I don’t remember the first time I played basketball, but I do remember the first time I played Double Dribble for the Nintendo. My friend, Roy, had received the game as a Christmas gift and invited me over for a versus match. Like many other gamers, I was mesmerized by the animated cutscenes that took over whenever the player went for a dunk. The game would make a dramatic cut to a black-and-white image of a slow motion tomahawk or a powerful reverse dunk. It felt great to slam the ball. I was also impressed by the half-time show, complete with cheerleaders and mascots. The synthesized voice that announced, “Double dribble,” at the opening screen was one of the first voices I ever heard from a game. While the game wasn’t perfect, it was one of the best sports games of the time and by far the best basketball game on Nintendo, serving as a precursor to what hoops titles would become. To provide some context, before the Nintendo, my only exposure to video games was the Atari. Even back then, I was unimpressed by the blocky blips of light that relied more on imagination than visuals.

There were four teams to choose from. The individual players were clones of each other with no advantage. Still, I always picked Chicago because I loved Michael Jordan. Roy picked Los Angeles. We had endless debates about whether Magic Johnson was better than Jordan. Unfortunately, my arguments fell short because he beat me every time we played. I did my best and we’d play hours straight. It didn’t matter; he always gave me a pounding. Many years later, I’d learn there were certain areas on the court where shooting had a higher percentage of going in. I had no idea at the time and couldn’t understand how Roy was exploiting these spots for a barrage of easy 3-pointers. Players could foul or be penalized for the eponymous double dribble. Defense in the form of steals and blocks was present. In comparison to the physics-driven games of the present where all the players are scanned in and animation is motion-captured, Double Dribble seems stiff. But back then, it was pure magic, flawed only by the fact that I could never beat my friend at the game.

To be honest, I was never great at video games. When it came to sports games, or any title involving competition, I could never keep up. That included the Madden games, Gran Turismo, Street Fighter II, Starcraft, and even NBA Jam at the arcade. I used to work in game development and there was a point where I had to do some preparation to work on a kids racing game. I poured hundreds of hours into a variety of different kart racers, particularly Super Mario Kart, just to familiarize myself with the subtleties of tossing banana wraps and making hard turns. I prided myself on being a ‘specialist.’ Then one day, I played against a few ‘amateurs,’ and got whipped. I still remember playing fifty races straight and being unable to win even once. It was embarrassing.

I wondered if the developers of these games were good themselves at the games they created. Konami originally developed Double Dribble as an arcade game that was later ported over to the NES. In some ways, video games were one of the most significant cultural intersections between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. It’s kind of amusing to reflect on these guys halfway across the world designing a basketball game for eager American audiences. Basketball brought strangers from different continents together in a digital medium, something commonplace now, but not so common twenty-five years ago.

Intersections were on my mind earlier this year as I was walking the streets of Beijing. That’s when I started seeing magazine covers of an Asian player in a Knicks uniform. I hadn’t been keeping up with the NBA, so I had no idea who he was. Jeremy Lin was everywhere overnight; magazine stands were covered with his images and every TV station had his interview during the sports section. Chinese people who only knew basketball tangentially knew who Jeremy Lin was. Almost every dinner I went to, friends asked me about Mr. Lin.

I realize globalization and the internet have made information instantaneous. But I couldn’t believe how quickly news of him had spread. Understandable, as he’s an amazing player and so much fun to watch. His story is even more compelling as he went from nearly getting cut to superstardom in the Big Apple. What struck me most was his persistence. Even when given the opportunity by Yao Ming to play in the Chinese basketball leagues (when things were looking bleak with the strike), he clutched onto his dream to make it in the NBA. His passion makes him an incredibly charismatic player. He isn’t just some rich, spoiled prima donna who only cares about his next shoe deal. He loves the game and it’s written in every gesture, every leaping shot.

I wondered how different the playoffs would have been if Lin hadn’t gone injured. Of course, one easy way of imagining is playing the scenario out through video games with their sophisticated AI programs.

