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 returns that were over before they began, with a representation of how they’d look in games.
Although our content is obviously focused on the virtual hardwood, I like to mix in topics related to the real NBA as well. After all, it directly influences our experiences in video games, and the games in turn capture a snapshot of what the league was like when they were released. To that end, I’ve enjoyed branching out with topics like Familiar Faces in Strange Places, and its counterpart Familiar Faces Back in Familiar Places, in previous Wayback Wednesday features. It’s easy to bring it all back to video games, because of the way they act as interactive almanacs.
This is a spinoff of those two series that came to mind as I was researching them. I recalled players that were reacquired by their former teams, but didn’t end up playing for them again. As I noted in my Familiar Places articles, there’s something fun about seeing players rejoin their old teams; especially when they end up wearing an updated uniform we never thought we’d see them don. Likewise, there are some interesting “What If” scenarios involving NBA returns that were over before they even had a chance to begin, or otherwise didn’t result in an official appearance. We can see and make NBA returns happen in games however, so let’s take a look back…way back…
Anfernee Hardaway in Orlando (2006)
When Shaquille O’Neal left Orlando for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway immediately became The Man for the Magic. Then knee injuries happened, and the promising point guard who’d once been compared to Magic Johnson was never the same again. He was traded to Phoenix in 1999, where even when he was healthy, he never came close to his old form. Halfway through the 2004 season, he was traded to New York along with Stephon Marbury, where he largely became an afterthought. After initially retiring in 2006, he had a brief comeback (and reunion with Shaq) in 2007 with the Miami Heat, before retiring again in December.
In between his Knicks tenure and that short run with the Heat, Penny almost had another comeback in Florida. In February 2006, he and Trevor Ariza were traded to the Magic for Steve Francis. Most people were focused on the new backcourt of Starbury and Stevie Franchise, with some even going so far as to compare them to Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe (yeah, about that…). Personally, I was also excited to see Penny have one last run with his former team, but it wasn’t to be as the Magic cut him two days later. This is definitely one of those NBA returns that I wish had come to pass, and been reflected in NBA 2K6 or NBA Live 06.
Antonio McDyess in Denver (2008)
“Wait a minute,” I hear you say. “Didn’t Antonio McDyess return to Denver? You even talked about it in one of the Familiar Faces Back in Familiar Places articles!” Yes, indeed he did! After being traded to the Phoenix Suns before the 1998 season, McDyess ended up signing with the Denver Nuggets for a second stint after the lockout was over. It was during that tenure that he really broke out, and made his lone All-Star appearance in 2001. After that came a knee injury that put him on the shelf for an entire season before splitting the 2004 campaign between the Knicks and Suns (again). He was then with the Pistons for five seasons, and the Spurs for his final two.
During his time with the Pistons, however, he almost ended up having a third stint with the Nuggets. Along with Chauncey Billups, he was sent to Denver in the trade that brought Allen Iverson to Detroit. Although technically a Nugget for the third time, Dice had only been included in the deal for salary cap purposes. After a buyout and waiting out the mandatory 30 days, he re-signed with the Pistons. Had he stayed in Denver, the Nuggets would’ve boasted an impressive frontcourt with him joining Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, and Nene. I was a big fan of Dice, and I think it would’ve been fun playing with such a lineup in NBA Live 09 or NBA 2K9.
Michael Ruffin in Chicago (2008)
Michael Ruffin is a player that I could’ve sworn was around longer than he actually was. He played in the NBA from 1999 to 2009, save for a year in Spain in 2002-2003. I remember him being part of a trio of Chicago Bulls rookies in 1999, alongside Elton Brand and Metta World Peace (then of course still known as Ron Artest). The latter two players had far more impressive careers in the league, but Ruffin managed to latch on with a few teams, where he was a solid if unspectacular reserve who could be counted on to do the dirty work. His final game came with the Trail Blazers, but when NBA Live 09 and NBA 2K9 were released, he could be found on another team.
The Bulls signed Ruffin during the offseason – twice in fact, as they cut him in late October and then brought him back – but he never played a game for them that year. He was on their roster, but remained inactive until he was traded to Sacramento – and then immediately from Sacramento to Portland – come February. In that sense, he did make a return in a way that other players on this list didn’t, but he essentially became a contact that made the trade for Brad Miller and John Salmons work. Incidentally, Ruffin was signed by the Thunder in 2009 and the Nuggets in 2011, but never played for either team. Looking back, that’s probably why I recall him being around longer.
Brent Barry in Seattle (2008)
Noticing a pattern yet? There was a time when a lot of NBA returns were teased due to players being thrown into trades to make them work under the salary cap, only for them to be bought out and return to the team that traded them away. Brent Barry spent five seasons with the Sonics – the longest tenure of his career – though it was his four seasons in San Antonio that allowed him to win two championships. I remember his Sonics tenure clearly, thanks in part to remarks he made after he signed with them in 1999. He’d spent the lockout season with the Bulls, and didn’t have anything positive to say about that. At the time it irked me, but on reflection, he had a very good point.
Given those two championship rings in San Antonio, Barry clearly made the right career move by signing with them in 2004. After that second title, however, the Spurs traded him to Seattle for Kurt Thomas. He was injured at the time, but obviously there weren’t any hurt feelings as after being released by the Sonics, he re-signed with the Spurs when he was cleared to do so in March. It would’ve been poetic for him to stay in Seattle though, especially with it being the last season before the team relocated to Oklahoma City. It’s a fun fantasy scenario for NBA Live 08 or NBA 2K8, though like his father Rick and brother Jon, Brent would go on to end his career with the Rockets.
