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 difficulty of running with the Chicago Bulls in video games of the early 2000s.
Dusting off old favourites and other interesting hoops titles from yesteryear makes me feel old myself, but that doesn’t compare to the knowledge that my favourite team, the Chicago Bulls, are twenty-one years removed from their most recent championship. It was an incredible time to be a Bulls fan in the 90s, though it has made the subsequent ups and downs quite frustrating to endure at times. It’s been difficult watching them miss out on top free agents, lose their own promising players through free agency or questionable trades, and endure misfortune such as Derrick Rose’s multiple injuries.
Of course, the virtual hardwood is a place where frustrated NBA fans can turn around the fortunes of their favourite team, and I’ve created some fun memories running with the virtual Bulls over the years. In the aftermath of The Last Dance, I’ve overachieved with the Baby Bulls in my memorable NBA Live 2004 and NBA Live 06 Dynasties. More recently, I’ve taken them to back-to-back championships in MyCAREER. In the early 2000s however, it was rough playing with them in video games, as I’m sure my fellow long-time gamers and Bulls fans can attest. Let’s take a look back…way back…
My first taste of playing with a post-championship Bulls team actually came courtesy of NBA Live 96 PC, and the 1999 season patch that I made. It didn’t take me long to realise that that squad wasn’t going to be a whole lot of fun to play with. While there were actually more than a couple of holdovers from the 1998 team including Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Bill Wennington, Randy Brown, Dickey Simpkins, Rusty LaRue, and Keith Booth, the departure of Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and a patched-in Michael Jordan made them feel very different. Brent Barry, Kornel David, Andrew Lang, Mario Bennett, and Mark Bryant were not nearly enough to fill their shoes.
Early on in 2000, my family’s ancient 486 PC – refurbished and resurrected on more than one occasion – finally stopped working for good. With a brand new Pentium III, I was able to get the PC version of NBA Live 2000, and with it, sink my teeth into the brand new Franchise mode. The 2000 Bulls weren’t that much more of an appealing team to play with however, even with the return of some familiar faces and the top pick in the Draft, Elton Brand. However, NBA Live 2000 brought back Legends, with Michael Jordan now officially in the game. The cover proclaimed “Jordan is Back!”, and indeed, His Airness returned to the NBA in at least one of my Franchise games.
Although a return to the NBA hardwood (virtual or otherwise) wasn’t unrealistic for MJ, especially when he did in fact make a second comeback with the Washington Wizards a couple of years later, at the time it didn’t feel right. It felt like a cheap and unrealistic fantasy, with the addition of my all-time favourite player back onto my favourite team actually resulting in me losing interest in the Franchise game. Instead, the most fun I had with NBA Live 2000 was an abbreviated season with the Portland Trail Blazers that I played with my cousin, in which we traded for Shaquille O’Neal and won the championship in the early hours one morning in the school holidays.
Playing with the Blazers had given me a greater appreciation for using teams other than the Bulls in Season and Franchise. It wasn’t the first time I’d done so, as my cousin and I had used NBA Live 95 PC to replay the 1995 season with the Houston Rockets a couple of years prior, but I was still warming up to the idea of playing the current season with anyone else but Chicago. As such, when NBA Live 2001 PC was released, I once again found myself starting a Franchise with them. Chicago missed out on Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, and Tracy McGrady, but did make a couple of solid signings by bringing in Ron Mercer and Brad Miller. It was better than nothing.
Sadly, that’s become a mantra for us Bulls fans whenever they miss out on the top names in free agency. It wasn’t long before I lost interest in playing with them, even when I was overachieving and putting together a winning record. A big part of the problem is that I didn’t feel a connection with the roster, in real life or in NBA Live. I didn’t like the selection of Marcus Fizer, and Jamal Crawford wasn’t getting enough playing time to get excited about. A couple of decent players and future stars at the top couldn’t make up for the weak bench. Once again, even though the thin roster didn’t prevent me from winning games, I wasn’t really enjoying the experience.
