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 reimagining NBA’s Greatest in NBA 2K12.
I had a lot of fun reimagining The Jordan Challenge back in June, so I thought I’d give the same treatment to NBA’s Greatest. As I remarked in my retrospective on NBA’s Greatest, it was a fantastic follow-up to The Jordan Challenge, and added new content to NBA 2K12 with the lockout of 2011 delaying the inclusion of the new rookies and updated rosters. The level of detail with the retro presentation was very impressive, and it’s a feature that would be really fun to have when playing with historical teams in future NBA 2K games.
However, as with The Jordan Challenge, NBA’s Greatest wasn’t perfect. Looking back, there are a few ways it could’ve been better, and teams that would’ve been preferable. As with my previous reimagining, this isn’t intended to disparage the work that Visual Concepts put into NBA’s Greatest, but rather consider what might have been if not for a few legal barriers, and how an already fantastic mode could be made even better. Let’s take a look back…way back…
Since this is another fantasy, best case scenario situation, I’m assuming that all of the necessary players will be licensed, meaning that Charles Barkley is featured. I’m also excluding any players who were still active as of the 2012 season, at least as featured players; their retro selves can still appear as opponents and teammates. It’s also my intention to avoid using the same team twice (though I’ll leave the original squads there as bonus content), and I’m adding goals along the lines of The Jordan Challenge. The number of players has also been raised to twenty, and all of the games represent specific contests rather than a generic matchup. With that said, let’s get started!
Michael Jordan: Bulls vs Pistons, March 7th 1996
If you’re scratching your head trying to remember the significance of this game, don’t worry; it’s kind of obscure. This was the only 50+ point game that Michael Jordan had during the memorable 1996 season, and I’ve chosen it because it’s one that I didn’t use for the reimagined Jordan Challenge. It’s also a way of getting a young Grant Hill into the game, as a lot of people forget (or were never aware) of how good he was. I still have this game on VHS, and if you’re a fan of MJ and the Bulls, it’s a fun one. His Airness scored at will, racking up a very efficient 53 points on an array of moves that showed that he definitely still had it following his comeback the previous season.
Goals: Score 53+ points, grab 10+ rebounds, hold Grant Hill under 20 points, win.
Unlock: 1996 Bulls, 1996 Pistons.
Magic Johnson: Lakers vs Celtics, June 14th 1987
There’s no way that Magic Johnson’s reimagined NBA’s Greatest game can be against anyone but Larry Bird’s Celtics. I’ve chosen Game 6 of the 1987 NBA Finals, which was the series in which Magic hit his famous baby skyhook. I thought about using that game, but the decisive sixth game presents a more interesting challenge, thanks to the ridiculous number of assists that Magic tallied. It wouldn’t be the last time that Magic and Bird faced each other on an NBA court, but it was their last meeting with a title on the line. Their numbers weren’t the gaudiest in this contest – outside of all those dimes by Magic, of course – but the historical significance makes it a fitting choice.
Goals: Score 16+ points, dish out 19+ assists, hold Larry Bird under 20 points, win.
Unlock: 1987 Lakers, 1987 Celtics
Larry Bird: March 12th, 1985
Although it would make sense to have Larry Bird’s reimagined NBA’s Greatest game be one that came against Magic Johnson’s Lakers – presumably one from the 1984 NBA Finals which the Celtics won – it would make for some overlap. Instead, I’m going with Larry Legend’s career high 60-point game against Dominique Wilkins and the Atlanta Hawks. Bird and Nique had a few scoring battles in the 80s, and while The Human Highlight Film totalled 36 this time around, it feels quite pedestrian when compared to the 60 that Bird dropped. Add in the field goal percentage and boards, and this should be a suitable challenge for a reimagined NBA’s Greatest mode.
Goals: Score 60+ points on 55%+ shooting, grab 7+ rebounds, win.
Unlock: 1985 Celtics, 1985 Hawks
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: December 10th, 1971
The Captain was a prominent part of the aforementioned clashes between the Lakers and Celtics, but for his reimagined NBA’s Greatest challenge, I’m going with a much earlier game against a Beantown squad: December 10th, 1971. That’s the game in which Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored his career high 55 points, while playing alongside Oscar Robertson as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. This way it’s not too similar to Magic’s game, and it would celebrate a couple of teams from before the three-point era. Matching his 18 rebounds might be a little tough, so I’ll stick with equalling or besting his points and shooting percentage, and lower the number of boards slightly.
Goals: Score 55+ points on 60%+ shooting, grab 10+ rebounds, win.