There are some amazing basketball games on the market right now. The NBA 2K series is an annual favorite, as are the NBA Live games. Voice commentators will talk about the play you just executed, trades are reflected in real-time, and players look like the players with their jerseys flapping through realistic dynamics. I really believe the technology will one day become so advanced, developers will be able to directly scan in the players and have their motions identical to life. It’ll be like watching a broadcast in 3D except you’ll be in full control. Hate the fact that the Knicks lost to the Heat this year? Replay the entire series via a game control and console. Want to relive the 1992 playoffs as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen? No problem, download the content and get ready to face off against Clyde the Glide.

When I was playing Double Dribble though, I had no idea what was in store for the future of gaming. Instead, I focused on the faceless NES players that were clones of each other with two skin variations that would sometimes vacillate between quarters. 

In some ways, my childhood was like being one of the faceless clones of Double Dribble, especially when it came to playing actual, physical, basketball. I loved the game, but I wasn’t very good at it. In junior high, I was considered tall and played power forward. Then one summer, everyone grew taller than me and I stayed the same height. I transitioned to shooting guard and tried to shoot a thousand baskets every day. I had a senior friend who was on the varsity team and we were both attending summer school. We played together all the time and he suggested I come and try out for their summer league. I dropped by and no surprise, I wasn’t good enough to make the varsity summer league, especially as there were two fantastic players revered through the league (their names escape me, although they were very popular when I was attending). Still, the coach was kind enough to allow me to practice with them. The players were all much better than me, but usually encouraging. All except one. His name was Marco and he hated the fact I was there. Every practice we had, he made it a point to destroy me, launching shots in my face, driving over me, and leaving me in the dust. He didn’t say it outright, but he wanted to emphasize that I had no place there. Well, actually, maybe he did say it to me directly. After a couple of those sessions, I started to believe it. There was one time when Marco got so hot, he hit three 3-pointers straight in my face. I was terribly discouraged, shoulders stooped, wanting to leave. One of the assistant coaches approached. He was an elderly gentlemen and we’d never spoken before. He gave me a pat on the shoulder and said, “Hey, it doesn’t matter. Always keep your head up.”

And he walked off.

It’s funny that all these years later, I don’t remember his name, I don’t remember his face, but I still remember his words. They’re what’s kept me going on the court, playing almost two decades later.

Which brings me back to Double Dribble. When I think about the game, I realize it highlights what makes basketball so special: tough team work punctuated by moments of individual brilliance. It wasn’t the annual blockbuster everyone has come to expect in current-generation games. Instead, it was a quirky, creative spin on an American pastime seen through the eyes of Japanese game developers. The players didn’t have personalities. We, the gamers, imprinted our own personalities onto them.

In some way, basketball’s appeal is the way it has become a parable for our lives, a struggle against anonymity even though we have no choice but to grind our way through. Unfortunately, the reflection doesn’t always work. For some people, it was the strike earlier in the season, and for me, it was a guy who didn’t think I belonged on the court.

It’s foolish to long for simpler times. But it’s not bad to reflect fondly on them. Every time I play Double Dribble, I’m reminded that I could never beat anyone in versus mode. Still, I keep on trying, reveling in the art of losing, or at least the memory of it. I have more fun on this game than I do modern titles. Call it nostalgia. Well, not to boast, but I have improved a lot and I’ve found the places I can make automatic 3’s. I’d like to play Roy now 1-on-1. I bet I’d destroy him.*

*After reading this essay, my wife challenged me to a game. We chose five minute quarters, Chicago versus Los Angeles.

She destroyed me.

Peter Tieryas Liu's debut collection of short stories, Watering Heaven, just came out from Signal 8 Press. His work has been published in magazines like the Evergreen Review, Indiana Review, and Punchnels. You can follow his writings at http://www.tieryasxu.com/watering-heaven/.