YouTube HOF: NBA Player Commercials
Kareem and Atari
Bill Simmons: I’ve always had a vague memory of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar appearing in an Atari commercial in the late-1970s — a mental image of him sadly slumped on a seat as a little kid played Atari next to him, only he was dressed in his Lakers uniform and goggles and the whole thing was stupefyingly weird. If not for YouTube, I would have just assumed that I imagined the whole thing. But that’s the great thing about YouTube — you can use it to confirm hazy memories, and almost always, they don’t match up to what you remembered. In this case, the actual commercial was about 24 percent stranger than I remembered. A few months earlier, Kareem broke his hand punching Kent Benson in the face — apparently this commercial was part of his suspension. Now I’m wondering if my dislike for Kareem (he was my least favorite player even when I was little) drove me away from Atari and toward Intellivision. I mean, something caused me to become an Intellivision kid, right? I have it narrowed down to either Kareem or Carol Channing.
Burger King Shaq Pack
Katie Baker: One of the biggest bummers about graduating from college is it becomes so much tougher to immediately pinpoint important dates and times — i.e., you can no longer insta-recall, say, a cheeseburger commercial: “Oh, this aired in 2002 because I remember it was my freshman spring and I was dating a guy who was on crutches following a freak lacrosse injury which he’d always play up in order to get his friends to drive us to Burger King for the Shaq Pack which we were always craving because we were always seeing the commercial (and parroting the falsetto “SHAQ!”) because we were always lying around on the sloppy sofas in his dirty off-campus house debating whether it was true that nutmeg could get you high and watching the L.A. Lakers power through the playoffs with Kobe and Shaq, and also, that guy is now engaged.” Anyway, you can have your McRib or your Starbucks pumpkin latte, because there’s only room for one novelty fast-food item (one with a truly glorious press release, by the way) in the clogged arteries of my heart: the SHAQ PACK. Can you dig it? And yo, can we get a ride?
The ’94 Knicks and Nobody Beats the Wiz
Mark Lisanti: Is this the greatest commercial starring NBA players ever made? I’m not sure I can make that argument, not in a world where Michael Jordan is free to peddle bacon-resistant undershirts while showing off the prized Hitler mustache he won in a high-stakes canasta game with an ailing Marge Schott in late 2003. But it’s certainly the greatest commercial for a once-regionally ubiquitous discount electronics retailer featuring the starting lineup of the 1994 New York Knicks playing poker with Sunday-newspaper circular coupons. With a production budget upwards of fifteen Valpaks brimming with New Rochelle-area manicurist deals, (Nobody Beats) The Wiz lured Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, and Derek Harper into its promotional Thunderdome and let the teammates unleash their cutthroat competitive instincts upon one another. Though only a portion of a single hand is shown, with Mason re-raising Ewing’s bet with $200 in Wiz Bucks (look closely and you can see the loose-aggressive Starks mouth, “Fuck ’em up, Mase!” to the bluffing forward), a slow-playing Oakley would soon clean everyone out with trip Kings, then later flip his massive savings into a pair of local car washes. Mason, it should be noted, was given free sealer-wax upgrades for life.
Gheorghe Muresan Cologne
Joe House: Because there isn’t one person on Planet Earth who doesn’t love Gheorge Muresan.
Gheorghe Muresan II: “This is SportsCenter” commercial
Dan Silver: This is not intended to be some sort of corporate self-promotion. I honestly couldn’t think of or find another commercial with an NBA player in it that I enjoyed more than this. It was these random slice-of-life moments that made the “This is SportsCenter” campaign so distinctively memorable. The matter-of-fact “We’re just dancing” kills me every time. And if you pay close attention, you’ll see that Muresan is actually the best dancer of the bunch. It’s hard to imagine that this commercial was made almost 16 years ago.
Tim Duncan Out-Raps Kobe Bryant for Sprite
Rembert Browne: I watch this video once a week, just to remind myself that for 1.8 seconds, Tim Duncan was the coolest dude in NBA history. I’ve stood in front of the mirror and tried to perfect the “I’m the Tim” part, but I always slip up between .9 and 1.3 seconds. There’s no replicating what he did in the beginning of this Sprite commercial. Kobe, I know you had an illustrious rap career and all, but please know that for 1.8 seconds, you got GOT by The Tim.
Shawn Kemp, Reebok Kamikaze
Rafe Bartholomew: Right off the bat, YouTube failed me. I searched for the black-and-white John Starks ad where the former Knicks guard is filmed through a chain-link fence, hooping at a playground to the song “Basketball Jones.” The lines “That’s my hook shot with my eyebrow” and “I’ll go one-on-one against the world” never sounded so right. Alas, it’s not there.
So I looked for no. 2 on my list: “Hey Karl, sign my Rogaine?” Failed again. Damn Utah and its revisionist historians.
But my third-favorite NBA commercial is still worthy of the Hall: A commercial for Shawn Kemp’s “Kamikaze” Reeboks in the mid-nineties that blatantly rips off Mortal Kombat. Kemp is beamed into a spike-filled netherland where a six-armed samurai Goro challenges him to a game. At first, Kemp gets his one-hander swatted. Things look grim until a horrific pair of zebra-patterned Reeboks appear on the ground. Kemp hops into the sneakers and proceeds to give Goro the Alton Lister treatment, or, as Shaq calls it, the “Lister Blister.” The dunk weakens the boss, and Kemp lets out a primal scream that disintegrates the alien big man. You can almost hear a voice growl, “Finish Him.” Yes, this commercial is bad enough to make the film Mortal Kombat look good. But it takes chutzpah to fail sensationally, and I respect that.