Unlock: 1972 Bucks, 1972 Celtics
Julius Erving: May 22nd, 1983
An ABA game would’ve been a fun idea for Julius Erving’s challenge, but the mode is NBA’s Greatest after all. Although it didn’t produce the biggest numbers of his career, the 1983 NBA Finals series seems the most logical choice for Dr. J’s challenge; far more so than the 1985 teams that were featured in his actual NBA’s Greatest game. It was a toss up between Games 1 and 4, his two best all-around outings in the series. I opted for Game 1 as his near triple-double provides more of a challenge. This game also allows Moses Malone to be featured in the challenge, as he was one of the tough omissions as a spotlighted legend in this reimagining of NBA’s Greatest.
Goals: Score 20+ points, grab 10+ rebounds, dish out 9+ assists, win.
Unlock: 1983 76ers, 1983 Lakers
Isiah Thomas: June 3rd, 1990
I’m going to stick with the original matchup of Zeke’s Pistons vs MJ’s Bulls that was featured in the actual NBA’s Greatest mode, but bring it forward a year to 1990. The series-clinching seventh game turned into a rout in the fourth quarter, but as far as the duel between Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan, it was an epic clash with both players flirting with triple-doubles. I’ve decided not to include Zeke’s eight boards as part of the challenge as it’s a tall order for a player of his short stature when it comes to the virtual hardwood. I’ve added his steals total as one of the goals instead, just to make it a little more challenging than simply matching his points and assists totals.
Goals: Score 21+ points, dish out 11+ assists, get 2+ steals, win.
Unlock: 1990 Pistons, 1990 Bulls
Hakeem Olajuwon: June 22nd, 1994
I briefly considered the March 29th, 1990 game against the Milwaukee Bucks: the game in which Hakeem Olajuwon tallied a rare quadruple-double. While it would have made for an outstanding challenge, it would also be rather difficult. Instead, I’m jumping ahead to The Dream’s standout 1994 season in which he won his first title. Game 7 saw Hakeem turn in a classic performance against Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks, who replace the 1994 Nuggets in this reimagining (but let’s keep Denver and Dikembe in the game as a bonus team). Incidentally, my second choice would be the deciding game against the Magic and a young Shaquille O’Neal in 1995.
Goals: Score 25+ points, grab 10+ rebounds, dish out 7+ assists, win.
Unlock: 1994 Rockets, 1994 Knicks
Charles Barkley: May 4th, 1994
Even though Charles Barkley played most of his career with the Philadelphia 76ers and ended it with the Houston Rockets, I always think of him as a member of the Phoenix Suns. Since I’ve already used the 1993 NBA Finals matchup with the Bulls in my reimagining of The Jordan Challenge, I’ll jump ahead a year and pick one of Sir Charles’ best Playoff performances: his 56-point outburst in the first round against a rookie Chris Webber and the Golden State Warriors. That series is often remembered for C-Webb’s flashy dunk, but Barkley had the last laugh as the Suns would sweep the Warriors before pushing the eventual champion Houston Rockets to seven games.
Goals: Score 56+ points, grab 10+ rebounds, dish out 4+ assists, win.
Unlock: 1994 Suns, 1994 Warriors
Bill Russell: April 14th, 1963
Choosing an appropriate NBA’s Greatest challenge for Bill Russell is difficult to say the least. He won 11 championships, so there are many noteworthy games to choose from. Additionally, he put up some ridiculous rebounding numbers, so picking a game with viable statistical goals is also easier said than done. With that being said, I’ll keep the matchup of Russell’s Celtics vs Jerry West’s Lakers, but wind the clock back two years so that Bob Cousy can be included. I’m also setting the goal at something a bit more achievable, because getting 29 rebounds (to say nothing of the 38 that he had in the next game) would be close to impossible without some sort of quick-time events.
Goals: Get a double-double with 20+ points and 10+ rebounds, dish out 3+ assists, win.
Unlock: 1963 Celtics, 1963 Lakers
Scottie Pippen: May 5th, 1995
Originally, I thought it’d be interesting (and challenging) to feature a game without MJ for Scottie Pippen’s challenge. However, that narrows the choices down to one year if we’re sticking to his prime, and I’ve already included four teams from the 1994 season in this reimagining of NBA’s Greatest. To that end, I’ve opted for Game 4 in the Bulls’ first round matchup with the Charlotte Hornets. It was a strong performance for Pip in an elimination game, and it keeps the 1995 Bulls with MJ sporting number 45 in the game. If you’re comfortable with ignoring the timing of the number change, Game 4 of the second round against Shaq, Penny, and the Magic would also be viable.