Jamal Crawford in Atlanta (2017)
Here’s a return that would’ve been represented in NBA 2K18, had the reunion not ended a day later. Three-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford first took home that trophy in 2010, after being traded to the Atlanta Hawks the previous offseason. It was the first time in his career that he came off the bench in every single game that he played, and he likewise didn’t start a single game in his second year in Atlanta. After the 2011 lockout, Crawford signed with the Blazers for one season, before joining the Los Angeles Clippers. There he continued to build his legacy as a super sub, winning his second and third Sixth Man of the Year awards a season apart in 2014 and 2016.
A year after signing a multi-season extension with the Clippers, Crawford was traded to the Hawks to facilitate Los Angeles’ acquisition of Danilo Gallinari. Clearly neither side were interested in making the reunion permanent, and so Crawford accepted a buyout the day after the trade went down. He’s since spent a single season with the Timberwolves and Suns, and played one game for the Nets as a replacement player in the NBA Bubble games. Crawford’s NBA career has mostly been comprised of some lengthy stints broken up by the occasional brief gig, but despite bouncing around a little, he’s had no returns to former teams except for the one that was over in a blink.
Luke Ridnour in Oklahoma City (2015)
Now, there are some technicalities when it comes to this one, since it involves the lineage between the Seattle SuperSonics and Oklahoma City Thunder. Luke Ridnour had one stint with the team when they were still in Seattle, and landed on their roster again several years later after they’d moved to Oklahoma City. However, since his former teammate Nick Collison is considered to have played his entire career for one team, I believe that we can count Ridnour’s temporary appearance on the Thunder’s roster as an example of returning to a club that he once played for. Needless to say given the topic of this article, it wasn’t long before they parted ways once more.
After spending his first five years in Seattle – including three as a regular starter – Ridnour embarked on a nomadic NBA journey, playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Charlotte Bobcats, and finally, the Orlando Magic. It was at that point his career took an odd turn. Although only 33 and just a couple of years removed from starting all 82 games for the Timberwolves, in June 2015 Ridnour was traded four times in the span of six days. The third trade saw him head to the Thunder, before a fourth trade sent him to Toronto. He was subsequently cut and retired after sitting out the entire 2016 season, but you can change history in NBA 2K16.
Tony Massenburg in Boston (1997)
One of the most nomadic players in NBA history, Tony Massenburg played for 12 teams; a record he shares with Chucky Brown, Joe Smith, and Jim Jackson. As an aside, he began and finished his career with the Spurs, being a member of their 2005 championship team (a fact that I’d forgotten until I was doing research for this article). Interestingly, for as much as Massenburg moved around, he only returned to a team for a second stint twice: the Vancouver Grizzlies in 2000, and then the Spurs in 2005. However, he came very close to a second run with the Boston Celtics in 1997. So close in fact, he’s actually playing for them in the default rosters of NBA Live 98 PC!
Massenburg signed with the Celtics in July 1997, but just before the season tipped off, Boston traded him to Vancouver for Roy Rogers. Back then, it was possible to sign another team’s free agent and trade them soon after. These days, teams have to wait until December until such players are eligible to be traded. Because Massenburg did play for the Celtics earlier in his career, this doesn’t count as an example of a player who only played for a certain team in games. It does fit the bill as far as NBA returns that were over before they began though, and another one that made it into a game’s rosters. See what I mean about video games being time capsules/interactive almanacs?
Evan Eschmeyer in Dallas (2004)
If you were watching the NBA and playing NBA video games around twenty years ago, you may remember Evan Eschmeyer. In fact, you may also remember him still appearing in the rosters of video games for a couple of years after tallying his final minute in the NBA. Four knee surgeries in five years ended his professional career before he was 30, but not before a couple of transactions resulted in him having an unusual history in video games. After being sent to the Golden State Warriors in the trade that brought Antawn Jamison to Dallas in August 2003, Eschmeyer ended up sitting out the entire 2004 season due to his aforementioned knee problems.
He was therefore on the Warriors’ roster in NBA Live 2004, but never played a minute for them in real life. Eschmeyer was then traded back to the Mavericks in August 2004, in a deal that was reflected in NBA Live 2005. Due to his ongoing knee problems, he retired in October 2004 without ever suiting up for Dallas again. So, for those keeping track at home: he’s someone who only ever played for a certain team in a video game, was set to become a familiar face back in a familiar place, but retired before the season, ending a potential return that came to be represented on the virtual hardwood…all in the space of a year. That’s a lot of trivia for such a short career!
In all honesty, had these NBA returns come to pass, I doubt they would’ve drastically altered the course of history. However, from a strictly sentimental standpoint, some of them would’ve been cool to see. One last run for Anfernee Hardaway in Orlando could’ve been a more dignified end to his career. Antonio McDyess finally playing on a good Nuggets team and helping them to compete in the Playoffs, or Brent Barry joining the Sonics to finish their final season in style, are fun ideas. Of course, while there’s room for sentimentality in the NBA, it’s not always what teams and players seek. Fortunately, we have video games to play out these “What If” NBA returns.