The rivalry between the “Bad Boys” era Detroit Pistons and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls created so much animosity that the teams’ distaste for each other made its way into a video game. The developers behind the classic NBA Jam involved a lot of quirks into the game’s code. One example: The virtual version of Scottie Pippen plays differently than he did in real life.
The ‘Bad Boys’ were Jordan’s first NBA enemy
Michael Jordan’s extraordinary basketball talent was only rivaled by his ability to find adequate motivation in the pettiest of circumstances. He could find a reason to hate someone so easily that most players didn’t realize they made Jordan mad until he crushed them on the court.
Sometimes, he didn’t even need the opposition to do something as egregious as celebrating a playoff victory or not saying hello to him in a restaurant. In the case of Washington Wizards guard LaBradford Smith, Jordan completely made up a lighthearted barb just to pump himself up to destroy them in their next matchup.
Jordan’s knack for sharpening his competitive edge was impressive. But when it came to the Detroit Pistons teams of the late 80s and early 90s, the enmity was warranted. The Bad Boys were Jordan’s first big rival in the NBA. Detroit stood as an established power in the Eastern Conference, and weren’t willing to relinquish their status without a fight.
Those fights were often literal. You could get away with a lot more violence in the NBA back then. The Pistons used that leniency to create the “Jordan Rules.” These boiled down to bodying Jordan and hitting him out of the air whenever he drove to the rim. Jordan understandably hated it, but the tactics initially worked.
Detroit knocked them out of the playoffs three years in a row and won two titles. But it was only a matter of time before Chicago’s talent broke through. The Bulls swept them in 1991 en route to their first championship of the Jordan era. Detroit walked off the court before the game was over and without shaking the hands of the Chicago players. Jordan still hates Isiah Thomas to this day.
Fans used NBA Jam to work out their Bulls frustrations
The competition between the Bulls and Pistons reached such a fever pitch that some fans used a seminal piece of culture to get one over their foes. The 1993 release of NBA Jam was an inflection point for video game versions of sports. It was immensely popular. The catchphrases of announcer Tim Kitzrow became part of the lexicon for a generation of kids.
Even though the Pistons-Bulls rivalry was dead by the time it came out, and the developers of NBA Jam, Midway Studios, were based in Chicago, the game included a glitch that attempted to bring the Chicago dynasty down a peg. Lead designer Mark Turmell confirmed the glitch in an interview with ESPN:
If there was a close game and anyone on the Bulls took a last second shot, we wrote special code in the game so that they would average out to be bricks. There was the big competition back in the day between the Pistons and the Bulls, and since I was always a big Pistons fan, that was my opportunity to level the playing field.
The circumstances behind the game certainly made it easier for Midway to get away with this scheme. Jordan wasn’t in the game because he owned the rights to his own name and likeness; he did not make them available. (Shaquille O’Neal isn’t in the home version of the game for the same reason.)
It’s certainly easier for gamers to believe that Scottie Pippen missed the final shot than Jordan. It could’ve been worse for Bulls fans. They could’ve coded the game so that Pippen refused to enter the game in the first place. (I know NBA Jam didn’t have timeouts, just go with the joke.)
One of many Easter eggs in NBA Jam
NBA Jam was full of secrets and Easter eggs for fans to discover. Entering certain codes at the Add Initials screen unlocked special characters such as funk legend George Clinton and President Bill Clinton. Cheats also made the game even more outlandish by unlocking abilities like easy steals, infinite turbo, and super dunks.
Oh, and the original arcade versions of the game are haunted. In the time between the game’s development and the machines entering arcades, Drazen Petrovic tragically died in a car accident. He was eventually removed from the home version. But he has a presence in the game in the strangest way:
One night we were playing Mortal Kombat and there was a Jam machine next to it, and all of a sudden the game started calling out “Petrovic!” “Petrovic!” And this only happened after Petrovic had died. Everyone started freaking out. Something weird was going on with the software, and to this day, if you have an original NBA Jam machine every once in a while it will just yell out “Petrovic!” It’s wild.
NBA Jam isn’t just a great game. It’s an exaggerated snapshot of what basketball culture was like at the time. And in the early 90s, there were few storylines more inescapable than the Bulls vs. the Pistons.