Goals: Score 24+ points, grab 8+ rebounds, dish out 6+ assists, win.
Unlock: 1995 Bulls, 1995 Hornets
Jerry West: May 7th, 1972
This was originally Wilt Chamberlain’s matchup, but I’m giving it to The Logo. Jerry West won his first and only championship during the Lakers’ memorable run in 1972, which included 33 consecutive victories during the regular season; a record that still stands as of 2019. If we’re putting a specific date on it – and that is what we’re doing in this reimagining – then there’s no better choice than Game 5 of the NBA Finals, where the Lakers downed the Knicks to end their championship drought. The best numbers and Finals MVP award belonged to Wilt Chamberlain, but I have another challenge in mind for him. This game is now all about celebrating Jerry West.
Goals: Score 23+ points, grab 5+ rebounds, dish out 9+ assists, win.
Unlock: 1972 Lakers, 1972 Knicks
Shaquille O’Neal: May 31st, 2002
Shaq has a lot of big performances from around the turn of the century that would be viable options, but a few of them – like his 61-point game against the Clippers – didn’t come against particularly memorable opponents that I’d like to see included among the retro teams. Three choices from 2002 stand out: the Kings, Nets, and Wizards (with the Wizards offering the goal of holding Michael Jordan under ten points). I can’t go past the controversial series with the Kings though, especially as it featured Shaq’s best performance of those Playoffs. For the purposes of making the challenge tough but fair, I’ve lowered the required number of rebounds and added his blocks.
Goals: Score 41+ points, grab 10+ rebounds, block 2+ shots, win.
Unlock: 2002 Lakers, 2002 Kings
David Robinson: November 11th, 1997
The Admiral has a 71-point game and a quadruple-double to his name, both of which would be tough challenges for an NBA’s Greatest game. I’m picking a game from later on in his career though, so that we can get a young Tim Duncan involved. The game in question came on Veterans Day in 1997; only fitting for a former Naval Lieutenant. Although Duncan was clearly the future of the team, it was a game that showed that Robinson wasn’t done after his injury-plagued 1997 season, as he led the Spurs in points, rebounds, and assists. Those Timberwolves with Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury are also a fun “What If” from that era, so it’s a way of including them.
Goals: Score 36+ points, grab 10+ rebounds, dish out 6+ assists, win.
Unlock: 1998 Spurs, 1998 Timberwolves
Karl Malone: May 24th, 1998
I did consider having a shared challenge for Karl Malone and John Stockton, as it would’ve been something different and only appropriate given that they are one of the best duos in league history. MJ and Pip got their own games however, and this way, I can expand the selection of retro teams. In the original NBA’s Greatest mode, Stock and The Mailman both had matchups from 1998, which felt somewhat redundant and repetitive. I’m going to keep the 1998 Jazz vs Lakers matchup, but make it Malone’s challenge instead, specifically Game 4 of their Conference Finals sweep. As with the other rebounding challenges, I’ve lowered the number slightly to make it fairer.
Goals: Score 32+ points, grab 10+ rebounds, dish out 5+ assists, win.
Unlock: 1998 Jazz, 1998 Lakers
John Stockton: May 24th, 1992
Rather than double up with another challenge set in the 1998 season, John Stockton’s game is from the 1992 Playoffs. The Jazz faced the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1992 Western Conference Finals, a series they had knotted up at 2-2 after Game 4. Stock’s points and assists totals from that contest should make for a good challenge, and it also keeps Clyde Drexler and the 1992 Blazers in the game. It also allows players like Mark Eaton and Jeff Malone to be included, ensuring that a few more noteworthy names from the 80s and 90s are represented. I also like the connection with Karl Malone’s new challenge, with the two occurring on the same day six years apart.
Goals: Score 18+ points, dish out 15+ assists, get 3+ steals, win.
Unlock: 1992 Jazz, 1992 Trail Blazers
Wilt Chamberlain: February 8th, 1967
Since I’ve given Wilt Chamberlain’s original NBA’s Greatest challenge to Jerry West, I’ll have to pick a game from earlier on his career. I considered his 100-point game as it would obviously be a great challenge, but honestly, the 1962 Knicks aren’t a very exciting team to include. Therefore, I’m putting aside Wilt’s tenure with the Warriors and the Lakers, and picking a game from his time with the Philadelphia 76ers. This matchup against the Cincinnati Royals features Oscar Robertson in his prime, and a handful of other noteworthy names from the 1960s. The 76ers also won the title that season, with Wilt posting impressive assist numbers as he racked up triple-doubles.
