospect of bringing him to the NBA was a far more delicate situation, however. Diplomatic relationships with China were tense, especially after Wang Zhizhi refused to return to play for the national team. The CBA finally granted permission for Yao to play in the NBA the morning of the Draft, assured that the Rockets would pick him.
Due to his commitments to China’s national team, Yao wasn’t able to join Houston for their preseason camp, and didn’t officially sign with the team until October 9th. This meant that the console versions of NBA Live 2003 had to launch without the number one pick in the roster, thus missing a player that many of us were keen to put on the virtual hardwood. We were still a few years away from official roster updates, so we just had to create him ourselves. On the bright side, the PC version of NBA Live 2003 was released in November, allowing for transactions and players that hadn’t been included on console. If you don’t recall Yao’s absence, you were probably on PC!
Do you remember these player absences? Are there any other unusual player absences that you recall, aside from the most famous examples of Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley? Let me know 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.