The NBA, as it should be.
Reeling from negative focus group feedback after the Indiana Pacers/Detroit Pistons brawl, the NBA wants its marketing marriage to hip-hop annulled. Working with Republican consultant Matthew Dowd, who crafted key strategies for the 2004 Bush/Cheney campaign, commissioner David Stern aims to halt white flight to the sporting suburbs.
Last week, the NBA announced that injured players on the sidelines must sport suits and ties, as must any players involved in post-game interviews. Never mind that constraining formal attire might not be the smartest choice for people with separated shoulders and broken ankles, or that some players wore the throwback jerseys of African American athletic pioneers to pay poignant homage to their predecessors, or that the average custom-throwback-and-designer-jeans outfit costs much more than most tuxedos. The league wants corporate skybox money, and it's betting that CEOs will identify more strongly with men wearing their workday uniforms.
In the league's front offices, the term "crossover" refers to demographics, not Allen Iverson's dribbling acumen. The marketing teams that conjure the NBA's commercials would have viewers believe that players love to listen to the likes of Lenny Kravitz, the Rolling Stones, and cloying pop-rap outfit Black Eyed Peas. February's All-Star Game extravaganza in Denver trotted out such unlikely entertainers as the Goo Goo Dolls, Big & Rich, and LeAnn Rimes. To paraphrase one of the latter country crooner's hits, nothin' 'bout this lineup made sense.
NBA 2K6 remains unaffected by the rolling red-state tide. Its 42-song soundtrack contains exclusively hip-hop and bass-heavy dance cuts, with legit mix-tape fodder from Common, Ghostface, and Aesop Rock blasting in the backdrop. Its players never appear dolled up in prom night sartorial splendor. The game looks and sounds like the real NBA, and, perhaps most importantly for controller-holders, it plays like it as well.
Vastly superior to 2K5 (as well it should be, to justify the $20 hike in retail price), 2K6 boasts some of the most fluid sequences available in a sporting simulator. In one-player mode, it's possible to pull off spontaneous collaborative efforts like the give-and-go and alley-oop, directing the motions of both participants as soon as the defense presents an opening. Seeing a real-time adjustment lead to a basket is much more satisfying than executing a pre-scripted play, with your animated automatons merely going through the motions.
While it's impossible to reproduce the physical dynamics of a no-look pass, 2K6 realistically rewards court vision. Players with point guard sensibilities can spring quick touch passes, or fake a shot before dropping a bounce pass into the post. Assists in basketball video games tend to be unassuming passes indirectly leading to hoops, but 2K6 offers the potential for spectacular dishes.
2K6 replicates the shooter's touch as well, with its simple free throw procedure and its newly installed Shot Stick, which becomes a factor when players drive the lane. Shooters still launch outside jumpers with a single button tap, but dunks and finger-roll lay-ups require the simultaneous manipulation of three controls. This task seems daunting and ungainly at first, but the learning curve is quick; my first three games against the computer were an 80-point loss, a 12-point loss, and a 14-point win.
Of the game's alternate-court features, the streetball setting is most compelling. Players can select any NBA twosomes, threesomes, or foursomes to run playground-style at locales both venerable (Rucker Park, Venice Beach) and obscure (steel mill, truck stop.) The fast-break flow of a full-court three-on-three battle is especially exciting. There's some mild trash talking ("Where's the D?"), but the type of masochists who download NBA players' smack sessions as their ring tones (a feature offered by Def Jam Mobile) will have to venture online in search of harsher abuse. The Harlem-set Entertainer's Basketball Classic is a star-studded variation, with a wide range of hip-hop performers among the unlockable players. (LeAnn Rimes is not part of that roster.)
2K6 includes a Cribs setting, though it's not nearly as grotesquely decadent as 2003's presumably Stern-disapproved NBA Ballers. Instead of striving for luxury cars, mansions, and yachts, players can unlock rec room games such as darts and air-hockey while filling their trophy cases. Players furnish their penthouse pads by achieving triple-doubles, 100-point games, and other on-court goals. It's not exactly materialism run amok, especially given that even the decidedly un-bling Mario and Zelda franchises depict the exchange of currency for exotic goods and powers.
For all its rap tracks and blacktop grit, 2K6 does enable manipulation that will endear it to the type of disillusioned basketball enthusiasts given to transparent rants about how the league has "too many tattooed players" who "aren't fundamentally sound." In other words, take a seat, Afro-sporting Pistons center Ben Wallace; it's bleach-blond Darko Milicic's time to shine.
Basketball video games can open a delusional alternate universe, where white players dominate. An NBA Live television advertisement depicts a stumpy white guy climbing in and out of the android shells of the league's black stars. Some gamers would rather inflate their own frames to NBA proportions without stepping out of their skins.
To its credit, 2K6, which employs Shaquille O'Neal as its cover model, does not cater to this contingent. It's an accurate reproduction of the NBA, more so than the images the league itself presents in its promotional materials. Stern and Dowd might be able to play doll-dresser with the league's real workforce, but when playing 2K6 they can only control the players' movements, not their outfits.
7 October 2005