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 former NBA teams, and their now-nostalgic appearances in video games.
Something that I’ve explored in several of my Wayback Wednesday features this year is the way that old video games act as interactive almanacs. Yes, it’s fun to revisit old hoops titles simply to remember what the gameplay was like. Certain games hold up quite well, and for some gamers, their simplicity can even make them more appealing than the newer releases. However, as I’ve said on many occasions, there’s something really enjoyable about looking back at a snapshot of the NBA by scrolling through the rosters and seeing now-retired players, as well as familiar faces in strange places.
To that point, I’ve mostly been focusing on the players, but there’s a lot of nostalgia with the teams as well. Not only is it a fun trip down memory lane to see lineups that we’ve forgotten – some of them full of “What Ifs” – but it’s great to see all of the old branding as well. From logos that teams used for years, to short-lived uniforms and the classic jerseys that still rank as our favourites, we can see it all when we dust off old games. With a handful of franchises relocating and/or changing their names over the past couple of decades, we can also see those former NBA teams live on through the virtual hardwood. Let’s take a look back…way back…
The sting of Seattle losing the SuperSonics will probably never go away until such time as the city gets another team, and bestows upon them the branding that they managed to keep when the franchise became the Oklahoma City Thunder. Not to rub salt in the wound, which I’m sure still feels very fresh to diehard Sonics fans, but as it’s been over ten years since the move, I must admit that I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the Thunder in the NBA. As with many of these former NBA teams, the passage of time normalises the new branding, and so it becomes less strange and more familiar. Going back and seeing the old team starts to feel like the more unusual sight.
And yet, it’s a welcome sight when you go back to a video game from the 2008 season or earlier, and see the Sonics intact. Their colour scheme and jersey designs always felt distinct, and several great players have donned those uniforms. The Sonics are also nostalgic for me because my cousin was a big fan of them and Shawn Kemp when we were growing up, and of course they faced the Chicago Bulls in the 1996 NBA Finals. From those early days of basketball gaming with Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, to the tenure of Ray Allen and Flip Murray in the mid 2000s, to a swansong season with a rookie Kevin Durant, it’s great to go back and play with them again.
Now, the Charlotte Bobcats may represent the least successful tenure of the franchise that has since been reborn as the new Charlotte Hornets, but they still carry a certain amount of nostalgia. From their entrance into the league as the 30th team to a name and branding that was (for better or worse) very distinctive, they stood out despite an overall lack of success. They notably debuted on the virtual hardwood long before their first official NBA game, when they were included as a bonus team in NBA Live 2004. Even though they weren’t playable in the newly revamped Dynasty mode, they still served as a taste of things to come, and something different to mess around with.
With that in mind, the Bobcats hold the distinction of being the only non-retro team that has appeared in more seasons’ worth of video games than they actually existed in the league. When they did officially join the NBA in both reality and video games, they were lottery-bound for years, but for gamers they also represented a clean slate. By the mid 2000s, every other team had been around for at least a decade, and had a history in the league. The Bobcats offered a chance to create a new legacy in franchise modes, and there was a certain air of freshness about them, even if you weren’t keen on the name and branding. Now that they’re gone, I can appreciate their uniqueness.
Original Charlotte Hornets
I was glad to see the Bobcats obtain the Hornets moniker, though it did result in an unusual switcheroo wherein the Pelicans retroactively became the league’s 30th team, kept the Hornets’ records from the New Orleans years, and sold Charlotte the pre-2003 records along with the name. It sounds a bit more complicated than it is, but it does somewhat muddy their respective histories for those of us who were around to see it all unfold. Video games naturally document the original timeline (so to speak), and as such, if you go back far enough, you’ll find the original Charlotte Hornets in games representing seasons up to and including the 2001-2002 NBA campaign.
As with most former NBA teams, the original Hornets stand out in video games in large part thanks to the memorable names on their rosters. In the early to mid 90s there was Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson, and Muggsy Bogues, who were a fun trio to play with in NBA Jam Tournament Edition. A few years later there was Glen Rice, then very briefly Eddie Jones. Their logo and jerseys were some of the best back in the 90s, and the honeycomb designs in the paint on their court made them stand out in video games just as it did in real life. Now that they’re back in the league, it’s been great to see some of the new designs pay homage to the Hornets’ classic branding.
New Orleans Hornets
The aforementioned exchange of names and franchise histories has also meant that the New Orleans Hornets have joined the list of former NBA teams that can still be seen in older titles. As the Bobcats do with the new Hornets, they still live on within the Pelicans’ lineage, yet at the same time it’s almost as if they never existed, thanks to the retcon to both franchises’ histories. To that point, you’ll find Chris Paul on the All-Time Pelicans in recent NBA 2K games, even though he never played for them under that branding. It’s a similar situation to the combined history for the Thunder and the SuperSonics, with several former Sonics greats appearing on the All-Time Thunder.