Goals: Get a triple-double with 27+ points, 10+ rebounds, and 13+ assists, win.
Unlock: 1967 76ers, 1967 Royals
Patrick Ewing: May 7th, 1997
Keeping the matchup with Shaq and the Magic would’ve been fine, but there’s another memorable clash from the 90s involving Patrick Ewing’s Knicks: the 1997 meeting with Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, and the Miami Heat. I’m guessing the NBA wouldn’t have been keen on letting us re-enact the brawl, but the back-and-forth series had several metaphorical punches, including Ewing’s dunk over Mourning towards the end of Game 1. That’s the game I’ve chosen for this challenge as it’s the one that sticks out in my mind, even though the Heat would go on to win the series. They’re two teams that really must be among the selection of 90s squads in NBA 2K, too.
Goals: Score 24+ points, grab 10+ rebounds, block 3+ shots, win.
Unlock: 1997 Knicks, 1997 Heat
Dominique Wilkins: December 8th, 1992
Normally I’d nominate a game from the 80s for Dominique Wilkins, but since I’ve already included the 1985 Hawks for Larry Bird’s challenge, I’m celebrating Nique’s comeback season of 1993 instead. Things looked grim for one of the league’s best high flyers when The Human Highlight Film went down with an Achilles injury midway through the 1992 campaign, but he returned with a vengeance the next year, averaging a shade under 30 points per game (ranking second to only MJ himself). The Hawks would succumb to MJ’s Bulls in the Playoffs, but picked up an impressive win over them earlier in the year. This also gets a short-lived Hawks jersey into the game.
Goals: Score 42+ points, dish out 5+ assists, outscore Michael Jordan, win.
Unlock: 1993 Hawks, 1993 Bulls
Clyde Drexler: June 7th, 1995
Finally, we’re featuring a young Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic in our reimagined NBA’s Greatest mode! Clyde Drexler’s best years came in Portland, but his first and only title came after he was traded to the Houston Rockets in 1995. He was still an exceptional player in Houston, and hardly had a free ride to a ring. The Dream may have been the Finals MVP, but The Glide averaged around 22 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists in the series. You could pick just about any game in the series, but I’ve opted for Game 1. The story may have been quite different if not for Nick Anderson’s infamous free throws, but as it stands, Clyde finally got his championship.
Goals: Score 23+ points, grab 10+ rebounds, dish out 7+ assists, win.
Unlock: 1995 Rockets 1995 Magic
Reggie Miller: May 23rd, 1998
Granted, Reggie Miller doesn’t quite rank up there with these other players, but he was still a star in his own right. He’s also more memorable to NBA fans who grew up in the 80s and 90s, which I’d suggest was the main audience for NBA’s Greatest. As such, I’m making him the last player featured in this reimagining. It pains me to do so, mind you, as he takes down Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and the 1998 Bulls in this one. It was a toss up between Games 3 and 4; Game 4 had the more dramatic moment, but he scored more in Game 3. I’ve chosen Game 3 as it’s better for the challenge, and, it’s not celebrating a push-off that no one ever acknowledges (grumble, grumble).
Goals: Score 28+ points including 4+ three-pointers, dish out 2+ assists, win.
Unlock: 1998 Pacers, 1998 Bulls
Toughest Omissions from NBA’s Greatest
Obviously, I’ve skipped some viable choices for featured players in this reimagining of NBA’s Greatest. One of the first that comes to mind is Oscar Robertson, who is part of Kareem and Wilt’s challenges. I think it’s important that he be represented in the mode, but I think other players would be more popular. The same goes for Moses Malone, who is playable in Julius Erving’s game. I’m leery of including too many pre-three-point era teams, which is why Rick Barry and George Mikan were left out, despite their rank among the greats. I feel that any more than 20 challenges would be overkill, so some greats are instead celebrated as teammates and opponents.
Of course, since this reimagining assumes that anything is possible, I’d be in favour of including teams with those players – as well as other squads I’ve dropped – as bonus content. While The Jordan Challenge appeals to me as an MJ fan, expanding the roster of historical squads was the right move. Although I would replace a few teams in NBA’s Greatest, the mode did a fantastic job of celebrating NBA history beyond His Airness. Now that almost a decade has passed, a new NBA’s Greatest mode for the next generation of legends is probably in order. Indeed, I might take a shot at imagining that mode sometime in the near future.