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 NBA players that made returns after extended absences from the league.
Yes, it’s another “interactive almanac” Wayback Wednesday feature, taking a look back at some historical NBA trivia through the lens of video games! This time, I’m focusing on players that made their way back to the NBA – and therefore the virtual hardwood as well – after at least two years away. There have been a handful of very notable names that have made NBA returns following extended absences, as well as some key role players and journeymen that reappeared after their time in the NBA had seemingly drawn to a close.
Indeed, that’s a common theme with most of these players. Whether they retired due to age or injury, they were no longer drawing interest from any teams, or they found a comfortable spot playing in another league, we didn’t expect these NBA returns. Of course, that’s what makes them so interesting, then and now. Incidentally, this topic was suggested by The BBall Pundit on Twitter, so shout out to you! With that being said, let’s take a look back…way back…
Hassan Whiteside (2014, 2 Seasons, Age 25)
Let’s tip things off with an active player whose time in the league was seemingly over after playing 19 games over his first two seasons with the Kings. Hassan Whiteside was a second round pick that seemed destined to have a short stint in the NBA, but after spending a couple of years playing in the D-League, Lebanon, and China, he signed with the Heat for the 2015 season. He earned a larger role and put up numbers, infamously referring to his Overall Rating in NBA 2K after a big game. He’s since become a mainstay following his two year absence early on in his career, though ironically he’s back to being a bench player beginning with his second Kings stint.
Rasheed Wallace (2012, 2 Seasons, Age 38)
It doesn’t rank as one of the longest retirements or absences prior to NBA returns, but nevertheless, Rasheed Wallace’s comeback with the Knicks in 2012 was a surprising turn of events. After all, he was in his mid 30s when he played a year for the Boston Celtics in 2010, and appeared to be winding his career down as he accepted a bench role. Sheed obviously had second thoughts about hanging it up though, and joined a Knicks team that ended up having a decent year despite Amar’e Stoudemire’s injury. Wallace himself ended up playing only 21 games due to a broken foot, and actually retired again just before the Playoffs began. The comeback can be seen in NBA 2K13.
Greg Oden (2013, 3 Seasons, Age 26)
I actually attended the 2007 Draft as part of the NBA Live 08 Community Event, and hours before the Draft began, I found myself in the elevator with Greg Oden. Let me tell you: I’ve never felt so short at 6’3″ as I did standing next to him! Sadly, Oden’s career was marred by injuries. After missing what would’ve been his rookie season, he ended up playing 82 games between the 2009 and 2010 campaigns. After sitting out three seasons and being cut by the Trail Blazers, Oden signed a one year deal with Miami in 2013. He showed the occasional flash of brilliance in limited minutes for the Heat, with his return to action even being celebrated in NBA Live 14’s BIG Moments.
Roy Tarpley (1994, 3 Seasons, Age 30)
I’ve mentioned the late Roy Tarpley in a few previous articles, as he’s an example of a suspended player that was still active on the virtual hardwood, namely NBA Live 96 PC; a game that included several other inactive players. It wasn’t his first suspension, as his third violation of the NBA’s anti-drug policy in 1991 saw him banned for three years before he was reinstated in 1994. Even though it was ultimately short-lived, Tarpley nevertheless holds the distinction of being one of the few banned players who succeeded in making NBA returns. His comeback after being banned for three years is represented in NBA Live 95 PC, along with the aforementioned NBA Live 96 cameo.
Michael Jordan (2001, 3 Seasons, Age 38)
Normally I’d mention Michael Jordan before anyone else as it would be burying the lead not to, but I decided to order this list by number of seasons absent, followed by age of return. With that being said, Michael Jordan’s return to play for the Wizards in 2001 was a huge story, especially after the storybook ending of The Last Dance. MJ’s Wizards years are actually better than a lot of people give them credit for, especially given his age. Before his injury halfway through the 2002 season, he was a legitimate MVP candidate, and Washington was on route to a Playoff berth. It was still weird to see him in a Wizards jersey of course, but ultimately his legacy remains unmatched.
Emeka Okafor (2018, 4 Seasons, Age 35)
To this day, I believe that Ben Gordon should’ve been named both Sixth Man of the Year and Rookie of the Year in 2005, but second overall pick Emeka Okafor had a solid freshman season in his own right. Although he never became a star, Okafor was a serviceable big man through to 2013, when a herniated disc in his neck put him out of action for the 2014 campaign. He remained unsigned for a further three seasons, eventually returning to play 26 games for the New Orleans Pelicans in 2018 at the age of 35; a signing reflected in updates for NBA Live 18 and NBA 2K18. As a side note, this meant that Okafor played for New Orleans as both a Hornet and a Pelican.
Magic Johnson (1996, 4 Seasons, Age 36)
Rasheed Wallace came out of retirement after a two year absence, while Michael Jordan made his second comeback after three seasons away from the NBA. Magic Johnson beats them both with his comeback in 1996, returning to the Lakers at the age of 36 after being out of the game for four years. He had originally planned to return for the 1993 season, but as recalled in The Announcement documentary, controversy over his HIV diagnosis derailed that comeback. There’s no official representation of Magic’s 1996 return on the virtual hardwood, but thanks to many of the retro roster mods over the years, his brief second run with the Lakers has been playable.
Damien Wilkins (2017, 4 Seasons, Age 38)
This is actually the player that The BBall Pundit noted when pitching this feature, so it only stands to reason that I cover his story here. The son of Gerald Wilkins and nephew of Dominique Wilkins, Damien entered the league in the mid 2000s and had a solid career as a reserve that could put up buckets when called upon. He entered the NBA as a 25 year old rookie however, which likely contributed to opportunities for roster spots drying up in 2013 after just nine years in the league. However, Wilkins made a surprising return to the NBA with the Pacers in 2017, playing in 19 games before being released. Still, it meant he was added to NBA 2K18 and NBA Live 18.
P.J. Tucker (2012, 5 Seasons, Age 27)
He may have established himself as a noteworthy role player from the start of his stint with the Phoenix Suns in 2012, but that wasn’t P.J. Tucker’s debut in the NBA. He was a rookie with the Toronto Raptors in the 2007 season, playing in only 17 games before being cut in March. He spent the next five seasons in Europe before making it back to the NBA, so if you’ve forgotten about his rookie debut in 2006, it’s certainly understandable. His first year back in the league is represented in NBA 2K13, which of course was the only sim game released that year. Tucker’s long road back to the NBA paid off in 2021, when he won a championship with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Anthony Parker (2006, 6 Seasons, Age 31)
Boasting the longest absence on this list at six seasons, Anthony Parker has a similar story to P.J. Tucker and Hassan Whiteside. Drafted in 1997, Parker appeared in 55 games in three seasons with the 76ers and Magic, averaging about seven minutes per game. After stints in Israel and Italy, he returned in 2006, as seen in NBA Live 07. He started in all but 16 of the 439 games he played in six seasons for the Raptors and Cavaliers, including a year with LeBron James in 2010. Those six years out of the NBA left him with less games played than the average 36 year old when he retired, but he’s still one of the most successful NBA returns after an extended absence.
These are just ten examples of players who made NBA returns after at least two years out of the league. There are several more examples that we can name, along with the video games that feature their NBA returns. As with my other features that explore the “interactive almanac” aspect of video games, I’ll be getting to them in due course with follow-up articles. In the meantime, do you remember these returns to the NBA after extended absences, and their appearances in video games over the years? Can you guess some of the players that will be profiled in future articles? Let me know in the comments, and stay tuned for at least two further instalments in this series!