The Weirdest Cover Stars in NBA Video Game History
What is a cover athlete on the cover of a sports game for? It used to be a question of legitimacy – if Robert Horry endorses this game, it MUST be good! Until the mid-1990s, official NBA licenses were also not taken for granted, so seeing a recognizable player was a good visual shortcut to impress on the consumer that “Hey, there are real players in the NBA here”.
Over time, the practice has become considerably more abstract, not least because boxed game copies are much smaller than digital storefront downloads. Fandom has evolved as NBA 2K and NBA Live have grown into towering franchises (or at least long-running franchises, in the latter’s case) and the simple act of picking a cover athlete now sparks debate. and even controversies within the community. It’s a way to honor the greats, mourn the departed, showcase groundbreaking talent, and tacitly communicate to a fanbase that this game is hip to the basketball zeitgeist.
And while we’re still pretty salty that there isn’t a Tyler Herro NBA 2K cover just yet, we’re also aware that it’s a tricky decision, picking the right cover athlete. We know this because we remember all the times basketball games went wrong or went against the grain with totally left-wing picks…
Gilbert Arenas – NBA Live 08
EA’s franchise was already beginning to give ground to NBA 2K in 2007 when NBA Live 08 published. The competition between the two was as fierce as it has ever been, and like the imperious former, NBA live needed a cover star to put the young upstart in his place. A Metta World Peace elbow against the competition. He opted for Gilbert Arenas.
Not to throw shade at a three-time NBA All-Star, three-time All-NBA Team member and winner of the 2002-03 Most Improved Player award, but… Gilbert Arenes? It’s just hard to imagine someone standing in the aisle of a store, wondering whether to drop 50 bucks on that new basketball game or not, and then seeing that face and deciding. money was no problem.
Luckily, Arenas only played 13 games in the 2007-08 season due to a knee injury, and only two the following year. In fact, until his retirement in 2011-12, Arenas played no more than 49 games in a single season after his cover appearance.
Chris Paul – NBA 2K8
The same year EA decided that Gilbert Arenas should be the face of its successful basketball franchise, 2K also cast one of its most awkward cover stars from CP3. Time has definitely proven the executives right on this one – he’s a 12-time All-Star with more individual awards than we could list, one of the best guards in modern history, and still playing high minutes for Phoenix right now. Incredible talent with equally incredible longevity.
But 2K really beat this one out. We knew Chris Paul was good in 2007, but we didn’t know he would be this good. As it happens, the 2007-08 season would represent Paul’s highest career APG at 11.6 and second highest PPG at 21.1. Considering 2K had played it very safe with established faces that transcended the game before this point, in hindsight it was a remarkably good decision with chilling foresight to make Paul a cover star in 2007 .
Mitch Richmond – NBA Live ’97
Let’s do some word association, shall we? I’ll give you an idea or a concept, and you tell me the first thing that comes to mind. Ready? Ok, here we go: the NBA in 1997… Correct. Mitch Richmond. It’s the only reasonable answer.
Again, no disrespect to the Sacramento shooter, who incidentally put up 25.9 PPG in the 1996-97 season. But Michael Jordan was bigger than the league itself during that Bulls dominant era. Seeing nobody but MJ on the cover looks weird in retrospect. Seeing Mitch Richmond, however, feels like you’ve fallen through a portal into an alternate universe where Netflicks(TM) has a documentary about the Kings’ incredible championship streak in the ’90s.
Ben Wallace – NBA 2K5
Look, the rules for picking basketball game covers are very clear: you ARE allowed to pick a defensive player, but only if that player is Shaquille O’Neal. Obviously no one at 2K has checked the rulebook before NBA 2K5 went to the production line.
Wallace was a big deal back then. Detroit had just won an unlikely NBA championship in 2004, beating the Lakers in five games thanks in large part to the C/PF’s 6’9” brickwall defense. Wallace’s larger-than-life personality both on and off the pitch would have made him a recognizable face to most people wandering the sports game shelves at Gamestop.
Here’s the thing, though: it was the first NBA 2K game never featured a cover athlete who wasn’t Allen Iverson. 2K broke four years of tradition for Ben Wallace. And while Iverson is exactly the kind of player you want to be in video games, all flashy dribbling and spectacular hoop drives, Wallace embodied all the things that were, especially in those days, extremely boring to do in Games. Defensive positioning. Disputed moves. Bounce. would you buy Ben Wallace’s Rebound 2005? Exactly.
Antoine Walker – NBA Live ’99
MJ left a chasm in the league when he left for a few years to deliberate on soda prices and parking fees for the Wizards. In his absence in the 1998-99 through 2000-01 seasons, the NBA needed a new superstar to step in and fill the void. With all the will in the world, not even Antoine Walker himself would claim to be that man.
Walker would of course earn a championship ring, but not for many years after appearing on the cover of NBA Live ’99. At this point in his career, he was a reliable 20-point power forward that you didn’t want to support against you in the key. In a perfect world, Kobe Bryant would have graced that cover, with his Lakers winning the championship in 1999-2000 and himself becoming the most compelling successor to Jordan’s throne. We may never know why Walker got the spot instead, but we can probably assume it has a lot to do with licensing fees. He had already made the cover of NBA courtside for the Nintendo 74 in 1998, so maybe EA couldn’t get the rights.
Hakeem Olajuwon – NBA ShootOut 98
This one has less to do with the choice of athlete, Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon, and more with the specific image on the cover. Olajuwon was one of the big names of the 90s, posting impressive numbers throughout the decade with his insane wingspan and looks that earned him plenty of blocks and dunks. People could reasonably have been swayed by his image on a game cover. So why is his image obscured to anonymity on this one? The photograph is distorted and stylized to the point that Olajuwon is just about recognizable as a human male. And if you really squint, you can still make out a Rockets logo on his almost completely saturated jersey. They might as well have used Othella Harrington on the front.
Second, the game is called NBA ShootOut ’98. So what does Olajuwon do? Dip, of course.
Kyrie Irving – NBA 2K18
Wait wait. Kyrie is a generational talent. It is decorated with more individual awards than it would be practical to list. He has a championship ring, and yet it still feels like he’s somehow underrated. Kyrie himself isn’t the problem with the NBA 2K18 cover.
The problem, as Cleveland and Boston fans will vividly recall, is that between the time 2K released the cover art for the new game and the start of the 2017-18 season, Kyrie demanded a trade from the senior management of the Cavs, who granted and sent him to Boston.
2K then had to tear up its original cover and post an updated version with Irving wearing a Celtics uniform. Not as bad as going to the market with Mitch Richmond on the cover, but a slight headache.
Except the following March, Irving suffered a debilitating knee injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season and the entire postseason. If there was ever a moment in Kyrie’s career not to be commemorated, this is it.
Written by Phil Iwaniuk on behalf of GLHF.