We can obviously revisit the era of the New Orleans Hornets, and Chris Paul’s tenure with them, on the virtual hardwood. In fact, by way of some alternate jerseys in a few old games, we can even recall the couple of years that they were hosted by Oklahoma City following Hurricane Katrina. Their relocation to New Orleans in 2002 sticks out in my memory, given how popular they were during their first tenure in Charlotte, the controversy surrounding the move, and the way it affected video games. After all, the Grizzlies’ move the previous year had made older games suddenly seem outdated. A Hornets team ended up having that effect three times, in 2002, 2013, and 2014.
New Jersey Nets
I’ll admit to something strange here: I miss the New Jersey Nets. I realise that they’re one of the former NBA teams on this list that still exists in some form, and with the same nickname to boot, but Brooklyn Nets just doesn’t have the same ring. To be fair, it has been less than ten years, and it does already sound less strange than it used to. Still, I do miss the New Jersey Nets, even though they were one of the league’s worst teams when I got into basketball, and my favourite team has always been the Bulls. I guess it’s partly because their days in New Jersey are now a vestige of the NBA when I became a fan, and subsequently became heavily interested in basketball gaming, too.
Truth be told, I feel like their branding was always somewhat underrated as well. The uniforms they had through most of the 90s were a clean design, and being one of the few teams to have a parquet court also helped them to stand out. The duo of Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson was another fun one to use in NBA Jam. The late 90s rebrand yielded a design that held up for many years, and they had some memorable eras with their first “Team of the Future”, Stephon Marbury’s short run, the two Finals appearances with Jason Kidd, and several years of Vince Carter. Brooklyn may have a bright future, but the team’s stint in New Jersey is perhaps underappreciated.
Every time someone Tweets out a photo of the original Vancouver Grizzlies’ jerseys, I feel compelled to comment that regardless of popular opinion, I love those uniforms. Yes, they’re very 90s, but therein is the charm for me. The Grizzlies burst onto the scene in 1995 along with fellow Canadian expansion team the Toronto Raptors, and while it would take a few years for them to achieve relevance in real life, there was still excitement surrounding them. They were the first new teams to join the league since I became a fan, and although franchise modes were still a few years away, they had that same “blank slate” feel that later made the Bobcats interesting to play with.
Seeing the Vancouver Grizzlies in old games always takes me back, but NBA Live 2001 in particular evokes some strong memories. Being that it was their last year in Vancouver, I’m taken back to all the reports and rumours regarding their future as their move to Memphis loomed. I actually had an exchange teacher from Vancouver that year, and I remember talking to him about the situation (shout out to you Mr Spence, wherever you are!). In fact, given that NBA Live used to be developed at EA Canada’s studio in Burnaby, the team reminds me of the early days of the series itself; added nostalgia for the game’s history when I fire up some of those old favourites.
As another Washington sports team has recently rebranded, I’m reminded of when the late Abe Pollin announced that the Bullets would become the Wizards as of the 1998 season. Pollin’s reasoning was that he was drawn to a headline that mentioned the word “bullets”, thinking it was about his team, only to find out that it was about a shooting. Washington’s high crime rate in the early 90s, and the assassination of Pollin’s friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, are also cited as his motivations for changing the name. Names changes will always be controversial when there are social issues involved, but updating branding to move with the times is nothing new.
Of course, getting a new name also represented a fresh start for a team that had put together a long string of lottery appearances. Go back and play some of those video games from the 90s, and you’ll see the Bullets dwelling in the basement along with the aforementioned Nets. It was a far cry from the team that had been a contender and eventually a champion in the 1970s, though the moniker stood as a reminder of those times. It was also the first name change I experienced since I became a fan, and I remember having to deal with that when I was making rosters for NBA Live 96. As with the other former NBA teams, old games bring back all of those memories.
In a way, the changes to active NBA teams as seen in video games, as well as the presence of former NBA teams in their rosters, spotlight the changing face of the league even more than the players. We expect players to come and go, for old stars to retire and new stars to rise, but the teams are the constants. Outside of retro jerseys, there’s also less representation of them in the new games. Of these former NBA teams, only the original Hornets, SuperSonics, and Nets have retro squads in NBA 2K21, and only one squad each at that. Admittedly some of their teams aren’t prime candidates for inclusion, but it’d be nice if more of their history were represented.
Still, that’s where the novelty of old basketball games comes in. Once the shock of the outdated graphics has worn off, we can start appreciating the snapshots of the NBA that they provide. Sometimes we can feel wistful at the loss of former NBA teams like the SuperSonics, or even the relocation of teams like the Grizzlies and Nets, but we can take to the virtual hardwood with them again in some of our favourite older titles. After that, we might just have to head on over to YouTube to check out some old highlights. Nostalgia is a comforting thing, and these former NBA teams needn’t even be personal favourites to remind us of good times, and our early NBA fandom.