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 part three in a series on players who have appeared in more video games than real NBA games.
While I enjoy using The Friday Five to analyse topics in five points, rank items in a Top 5 countdown, or offer up some other opinions or commentary, I really enjoy using this feature to share obscure basketball gaming trivia. A topic that I’ve found particularly fascinating to research is the number of players who ended up appearing in more video games than they did actual NBA games. Thanks to early roster cut-off dates and last minute roster cuts before the season tips off, several players have made their virtual hardwood debut without ever playing an official minute in the league.
My research has turned up ten such players, who I talked about in parts one and two of this series. Not only had they managed to be included in video games without ever making it to an official NBA game, but some had appeared in multiple titles despite never making their league debut! I’ve got five more examples for you today, but this list is a little different. All five of these players have played in the NBA, appearing in just one game apiece. However, they’ve ended up in the rosters of more than one video game, meaning that their appearances on the virtual hardwood outnumber their real life career total. Let’s take a look at these one-and-not-quite-done players!
1. Gani Lawal (NBA 2K11-2K14)
An old-school power forward that played college ball for Georgia Tech, Gani Lawal was taken 46th overall in the 2010 Draft by the Phoenix Suns. He spent the early part of his rookie season assigned to the D-League, playing for the Iowa Energy (now the Iowa Wolves of the G League). He was recalled on December 19th, and on December 31st, made his NBA debut. Lawal played two minutes in the Suns’ 92-75 victory over the Detroit Pistons, tallying just one foul in the contest. Unfortunately he tore his ACL on January 6th, ending his season. Following a stint in the Polish Basketball League during the 2011 lockout, he was cut by the Suns and hasn’t played in the NBA since.
Given that Gani Lawal was a 2010 draftee who was under contract when NBA 2K11 was released, he appears in the game. He was still under contract when NBA 2K12 came out, and due to the aforementioned lockout, the game launched with final 2011 season rosters anyway. After being included in the rosters for NBA 2K13, his tenure on the virtual hardwood was extended courtesy of signing with the Philadelphia 76ers on October 5th 2013, only to be cut again before the 2014 season tipped off. As such, despite only appearing in one official NBA game, Lawal’s video game career spans four seasons’ worth of titles. As of writing, he plays for Krka in Slovenia.
2. Chris Owens (NBA Live 2003, NBA Live 2004)
When the Memphis Grizzlies traded for Chris Owens, who had been taken by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 42nd pick of the 2002 Draft, they didn’t have a lot of minutes to spare in their frontcourt rotation. Even trading away Drew Gooden midseason didn’t free up a lot of playing time, and with players like Pau Gasol, Stromile Swift, Mike Miller, and Shane Battier ahead of him, Owens was stuck warming the bench. His first and only official NBA game came on April 15th 2003, as the season was drawing to a close. In six minutes, Owens had four points, one offensive rebound, and one turnover in the 97-86 loss to the Houston Rockets.
Included as a member of the Grizzlies in NBA Live 2003, Owens also appeared in the Free Agents Pool in NBA Live 2004. In real life, he continued his professional career playing in the now-defunct United State Basketball League. He later played in the Continental Basketball Association (now also defunct) and Europe, before retiring in 2015 after a year in Argentina with Argentino de Junín. Beyond this trivia note about his NBA career and appearances in basketball video games, it’s also worth mentioning that Chris Owens is the great-nephew of Jesse Owens, the legendary track and field star who famously won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
3. Slavko Vranes (NBA Live 2004, NBA Live 2005)
Next up is Slavko Vranes, whose lone appearance came in the 2004 season. Drafted by the New York Knicks with the 39th pick in 2003, the 7’5″ (or possibly 7’7″) Vranes never actually got to play in the Big Apple; not in an official game, at any rate. He was cut by the team on Christmas Eve 2003, but signed a ten-day contract with the Portland Trail Blazers on January 5th 2004. He debuted for the team three days later, playing a little under three minutes in a 96-75 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. During that brief appearance, Vranes was scoreless on one field goal attempt, and committed a foul. He wouldn’t receive a second ten-day contract from the Blazers.
His NBA career was done, but not on the virtual hardwood! Slavko Vranes’ video game career spanned two seasons, as he appeared on the New York Knicks in NBA Live 2004’s default roster, and then as a free agent in NBA Live 2005. Players can be included in video games up to one year after their last contract has expired, which has resulted in the Free Agents Pool in the following game playing host to benchwarmers, journeyman, and big names alike. Slavko Vranes was once among them, which earns him a place on this list. He was still active as of 2018, mostly playing in Europe and the Middle East, as well as representing Montenegro in international competition.
4. Ratko Varda (NBA Live 2002, NBA Live 2003)
Speaking of big men from the Balkans, Ratko Varda also makes this list. After going undrafted in 2001, Varda signed with the Detroit Pistons in July 2001. He made the roster, and therefore appeared as a member of the team in NBA Live 2002. He rode the bench however, before finally making his NBA debut on February 12th in a 99-71 loss to the Phoenix Suns. He only played around six minutes in the blowout loss, but made the most of his court time by scoring five points, shooting two-for-three from the field and one-for-one at the foul line. Varda also had one defensive rebound, one turnover, and three fouls in his first and last official NBA game.
After spending the rest of his rookie season watching from the sideline, Ratko Varda was traded to Washington along with Jerry Stackhouse and Brian Cardinal, with the Wizards sending the Pistons Richard Hamilton, Bobby Simmons, and Hubert Davis in return. Varda wouldn’t get to play with Michael Jordan in his final season however – not in any games that counted at least – as he was released in December 2002 having never tallied another minute in the NBA. This still allowed him to appear in NBA Live 2003 though, joining the fraternity of players who have appeared in more video games than real NBA games. He retired in 2017 after primarily playing in Europe.
5. Steven Hill (NBA 2K9-NBA 2K11)
Although his professional basketball career was brief, former Arkansas big man Steven Hill has been included in three seasons’ worth of video games, spanning NBA 2K9 to NBA 2K11. Undrafted in 2008, he signed with Portland in August, but the Trail Blazers released him in October. That window was sufficient for him to be included in NBA 2K9’s roster however, and in early November, the real Steven Hill signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He played one game for the Thunder on November 12th, a 109-92 loss to the Orlando Magic. In two minutes, he had two points on one field goal attempt, as well as one defensive and two offensive rebounds.
Shortly after his debut, which also turned out to be his last NBA game, Steven Hill was assigned to the Thunder’s D-League affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers (now known as the Oklahoma City Blue in the G League) on November 21st. He was recalled to the Thunder on December 13th after playing five games for the 66ers, but was released on December 30th. He wouldn’t play in another NBA game, though he did have stints with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Sacramento Kings in the Summer League. The Blazers gave him another shot in 2010, but cut him during training camp. It was the end of his career, but his one NBA game turned into three video game appearances.
Do you remember any of these players? Did they ever enjoy a longer career in one of your franchise games? Can you recall any other players that have appeared in more video games than real NBA games? Let me know in the comments section 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.