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 the story of Orange Juice in NBA 2K17’s MyCAREER.
After NBA 2K14 brought us the first story-driven MyCAREER mode, and NBA 2K15’s story delivered us the gift of infamously bad acting from NBA players, NBA 2K16 tried taking the concept to the next level with Spike Lee’s “Livin Da’ Dream“. Although the production values and acting were a lot better, the story had its own issues, and didn’t gel with the RPG aspect of MyCAREER. As such, the story-driven approach would be retooled in NBA 2K17, increasing the amount of gameplay in our rookie seasons while also allowing for more flexibility with the player character.
2K would also bring in Aaron Covington, co-writer of Creed, to write and direct the story. Michael B. Jordan, who starred as Adonis Creed in the aforementioned film, was also signed on to play Justice Young. Together with the MyPLAYER character, The President of Basketball – aka Pres – he formed a duo known as Orange Juice. The name drew some scorn when it was revealed, but how does the story and its impact on NBA 2K17’s MyCAREER hold up today? Pausing for a moment to note that there will be spoilers, let’s take a look back…way back…
Right out of the gate, NBA 2K17’s tale of Orange Juice addresses one of the biggest problems with Livin’ Da Dream. Spike Lee had clearly intended Frequency Vibrations to be a young black man from Harlem, which would be fine if MyCAREER had a set player character as in Grand Theft Auto. As an RPG-style mode that invited gamers to create or scan in their own face however, creating a player of any other background resulted in a scenario that looked like a truly bizarre casting choice had been made, given the appearance of Freq’s parents and twin sister. NBA 2K17 dropped on-screen family members and went with a back story that was far more one size fits all.
The only concrete detail of Pres’ back story off the court was that his father had passed away when he was fourteen, some four years before the story begins with his graduation from Lower Valley High School to attend the college of his choice. There he meets senior Grant Alabaster, who takes him under his wing. After being invited to play a game for Team USA against the Australian Boomers, Pres is drafted and begins his NBA career alongside another prospect that has generated some buzz: Justice Young, as portrayed by Michael B. Jordan. Young is initially resentful of the attention Pres receives, but their shared work ethic leads to a friendship being formed.
Although there’s both a significant amount of gameplay and cutscenes before Pres reaches the NBA, it’s far less intrusive and sluggish compared to NBA 2K16. As far as gameplay was concerned, nearly half of Livin’ Da Dream was taken up by the high school and college games, with your rookie year being mostly simulated. In between, there were a lot of cutscenes. The tale of Orange Juice progressed far more swiftly in contrast, and kept the story as a backdrop to playing through a full first season. This was effective in breaking up the monotony of a long campaign, without being too intrusive or overwhelming of the gameplay experience.
That brings us to the name the duo coins for themselves: Orange Juice. The name comes about when they’re watching old highlights of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Pres’ MyCOURT, and decide they need a catchy nickname if they’re going to be a dynamic duo. In the story, the name is derived from the idea that they “put the squeeze” on opponents. On a meta level, it’s a reference to a secret handshake that Michael B. Jordan shared with his close friends, a gesture appropriated by Justice and Pres. Looking back, it is a bit silly – as a lot of the names in MyCAREER stories have been – but it at least follows some form of logic and is creative in its own way.
Of course, Orange Juice wasn’t just a nickname for the duo, but also a new gameplay mechanic. Playing off the idea that Pres and Young have formed a great rapport and synergy, having them assist each other three times will activate Orange Juice controls. At this point, orange circles will surround the two players, and a line will connect them. Using the D-Pad, it’s possible to switch control between Pres and Young, as well as send commands to the other player to pass and hold, pass and shoot, try for an alley-oop, protect the ball, isolate, and attack the basket. Orange Juice lasted until the pair were subbed out, but could be activated multiple times in a game.
It was something new and innovative for MyCAREER, changing up the gameplay in a way that emphasised it was a story about becoming the next great duo in the NBA. As someone who came to enjoy racking up assists as a point guard, I always found that the Orange Juice controls were an effective way of padding my stats. Young levels up quite quickly compared to Pres (unless you’re buying VC), and can score inside and out. The ability to command him to shoot upon catching the pass avoided the pitfall of AI teammates waiting too long and failing to take advantage of wide open shots, though it was also risky if you failed to notice a defender closing in.
On top of the interesting new wrinkle to gameplay, the story was simply far more enjoyable. There’s an early subplot where the team is considering trading Justice Young, and you’re able to stand up for him during press conferences. Journeyman Denver Levins is something of a third wheel for the duo, and has his own arc where he’s cut from the team and Pres is able to advocate for his return. Assistant Coach Brubaker takes a liking to the Orange Juice nickname, and will make reference to it during timeouts, encouraging the duo to “keep squeezing”. Once again, the story adds flavour to the experience, rather than dictating it as was the case in Livin’ Da Dream.
It’s possible to keep Orange Juice together even if you decide to sign with another team after your rookie season, or you can request to be traded together. Alternatively, you can also break up the duo either by requesting a trade that doesn’t include Justice, or by deflecting all the trade rumours rather than standing up for him, which causes him to leave via free agency at the end of the year. I’ve heard conflicting reports that breaking up Orange Juice either prematurely ends the story, or ruins the story. In the case of the latter, I’ve read that cutscenes that are intended to feature Pres and Justice as teammates don’t change to reflect that they’re now opponents, which is a shame.
There’s another predetermined moment in NBA 2K17’s story that I don’t care for. Around the All-Star break, Pres suffers a hamstring injury off-screen, presenting us with the choice of whether we want to take a few games off and rest, or try to play through the injury. In addition to being an event that has no relation to anything that happened during gameplay, depending on the timing, it can result in a glitch where you’re unable to play the All-Star Game if you’ve been selected for it. One of my biggest complaints about the story-driven approach is the narrative driving the gameplay rather than the other way around, and this is a good example of that.
With that being said, I’d still rank the tale of Orange Juice as one of the best stories that we’ve had in MyCAREER this generation. It was well-written and acted, had some good humour and basketball-related drama, and for the most part, didn’t have too much of an impact on gameplay. There are only a handful of meaningful choices that slightly branch the story, but much of the tale is told on the virtual hardwood anyway. The cutscenes weren’t nearly as long or intrusive, and the narrative doesn’t limit the first season to a handful of games. On top of all that, it added a fun mechanic that freshened up MyCAREER gameplay with new controls and strategies.
There are a lot of reasons I didn’t take a shine to NBA 2K18’s MyCAREER story – insert obligatory dumping on B-Fresh here – but it didn’t help that the tale of Orange Juice in NBA 2K17 was so well done and entertaining. Everything felt like a big step down: D.J. was no Pres, B-Fresh was definitely no Justice Young, and overall the writing and acting was noticeably subpar. For me, NBA 2K17 was the first time that I really felt like I could get on board with the story-driven approach, as it didn’t seem like a detriment. The stories of A.I. and Che have since had their moments, but if nothing else, Takeover just isn’t as fun as controlling the freshly squeezed duo.