Bringing friends together with NBA Jam

WASHINGTON — As we get older and grow apart, friends should be able to get together and hang out without the pretense of major life events or forced corporate functions.

That’s the pretext, anyway, upon which Rory Murphy and Ryan Carey tried to organize 30 of their friends through a piece of electronic nostalgia for which any American male of a certain age holds a certain place in his heart: NBA Jam.

With that in mind, he proposed the idea: Who would be willing to pay $10 to participate in a March Madness-style, single elimination tournament, while having a few beers and playing other old arcade games on a Saturday afternoon?

“I’ve been in D.C. for like eight years, had a handful of different jobs,” said Murphy, 31. “It’s always a challenge to hang out with people I care about, and everyone is a 25 to 35-year-old dude who likes to play video games.”

So, how was the response?

“It was easy to fill the first 25. The last seven were a little tough to fill in. But everyone was super excited about doing it.”

When all was said and done, 32 of us squeezed into the tiny Atlas Arcade on H Street for the Inaugural Washington D.C. NBA Jam Tournament. Over the course of four hours on a Saturday afternoon, we collectively experienced the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the camaraderie of bonding over a game we all had individual childhood memories of, but almost none had played since adolescence.

“We wanted to do a game that everyone had played,” explained Murphy, while rocking a vintage Scottie Pippen jersey, just one of many he had collected over the years that he brought for participants to wear. “It was between NBA Jam and a couple others, but everybody likes this game.”

The early ’90s brought about the convergence of the arcade era’s final renaissance and the explosion of the in-home video game system. Capcom’s Street Fighter II landed in 1991 with Mortal Kombat joining it the next year. Then came NBA Jam in 1993, going on to become the highest grossing sports game of all time.

The Super Nintendo debuted in America in 1991 and NBA Jam came to the console in 1994, right after the first Chicago Bulls three-peat, when the NBA was booming and Michael Jordan was the most popular athlete in America. And while game producer Midway did not secure the license to put either Jordan or Shaquille O’Neal in the game, its popularity did not suffer. NBA Jam was a quintessential game for nearly any video game-playing child of the ’90s.

“I can’t tell you how many hours I spent playing this game growing up. It’s probably embarrassing. Like, hundreds, or thousands,” said Murphy.

As we all arrived, the random draw was set. Before each match, players reached into a jar and selected three Ping-Pong balls with team names on them. We either had to choose one of those three, or take our chances with a one-time pull for of another team. This kept anyone from riding a strong team all the way to the finals.

Tournament organizer Rory Murphy (center) helps a player draw teams. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Tournament organizer Rory Murphy (center) helps a player draw teams. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

Of course, none of us had played the game any time recently before that week. And though Atlas has many original arcade games, we were playing the tournament on the SNES and Sega Genesis, set up at the bar.

I survived my first round matchup 53-51 playing with the Houston Rockets thanks to a buzzer-beating free throw line jumper before falling to Murphy in the round of 16. That’s when things started to get particularly fun, where the nostalgia of the game and of the simple adrenaline rush of beating your friends at a video game brought out the kid in everyone.

Murphy trailed his next match by five points in the final 30 seconds before hitting a three-pointer to close the gap to two against Chad Leezer. Murphy then blocked a dunk on Leezer’s final possession and heaved up an underhand, three-quarter court three-pointer which dropped at the buzzer, leading to one of the best photos of the day.

Leezer (left) in disbelief and Murphy (right) in exultation. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Leezer (left) in disbelief and Murphy (right) in exultation. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

In the end, William Larson, 32, took down the championship. Just like everyone else there, he was no ringer, just a part of the friend group (Carey’s brother-in-law) who thought it sounded like a fun way to spend a Saturday. It was his first time at Atlas, and his first time playing NBA Jam in nearly 20 years.

“I just really liked the concept of everybody hanging out, drinking beer, like you might do on a Saturday afternoon, but everybody playing video games while you’re doing it,” said Larson. “It’s like March Madness in a bar.”

He was as surprised as anybody to take home the trophy, a bronze cast of a man sitting in a recliner, holding a basketball.

Larson holds his trophy after winning all five of his matches. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Larson holds his trophy after winning all five of his matches. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

“I figured that nobody else had played it before today since the ‘90s, so I had as good a chance as anybody,” he said.

In all, the experiment was a resounding success, and may be repeated and even expanded in the future, with a bigger field and other games, like Tecmo Bowl, discussed as options. But whether such spin-offs happen or the original tournament merely becomes a tradition, it will have fulfilled its original purpose.

“It’s just an opportunity for a lot of people who have worked together in the past, hung out together in the past, to come together,” said Murphy. “When you hit that, like, 28-29 age, you only see people at weddings, or holiday parties, and that’s it. So this is an excuse to get a big group of people together and hang out.”

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