Ryan Vesler and Mike Pacini aren’t exactly subtle about how much they love NBA Jam. The founder/CEO and wholesale sales manager, respectively, of the Ohio-based t-shirt company Homage have a vested interest in other folks loving the game — “your customers are gonna decide and give you a vote with their dollars if they like something,” Vesler tells me — but even if no one ever purchased a single t-shirt the company makes celebrating the game, you get the sense that both guys would spend their free time pouring over the lore of the series that first released in 1993.
But of course, it helps when you are in a position to take what you like and make something special out of it. Vesler, who calls it “the greatest video game of all time,” always wanted NBA Jam to be part of the Homage experience. Long before the line of shirts were launched, he wanted there to be a classic NBA Jam machine set to free play in each of the company’s stores. Back in 2009, prior to the company having a single brick-and-mortar location, Vesler purchased a machine off of Craigslist and hosted a tournament at a sneaker store in Columbus, where 20 or so people gathered around and played.
Fast forward to July 27, 2021 and this love of a silly little video game found its way into the biggest story of the NFL’s offseason. Aaron Rodgers, on the heels of a few months of discontent that culminated in his wanting a trade, decided to report to the Green Bay Packers. He did so wearing one of numerous off-shoots of the NBA Jam line, a t-shirt depicting Kevin Malone from The Office and a pot of chili, with the unmistakable Homage “H” logo on the shirt’s left sleeve.
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) July 27, 2021
“Maybe that’s like, the body of all the work coming together in like, the apex moment, Aaron Rodgers,” Vesler ponders. “Because it’s like, years of planting seeds with original duos in the game, the evolution of pop culture, and then this moment that’s kind of riddled with offseason drama about like, is he gonna sign, are they gonna trade in, what’s the deal? I’m sure there’d be a way to connect the dots in another year from now. But I think there’s probably some something to that moment that brings it all together.”
The story behind tossing NBA Jam duos was as easy as the idea being floated in a meeting one day in 2017. At the time, Homage already was an NBA licensee and worked with Philly-based company Mitchell & Ness on Hardwood Classics gear. It didn’t take long for people to fall in love with some of the iconic duos from the game, like John Stockton and Karl Malone, or Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen.
One year later, right on the verge of the 2018 NBA playoffs and with a licensing agreement with the National Basketball Players Association in their back pocket, a lightbulb went off over Vesler’s head: What if we do this with current players, too?
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics got a shirt. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers did, too. They wanted a Cleveland Cavaliers one with LeBron James on it, but that didn’t come to fruition. Instead, it was Kevin Love and J.R. Smith.
“We hit this moment of playoff fever with these tees and it went berserk,” Vesler says. “So that was a good indicator. Because you know, retail, you kind of read and react. When you launch something, you never quite know how it’s gonna perform. But the energy of the playoffs was very much alive in that spring and we just hit it at the right time. Let’s say we had launched those in November or at the start of the season, I don’t know if we would have had the same effect. So that moment we knew, like, okay, we have something here. Let’s start rolling this out to more teams, because that just became a gradual exercise over the next couple of seasons.”
Now, all 30 teams have at least one NBA Jam shirt. Teams sell them in their arenas, and they’ll come up with pairings that might sell better with their fans — Pacini recalls that, when Brook and Robin Lopez were teammates on the Bucks, they had a shirt with one another at Fiserv Forum. It’s bled into a number of other places, with MLB reaching out after a 2019 article about potential duos and asking if MLB Jam t-shirts were possible. Homage made it happen. That was also the case when WWE requested “WWE Slam” shirts.
It’s not just a sports thing: Some shirts, like the one Rodgers wore, are an opportunity to provide a crossover into the world of pop culture. There are shirts inspired by The Office, Rugrats, and Saved by the Bell.
“I just think it’s like, a really irreverent, fun way to present like duo’s or partners in crime, and so the two people that are side-by-side, it’s unexpected for customers to see them depicted in that way,” Vesler says when asked about why this concept has gone beyond the world of basketball. “And then there’s some declaration with the stats of like, how funny they are as a character, or like, how well they can dunk. I think the stats create a conversation. Once you’re kind of lured in with the artwork, there’s this secondary discussion around like, oh, what are those stats? And like, oh, that’s funny.
