Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games, as well as the real NBA, and other areas of interest to our community. The feature is presented as either a list of five items, or in the form of a Top 5 countdown. This week’s Five lists five times that NBL players appeared in classic NBA video games.
After the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the original start of the season, the Australian NBL is tipping off its 2021 campaign today. I’ve always been more of an NBA fan, but I do have an affinity for my country’s league; even if my hometown has lost two teams since the league was founded here in 1979. In any event, it’s been great to see the NBL grow, and become a viable path to the NBA. Not only have more and more home-grown talents made it to the NBA, but American players are opting for the NBL over college. Examples include Terrance Ferguson, and more recently, LaMelo Ball.
The number of players who spent time in both leagues has resulted in several NBL alumni appearing in NBA video games. Luc Longley played two games for the Perth Wildcats in 1986 before he was drafted in 1991, and became the first Australian to play in the NBA. Journeyman point guard Doug Overton played a season for the Illawarra Hawks before beginning his NBA career with the Washington Bullets. You may be familiar with them thanks to their NBA careers and video game appearances, as well as more recent NBL alumni such as Joe Ingles and Torrey Craig. There are some older appearances you may not recall however, such as these five examples.
1. Several NBL Players on The Boomers in Team USA Basketball
Long before Australia’s national men’s basketball team – The Boomers – were added in NBA 2K17, they appeared among the squads in Team USA Basketball. Andrew Gaze and Luc Longley were there of course, alongside Andrew Vlahov and Mark Bradtke. Other NBL alumni included Damian Keogh, Ray Borner, Phil Smyth, Mike McKay, Larry Sengstock (who later went on to be CEO of Basketball Australia and the NBL), John Dorge, Tim Morrissey, and David Graham. Interestingly, Morrissey and Graham were not actually part of the squad that competed at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Shane Heal and Leroy Loggins were, but weren’t included in the game.
For many of those former NBL and Boomers players, that was their only appearance on the virtual hardwood. In fact, of the players included on the Australian squad in Team USA Basketball, only Luc Longley and Andrew Gaze would go on to make official appearances in NBA licensed video games. Mark Bradtke did play one season with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1997, but signed with the team in mid October; far too late to appear in NBA Live 97 or any other games set during that year. Speaking of Team USA Basketball, several players from other countries, such as Toni Kukoc and Arvydas Sabonis, also made their video game debut before setting foot in the NBA.
2. Darnell Mee & Kevin Brooks in NBA Live 95 (16-Bit)
So I’m being somewhat flexible with the term “NBL alumni” here, as Darnell Mee and Kevin Brooks are both Americans who played in the NBA before ending up playing in Australia. However, both became fixtures of the basketball scene Down Under, particularly Mee who played 12 seasons in the NBL and took out Australian citizenship in 2006. Before that however, both had stints with the Denver Nuggets, becoming teammates for the 1994 season. That campaign would be Brooks’ last in the NBA, while Mee played two games in the 1995 season before being cut in February. Both went on to play for different teams in the Continental Basketball Association.
Mee ended up playing for the Canberra Cannons in 1996, and at the advice of his friend and former teammate, Brooks found his way to the NBL in 1998, joining the Adelaide 36ers. Their aforementioned stint with the Nuggets can be seen in the 16-Bit versions of NBA Live 95 though, since the game includes final 1994 season rosters. If you’re a regular reader of my Wayback Wednesday features, you’ll know how much I love the “interactive almanac” aspect of old games, and I definitely got a kick out of randomly seeing them on the Nuggets’ roster when I was revisiting NBA Live 95 to get a few screenshots. Truth be told, that was my initial inspiration for this article!
