Back in my day, the NBA was home to more than superstars. It was full of superheroes. Of course, as a kid from Central Illinois, I worshipped the Chicago Bulls: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and even lesser known players like my fellow Croatian and the league’s best sixth man, Toni Kuko?. But there were mighty men on other teams, too. The dynamic duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone. Sir Charles Barkley. Shaquille O’Neil. Shawn Kemp. Reggie Miller. We made an entire Dream Team out of them and they brought back the gold. We trusted them to defend the Earth against the dreaded Monstars (with the help of Bugs Bunny and Bill Murray). They were larger than life.
And so, in my mind, the video game that best captures my relationship with professional basketball has got to be NBA Jam. This game was insanity incarnate. Players literally caught fire, made miracle shots from half court without batting an eye, and ran around the court with giant heads. This game was the 90’s incarnate. You could play as Bill Clinton or Al Gore with the help of a cheat code. The announcers shouted things like “Boomshakalaka!” and “Is it the shoes?” It was big and bright and loud and perfectly fun.
This means that I am basically the ideal audience for Brian Oliu’s new collection of essays, Enter Your Initials for Record Keeping. The book is both universal (to basketball fans of A Certain Age like myself) and personal, its voice both innocent and wise. “The first thing you need to know is that the game is not about basketball,” it begins. “It is far too glamorous to be called that; it is an ode to what we imagine ourselves doing if we had the chance.” And yet, it is also a game for “kids who couldn’t ball in real life… kids who applied the concept of button-mashing to their athletic endeavors and then choked at every golden moment presented to them. Here is a game those kids can win because the second chances don’t stop coming.”
I identify with both of these perspectives. I remember reveling in the fantastical feats and the hot streaks and I remember throwing down my controller in disgust when the neighbor kid made an impossible come back because the random number generator in my Super Nintendo let him, no matter how poorly he had played during the last three quarters. I remember fighting with my younger brother to play as my Chicago Bulls even though Jordan wasn’t a playable character. I remember my dog-eared copy of Nintendo Power containing all of my cheat codes. Oliu’s book captures not just the essence of the game but the essence of the environment in which we sat down to play and the essence of the perspective we bring to our memories of those moments twenty years later.
It will make you feel wistful and impossibly old. But like those Buzzfeed listicles, you will keep on reading it anyways.