“I think the best t-shirts create conversation,” he continues. “That’s ultimately why everybody works at Homage and loves Homage, because it’s a catalyst for storytelling. So I think this particular aesthetic is probably the most on display in terms of creating a conversation beyond a team logo.”
Those stats can be particularly tricky. Sure, when the graphics were inspired by the game, it was easy enough to just copy those and toss them onto a piece of fabric. But current players present a different challenge, while pop culture shirts require a special kind of creativity.
The general policy is to consult whomever is the “in-house expert” on a given topic. For the various pop culture and wrestling shirts, that can be any person who really loves a television show and can figure out a way to take little jokes and Jam-ify them. For sports, that’s Pacini’s turf, who mixes watching a whole heck of a lot of basketball with pouring over stats in a part-art and part-science approach to figuring out what’s going on a shirt.
“It’s really imperfect because you could have the seventh man on the team who’s a 45 percent three-point shooter and takes four a game, then you could have Trae Young, who’s more around 35 percent but hits big three-pointers,” Pacini says. “Are you gonna put that guy as a better three-point shooter than Trae Young? Probably not, because you have to factor in big shot making, clutch ability, whatever the case may be. You shouldn’t just look at the stats — like, Damian Lillard is pulling up from the logo, where other guys are just shooting from the corner and they’re wide open. There’s no formula you use.”
Figuring out what to do with rookies can be tricky. That’s also the case for guys whose skills have diminished — think Blake Griffin going from an all-time dunker to someone who doesn’t exactly put opponents on posters every night. While there’s never been, to their knowledge, a player who threw a fit over their ranking, they were once told of a Hornets radio staffer getting in an elevator with Kemba Walker, who saw they were wearing an NBA Jam shirt he was on and asked “why are my dunks so low?”
The good news is that, while both admit they’ve made mistakes, Vesler points out that there’s a uniqueness to this collection because of how things change. Stats are part of them, stats change, and as such, there can be tweaks to a player’s speed, three-pointers, dunks, and defense as they continue to show up on shirts.
They’ve managed to become popular with some athletes. Jamal Murray wore one featuring himself and Nikola Jokic during a postgame press conference during the 2019 NBA playoffs, while Mike Conley was once photographed paying — pardon the pun — homage to fellow Utah Jazz standouts Stockton and Malone. Recently, Pacini worked with former New York Mets teammates Doc Gooden and Daryl Strawberry around the release of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Once Upon a Time in Queens. Gooden, Pacini says, had a blast with the project, as he used to play NBA Jam back in the 1990s, and was willing to have a critical eye so his stats were as accurate as possible.
“In most cases, it’s not direct with the players, but in some cases, it is,” Pacini says. “And it’s cool for them to have input. Most players will be extremely honest with themselves after they have the chance reflect on their careers and they’re not in the moment anymore. And if you look at the stats, I think we got it spot on, who knows better than the player himself?”
Throughout our conversation, ideas pop up for shirts — a Tony Kornheiser/Michael Wilbon one for the 20th anniversary of Pardon the Interruption, Boban Marjanovic and Tobias Harris, Mario and Luigi, Beavis and Butthead — that they either want to see or, in the case of PTI or Bobi and Tobi, would have liked at a time when it was more appropriate. It is very obvious that this entire project stems from a place of love, and even if they were not a business that has seen great success from the Jam line, producing shirts based on a video game they have played throughout their lives exist would still be a source of constant excitement.
For Vesler, it’s easy to draw parallels between the shirts and all their various spin-offs from the original idea and the uniquely fun game that inspired them.
“When that game came out, there was nothing like it, and arguably today, it’s every bit as playable and fun as it was,” he says. “Games often don’t stand the test of time, this game has. And it’s a new twist on player tees. Player tees have been done and are out there, and you can manipulate the graphics. This is something that’s never been done before. So it’s way fun … except for managing the stats.”