3. Shane Heal in NBA Live 98
After an impressive performance in the tournament at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta – which included an infamous run-in with Charles Barkley – Shane Heal was signed by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1996. He didn’t get much of a run, playing just 5.5 minutes per game in 43 outings during the regular season, but he does have a career Playoff field goal and three-point percentage of 100%. Alright, he only took and subsequently made two three-pointers in two Playoff games, but still. I remember how cool it was to see him get a segment on NBA Action after a strong performance against the SuperSonics, where he set a then-team record for threes in a quarter.
Being a seldom-used third point guard in the rotation would prove to be a difficult adjustment for Heal though, and he opted to return to Australia for the 1998 season. Having missed the cut for NBA Live 97, The Hammer was actually included in the rosters of NBA Live 98 PC, after he’d elected to come home and play in the NBL again. Even though his official inclusion in an NBA video game came a year too late, it was still awesome to be able to play with him. Shane Heal would have another brief stint in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs in 2004, but was once again signed too late to have been included in either NBA Live 2004 or ESPN NBA Basketball.
4. Andrew Gaze & Chris Anstey in NBA Live 99 & 2000
While NBA Live 95 16-Bit included two future NBL alumni in Darnell Mee and Kevin Brooks, it could’ve included then-face of the league Andrew Gaze as well. After all, Gaze had his first NBA stint during the 1994 season, signing two ten-day contracts to play seven games with Washington. Unfortunately that tenure ended in March, though even if he had remained on the roster, there’s a chance he wouldn’t have been included in NBA Live 95’s 12-man lineups. His stint with the Spurs in 1999 saw him added to NBA Live 99 via the official roster update, and though he didn’t return for the 2000 season, he’s still on the Spurs in NBA Live 2000 PC.
Gaze wasn’t the only Aussie in the rosters of NBA Live 99 and 2000, though. Luc Longley was still in the league of course, but they were joined by another player with NBL experience: Chris Anstey. Anstey had been drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1997 and was then traded to the Dallas Mavericks, but didn’t make the roster cut-off for NBA Live 98. He was in NBA Live 99 however, playing for the Mavericks. NBA Live 2000 marks his final NBA season, though it was released before his trade to the Chicago Bulls. Both Gaze and Anstey began and finished their careers with the Melbourne Tigers, with Anstey also playing for other NBL clubs and in Europe.
5. Nathan Jawai in NBA Live 09 & NBA 2K9
NBA Live 09 and NBA 2K9 may be too recent (and arguably not quite well-received enough) to be called “classics”, but I’d argue that at the very least, they’re on the verge of being retro at this point. Quibbles over quality aside, both games saw the virtual hardwood debut of Nathan Jawai, drafted out of the NBL where he’d played his rookie season with the Cairns Taipans. Notably, Jawai was the first Indigenous Australian to play in the NBA, and more specifically the first Torres Strait Islander. Patty Mills, who is of both Torres Straight Islander and Aboriginal Australian descent, became the second just one year later. Indeed, Patty Mills and Nathan Jawai are actually cousins.
Nicknamed “Outback Shaq” – geographically incorrect, but nevertheless catchy – Jawai’s NBA career didn’t turn out to be as long or successful as Mills, whose Game 5 performance in the 2014 NBA Finals is one of my favourite basketball moments from the past decade. Unfortunately Jawai didn’t get much playing time in his rookie year with the Toronto Raptors, who acquired him along with Jermaine O’Neal in the deal that sent Roy Hibbert to the Indiana Pacers. It certainly didn’t help that a pre-season physical revealed a cardiac abnormality, though he saw more time in his second and final season with Minnesota. He’s since played in Europe, and returned to the NBL.
Hopefully the NBL has a successful season, and continues to go from strength to strength. With any luck, I’ll one day have a hometown team to cheer for once again, too. In the meantime, fellow Aussies, do you remember seeing these NBL players in NBA video games? Basketball fans in general, do you recall these Aussies? Let me know in the comments, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! Also, don’t forget to check out the NBL mod for NBA 2K20 PC, created by MonkeyManJSV, Shuajota, et al. That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next Friday for another Five.