The worst part was that the low ratings made it difficult to wheel and deal to reshape the team to my liking. As creative as I’d try to get with the game’s trade logic, it was virtually impossible to get better players without gutting the already thin roster, thus making most trades a lateral move at best. My dedication to playing all 82 games on twelve minute quarters also didn’t help matters. If I’d been more open to simulating parts of the season, I’d have made it to Year 2 faster, benefitting from player growth and a new generated rookie to play with. Instead, I ended up playing with long-time rival the New York Knicks, and trading for Jason Kidd and Chris Webber.
Following the 2001 Draft, I felt pumped to play with the Bulls’ new rookie duo of Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. While neither player panned out in Chicago, in an era where picking high schoolers was in vogue, they were intriguing prospects. I had recently gotten a PlayStation 2, so the lack of a PC release wasn’t about to hold me back from playing with the Baby Bulls. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, neither Curry nor Chandler was signed in time to be included in NBA Live 2002. For some reason, simply creating them didn’t feel like an appealing notion. Instead I played with the Sacramento Kings, though in hindsight, I should’ve put MJ’s Bulls back together.
When Chicago selected the highly-touted Jay Williams with the second overall pick in 2002, I figured that I was finally going to have a fun year with the Bulls on the virtual hardwood. There was some promising young talent on the roster and NBA Live 2003 marked a return to PC; nothing was going to stand in my way this time! As it turned out, the idea did fall apart, but this time it wasn’t just the team. Sure, I still had trouble connecting with the players and getting excited about the roster, even though they did improve to 30 wins in real life. The bigger problem however was the game itself, as I grew weary of NBA Live 2003’s shortcomings in terms of realism and balance.
Come 2003 and the release of NBA Live 2004, I would finally come to enjoy running with the Bulls again, though the fact I was able to swindle the CPU into accepting a deal of Jalen Rose, Marcus Fizer, and Roger Mason Jr. for Kevin Garnett was a major factor in that. A Dynasty game in NBA Live 2005 established Ben Gordon as my new favourite active player, and my NBA Live 06 Dynasty proved to be even more fun, eventually stretching into the third season. Chicago’s rise out of the basement in real life unquestionably helped as well, as I felt more positive about their roster. Being a Bulls fan was enjoyable again, and in turn, it was fun using them in games once more.
Looking back, my reluctance to use the Bulls in NBA Live came at a point when my fanaticism for the NBA was waning for the first time. I’d grown used to watching them win game after game, championship after championship, and so seeing them struggle through the early stages of a rebuilding era was tough. Many of the players I’d grown up watching were retiring, or drawing ever closer to hanging it up. I was also in my final years of high school, with the uncertainty of adult life looming. To that end, it was a period of change and adjustment. I wanted to hold onto the bonds I’d formed as a basketball fan and gamer, but everything felt strange and different.
The lack of direction and consistency in the roster made the rebuilding Bulls difficult to get behind and cheer for, while questionable Draft picks and uninspiring moves in free agency were disheartening as the losses piled up. I couldn’t say that I was really a fan of any of the players on the roster, and that carried over into my gaming. On one hand it made them easier to trade, as I felt no attachment to them or their identity as Bulls. As I noted however, their lower ratings didn’t facilitate a lot of fantasy moves as the team’s virtual GM. They were still my favourite team, but they were hard to watch, and not much more appealing to play with.
On a positive note, it allowed me to grow and open my mind. With the Bulls being an afterthought in the post-championship years, I was able to shed some fanboy habits and develop more of an appreciation for other teams and players. I didn’t jump on any bandwagons, but I could enjoy and take an interest in what was happening elsewhere in the league. This also led to fun gaming experiences, such as the aforementioned Franchises with the Knicks and Kings, as well as the Minnesota Timberwolves in NBA Live 2003. In hindsight, that no doubt put the idea in my head to go out and bring KG to Chicago in my NBA Live 2004 Dynasty.
Those early 2000s Chicago Bulls teams were tough to endure, both in real life and on the virtual hardwood. In reality, they lost a lot of games and seemed like they were never getting back on track. In video games, they were underpowered and unsuitable for the franchise gamer who wanted to get creative and rebuild their way. At the same time, it’s made me appreciate the better seasons they’ve had since, brief as those runs were. In a way, running with those Bulls made me a better fan and opened me up to a few new ideas that made for some great gaming memories. With that in mind, it was worth an attempted season with Khalid El-Amin as the starting point guard after all.