AT&T and Tyler Hansbrough
Jay Kang: Hey guys, so Tyler Hansbrough is this great college basketball player and he’s a bit scary and I’m not sure he can speak in complete sentences without spitting, so what we should do is put him in this commercial with a sped-up hacked version of a Velvet Underground song in the background. Yes, I understand the song is about drugs, but we’re selling a 3G network to people who listen to Matchbox 20. They won’t get the reference. Anyway, so we’ll have this cute kid lose her dog and then we’ll have Tyler Hansbrough find it and then sit in front of a house and smile at the camera and cut the tape before he rips off the dog’s head and drinks its blood in front of the horrified child.
Scotch ‘n Sirloin Restaurant (1986 Boston Celtics)
Mike Philbrick: The Scotch and Sirloin sounds like the restaurant that would open in a Mad Men theme park. Actually, it was a hot spot for those looking to meet up pre- and post-Celtics/Bruins games during the ’70s and ’80s (the restaurant closed in 1991). Apparently, it was also the official eatery of one of the greatest collection of basketball players in NBA history: the 1986 Boston Celtics. This ad is a who’s who of Hall of Famers: Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, Bill Walton, Robert Parish, and, of course, Larry Bird. However, when it comes to the dialogue, it’s as D-league as you would expect from a collection of elite athletes. From Rick Carlisle arguing, “No, man, it’s the prime rib!” to Robert Parish fulfilling his annual speech quota by simply saying “Lobster,” the only saving grace is that Larry Legend has chosen to exercise his “strong, silent type” personality. Until uh-oh, no. 33 is clinking his glass and he’s wearing a Laker-purple shirt. OK, Larry, go ahead: “Well, boys, after a meal like this there’s only one way to show our appreciation.” And he starts the wave. At a dinner table. How the hell were there groupies back then?
Jonah Keri: There exists in this world a shoe commercial where Kevin McHale raps. This is that commercial.
Larry Johnson: Grandmama
Patrice Evans: One word, three syllables, Grandmama.The HGH multivitamin of NBA commercials. They were all great, though I’m partial to this clip, with footage from his appearance on Family Matters, and a comment from one of the extras who remembers the occasion fondly. But until this assignment I didn’t realize Tyler Perry and Larry Johnson/Grandmama are the same age, and possibly the same person. Have you ever seen them in the same place? And LJ is easily a DNA match for Tyler Perry’s typical male archetype (and Grandmama archetype). The NBA is so awesome, everyone who hates Tyler Perry and his plays/movies/TV shows would absolutely be converted on the spot if we could confirm the truth that they were all written by Larry Johnson.
Dave Cowens and Bob Lanier for Miller Lite
Michael Weinreb: In which two retired pivot men walk into a bar and make podiatric jokes, thereby reinforcing that 1986 was really just one long and not particularly funny Cheers episode.
Jadakiss, Allen Iverson, and Trackmasters
Jonathan Abrams: I am not ashamed to admit that I have this song on my iPod. It is the perfect blend of hip-hop and basketball: Allen Iverson shilling his shoes while dribbling a basketball to Jadakiss’ raspy lyrics. The beat is set to screeching shoes, a dribbling basketball, and the ball swishing through the net. Jadakiss’s lyrics are mostly on point and you hardly notice when he slips into the overt marketing: “All you need is a pair of these and nothing else. Your hesitation to stop and pop will be something else.” It is kind of weird that Jadakiss wears a Jets jersey and not a Knicks one and it is good that Iverson wisely does not try to rap in the video. I do not know how the shoes perform, but the commercial is nicely done.
Antoine Walker, Employee #8
Amos Barshad: You know the infinitesimal span of time that it takes your synapse to snap between you thinking of moving your hand to open the door and you actually moving your hand to open the door? That’s basically what we’re talking about between me reading “YouTube HOF: NBA Player Commercials” in an e-mail subject line and thinking “Antoine Walker, Employee #8.” I’m pretty sure that’s the case for anyone of a certain age that grew up in the greater Boston area. I swear, for years I’d check YouTube every few months to see if any kindly soul had updated this. (Don’t worry, I didn’t wait for YouTube’s reach to expand that far; I eventually tracked it down in some weirder, darker corner of the Internet). For the casual observer, this was of ironic note long before Walker went broke. That’s because Antoine never came close to becoming a superstar worthy of his own commercial, which gave the faux-humbleness on display here a strange, layered allure, and saddled the real-life usage of the “Employee #8” nickname with an implicit malice. But for the fans, for years — during those dark, dark, Pervis Ellisonian, Vitaly Potapenk-esque late-’90s — ‘Toine’s national commercial was our only proof that anyone else in the country knew we existed. Even later down the line, when we had actual stars, they never got cool commercials (the only thing I remember Pierce in is an ad for that dumb self-pumping Spalding ball). “That’s me. Employee no. 8. I make baskets”?! Awesome.
Previously: YouTube Hall of Fame: The Best Movie Trailers Ever
YouTube Hall of Fame: TV’s Best Holiday Episodes
YouTube Hall of Fame: The Worst Music Videos of All Time
The Deleted Scenes Hall of Fame