This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m taking a look back at cover players who changed teams not long after they made those appearances.
The choice of cover players is an aspect of basketball gaming that has become a bigger talking point since the early days of the hobby. The earliest NBA licensed basketball games tended to use photographs featuring a handful of players. Even in the late 90s, not all titles featured a single cover player, and more than a couple of cover players weren’t among the league’s elite. Since then, landing a big star has become an essential part of a game’s branding, and cover players have also influenced bonus content, including special game modes.
Sports game covers in general have their own lore and trivia. The infamous “Madden Curse” has been used to describe a string of misfortune suffered by NFL players who have appeared on the game’s cover. Basketball games have generally avoided such superstition, though a handful of players haven’t been so lucky. Arguably, it’s been their teams who’ve had the bad run of luck, as several cover players have ended up moving on not too long after becoming the face of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other titles. Let’s take a look back…way back…
We begin in the 1996 offseason, which shook up the league with several major trades and free agent signings. The biggest move was unquestionably Shaquille O’Neal to the Los Angeles Lakers; a signing that snuffed out the Orlando Magic’s seemingly bright future, and ultimately led to three championships in LA. Shaq had appeared on the covers of the PC and PlayStation versions of NBA Live 96, throwing down a dunk while wearing the Magic’s classic pinstripe uniform. That wouldn’t be the last time Shaq moved on the year after appearing on a game’s cover. He was the face of NBA Inside Drive 2004 as a Laker, and would depart for the Miami Heat in the offseason.
Shaq also wasn’t the only cover player who changed uniforms in 1996. Sam Cassell graced the cover of the original NBA ShootOut, released as Total NBA ’96 in PAL regions such as Australia. The two-time champion with the Houston Rockets was traded to the Phoenix Suns along with Robert Horry, Chucky Brown, and Mark Bryant, in exchange for Charles Barkley. Although Cassell would later become an All-Star, these days he stands as an example of how cover players weren’t as big of a deal back in the mid 90s, and indeed, he wouldn’t appear any other game covers. Incidentally, neither he nor any other player appeared on the cover of Total NBA ’96.
Glen Rice is an interesting example. He signed on as the cover player for Konami’s NBA in the Zone – released as NBA Pro in Australia – appearing as the face of both the 1998 and 1999 season editions of the game. However, Rice was traded from the Charlotte Hornets to the Lakers during the 1999 season, which made the cover art featuring him in a Hornets uniform outdated. A new cover featuring Rice in a Lakers jersey was later issued for NBA in the Zone ’99 and NBA Pro ’99. This makes Rice the only back-to-back cover player to change teams, resulting in both an outdated cover and second updated cover. He’s therefore a very unique example on this list.
I mentioned Shaq leaving the Lakers for the Heat after appearing on the cover of NBA Inside Drive 2004, but he wasn’t the only 2004 season cover player to move on the following year. Vince Carter appeared on the cover of NBA Live 2004, only to be traded to the New Jersey Nets less than two months into the 2005 season. Meanwhile, NBA ShootOut 2004 cover player Tracy McGrady was traded to the Houston Rockets before the season began. Only Allen Iverson, who had appeared on his fifth straight 2K cover with ESPN NBA Basketball, didn’t change teams. He would however be replaced as the cover player for ESPN NBA 2K5, namely with Ben Wallace.
LeBron James has taken his talents from Cleveland to South Beach, back to the Cavs, and most recently to Los Angeles. His second stint in Cleveland occurred the year after appearing on the cover of NBA 2K14 as a member of the Miami Heat, with whom he won two championships. Interestingly, NBA 2K14 included the LeBron: Path to Greatness mode, which featured the “Fantastic Journey” scenario in which he leaves Miami and at one point rejoins the Cavs; an eerily accurate prediction. He was of course also the cover player for the 20th Anniversary edition of NBA 2K19, the same year that he left Cleveland for the second time and signed with the Lakers.
We don’t have to go too far back in order to find a player who joined a new team the year after appearing on a game’s cover. Paul George was the face of NBA 2K17 while playing for the Indiana Pacers, but by the time previews of NBA 2K18 rolled around, he’d swapped their uniform for that of the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, if we’re including international cover players, DeMar DeRozan – who had appeared on the Canadian cover of NBA 2K18 while a member of the Toronto Raptors – was traded to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard before the 2019 season, making him the most recent example of a cover player changing teams the very next season.
Speaking of NBA 2K18, it brings us to a special list of cover players: the ones that changed teams the same season their game came out, or indeed, before it was even released. The latter was the case with NBA 2K18 cover player Kyrie Irving, who demanded a trade and was dealt to the Boston Celtics after his Cavaliers cover had already been revealed. NBA 2K ended up patching in a revised title screen in the Day 1 update, and the second run of physical copies featured the new Celtics art. 2K also made printable versions of the revised cover art available for anyone who wanted to replace their outdated cover without having to buy another copy of the game.
Although what happened with Kyrie Irving was unusual, it wasn’t unprecedented. Stephon Marbury appeared on the cover of NBA ShootOut 2002, wearing a New Jersey Nets uniform despite having being traded to the Phoenix Suns for Jason Kidd in July 2001; the game was released in September. As with Kyrie Irving in NBA 2K18 and Glen Rice in NBA in the Zone ’99, later copies featured updated cover artwork. The following season, NBA ShootOut 2003 cover player Ray Allen was traded from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Seattle SuperSonics midseason. Notably, the cover players for NBA ShootOut 2002, 2003, and 2004 all ended up changing teams.
This past year, NBA 2K20 has presented another interesting example with Anthony Davis. The Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans agreed to the trade that sent Davis to Los Angeles in June 2019, with 2K announcing him as NBA 2K20’s cover player at the end of the month. The trade was completed on July 6th, meaning that Davis was technically still a Pelican when the cover was revealed (and when he signed on to be the face of the game). The timeline makes it a little different to the situation with Kyrie Irving and the other players listed above, but it’s still technically an example. Davis had also been one of the NBA 2K16 cover players while with the Pelicans.
In total, that’s twelve cover players who have gone on to change teams the next year, during the same year, or before a game was even released, resulting in an immediately outdated cover. Considering the number of NBA video games that have been released, that’s far from a majority, but it’s still a significant number given the prominence of many of those players, and the fact that it’s a big deal when a star changes teams. For what it’s worth, if we count players who moved on two or more years after appearing on NBA Live and NBA 2K covers alone, 21 NBA Live cover players and 13 NBA 2K cover players (including special/international covers) went on to wear new uniforms.
Expanding that trivia note to other series, all eight cover players featured on NBA ShootOut games played for another team before their career was done. The same goes for the NBA Inside Drive series, NBA Ballers, and eleven of the players featured on the main and alternate covers of Sony’s NBA series. In fact, excluding Legends who appeared on covers after they were retired, the only cover players not to change teams at any point after gracing a game’s cover are Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Yao Ming, James Harden, Joel Embiid, Damian Lillard, Dirk Nowitzki, Stephen Curry, Ben Simmons, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Of those, six could still play elsewhere.
The choice of cover player has no bearing on a game’s quality, and generally little impact at all beyond bonus content. It’s obviously important for the games from a marketing standpoint, and when it comes to trivia notes such as the number of cover players that have gone on to change teams versus the players that didn’t, it is rather interesting. It’s the twelve players that changed teams within a year or before their game came out that I find the most fascinating, though. If there’s anything to take away from this, it’s that you probably don’t want your team’s best player to appear on any NBA game covers. History suggests they might not stick around for very long!