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'NBA Jam' video game designer rigged Bulls to lose close games to Pistons
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'NBA Jam' video game designer rigged Bulls to lose close games to Pistons

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Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas (11) moves the ball during a game against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center in Chicago on April 20, 1993.

Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas (11) moves the ball during a game against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center in Chicago on April 20, 1993. (Jonathan Daniel /Allsport/Getty Images/TNS)

CHICAGO - You have to love the irony: A video game designer working for Chicago-based Midway Games in the 1990s tweaked "NBA Jam" so the Chicago Bulls would experience loss in heartbreaking fashion against their most hated rival, the Detroit Pistons.

The 1993 arcade game pitted NBA players in two-on-two matchups. Former Midway designer and Pistons fan Mark Turmell told Ars Technica that if a Bulls-Pistons contest ever came close to a buzzer-beater, he programmed Bulls players Scottie Pippen or Horace Grant to miss the shot against the Pistons' pairing of Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer.

"Making this game in Chicago during the height of the Michael Jordan era, there was a big rivalry between the Pistons and the Bulls, but the one way I could get back at the Bulls once they got over the hump was to affect their skills against the Pistons in 'NBA Jam,' " Turmell said. "And so I put in special code that if the Bulls were taking last-second shots against the Pistons, they would miss those shots.

"And so, if you're ever playing the game, make sure you pick the Pistons over the Bulls."

Chalk it up to sour grapes from a Pistons backer who watched the Bulls bring Detroit's "Bad Boys" dynasty to a halt with a sweep in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals.

Frank Cifaldi, founder and co-director of the Video Game History Foundation, remembers first playing "NBA Jam" when he was about 11 or 12 years old growing up in Las Vegas.

"I was a Bulls fan at the time that the game came out, so the Bulls were my team," Cifaldi said, adding that Chicago relatives on his mother's side helped steer him to the Bulls. "I was certainly aware of the Pistons rivalry."

But as many times as he played NBA Jam, he never noticed anything amiss.

"The thing you've got to realize is the reason no one really caught on is what (Turmell) put in is really subtle," Cifaldi said. "It's not egregious. It's not like suddenly your players are running at half speed.

"For all we knew as players in that scenario, it just could be we missed the shot. You miss shots sometimes. I don't think it's something where it happened often enough that people noticed.

"It's just a very subtle tweak he put in there just as a middle finger (to Bulls fans), I guess."

Cifaldi said he's not surprised by Turmell's confession to Ars Technica. Turmell admitted as much during a "post-mortem" at the Game Developers Conference in 2018, which Cifaldi attended.

"I don't think there were ever rumors circulating around about that necessarily," Cifaldi said. "I think it's just kind of a cute Easter egg he put in.

"I don't know of anyone else who has ever given their preferred sports team an unfair advantage in a game. This is the only instance of that I've ever heard of."

Cifaldi said his video game foundation would love to retrieve source code from "NBA Jam" and any other original material and store it in their archives, though he doubts they've been preserved.

The foundation hopes to collect raw data before video game before companies go out of business or lose track of it and the information is lost forever. Midway, which also made "Mortal Kombat," ultimately went into bankruptcy and Warner Bros. acquired its assets for $49 million in 2009.

"We call it 'stopping the bleeding,' " he said.

There are several quirks related to the Bulls or Michael Jordan in the gaming world that the foundation also would like to preserve.

For example, Midway developers made arcade versions of "NBA Jam" that included Jordan and Gary Payton and shipped them to the NBA legends as well as to their friend Ken Griffey Jr. The commercial version of the game wasn't allowed to use Jordan's likeness because the Bulls great opted out of the NBA Players Association's licensing agreement at the time.

"NBA Live '96" wasn't supposed to include Jordan, either, but that didn't stop EA Sports developers from making a Jordan-esque character.

Cifaldi, who owns the Sega Genesis version of the game, said "If you put in 'Michael Jordan,' it just automatically has a Black player with a bald head with the No. 23 on his jersey with insane stats.

"So it's like he's not officially in the game but if you happen to type in his name - oh look, the random character creator comes up with someone who looks remarkably like Michael Jordan. That's how they got around licensing him for the game, which I enjoyed."

Cifaldi said it's important to get the original source code so gamers years from now can understand how and why game developers craft such Easter eggs and cheat codes.

"I'd love to be able to point at the source code (in 'NBA Jam') and be like, 'That's how it works,' he said. 'I'd love to be able to say (hypothetically) here's exactly what happens: If it's Bulls versus Pistons and there's 10 seconds left and (a Bulls) player takes a shot, they have a 2% chance of making the basket.

"I'd love to give you that data, but we don't have the source code, so we can't do that."

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

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