The NBA 2K franchise prides itself on realism—so much so, that it markets itself more as a basketball simulator than a video game. But the NBA is defined by its personalities—athletes who love to play the hero or play the villain. Charles Barkley and Reggie Miller fall into the latter group; they were outsized antagonists in an outsized sports league. And because of this, their 'here again, gone again' appearances in NBA 2K have become glaring.
Will Reggie Miller or Charles Barkley be in NBA 2K19? We reached out for confirmation, and Barkley's camp had no comment. Miller's camp didn't respond. 2K Games demurred, stating they weren't ready to announce classic lineups or commentary teams for the upcoming game, due out September 11.
We'll know soon enough, but don't hold your breath. Miller hasn't been playable in the NBA 2K franchise since 2K5 (2004). In NBA 2K18 (2017), he was absent from the All-Time Pacers team. His '99-'00 Pacers team, which went to the NBA Finals, wasn't a selectable classic lineup. And despite being a TNT commentator, The Knick-Killer's voice was nowhere to be heard in-game.
Barkley was playable in 2K13 and 2K17 as a member of the 1992 Dream Team. But in 2K18, he was absent from the All Time Suns team, and there are no Suns classic lineups from his era. Sir Charles' absence on commentary is even more glaring than Miller's; the other three hosts of Inside the NBA—Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kenny Smith—run the pregame and postgame shows without him.
The first NBA-licensed basketball game, NBA Basketball (1980) had no team names and no player names. But starting in the mid-'80s, developers licensed the biggest stars, which led to single/dual player-featured games like One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird (1983), Jordan vs. Bird: One on One (1988) and Magic Johnson's Fast Break (1988).
Barkley's unexpected appearances in 2K13 and 2K17 only occurred due to JAY-Z's intervention.
Developers made a leap with Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs (1989), the first game to include multiple teams and multiple NBA stars such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. These appearances were negotiated individually, apart from the NBA Players Association (NBPA)—the union that represents active NBA players.
Things got hairy when Midway released NBA Jam (1993) in the arcades. For the first time, there was a glaringly notable holdout: Jordan. The greatest active player in the NBA, who helped make flashy dunks and hangtime a cultural phenomena, was somehow absent from the most notable game. Why?
Jordan, the most coveted player off the court, had opted out of the NBPA licensing agreement to negotiate all his deals separately. And weeks before NBA Jam debuted, Jordan pulled out of all NBA licensed products because they conflicted with his Nike deal. There was nothing Midway could do to enforce his commitment.
The '90s weren't completely void of Michael Jordan in video games, however. He had his own video game, Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City, a side-scroller where you'd play as MJ and throw an assortment of different-powered basketballs at skeletons and spiders.
For the next several years, developers used underhanded tactics to "sneak" Jordan into the game, whether through cheat codes, or by designating a shooting guard on the Bulls named "M. Guard" or "Roster Player," with no corresponding picture and high offensive ratings. His Airness wouldn't permit his likeness in a video game until 1999, with the release of NBA Live 2000. Nowadays, Jordan is signed exclusively to 2K Sports, and he credited their accuracy and attention to detail in a 2011 interview with ESPN:
"I didn't want them to put me in there if it didn't look like myself, and I didn't want them to put stats that weren't my stats. The guys at 2K are very smart, so they know a lot of things about the game of basketball, and obviously, the things that I've done to the game and the way that I played. I wanted my character to be as close to the way I played as possible, so that it's not something that's false-promoted. I wanted something real."
The only other notable omissions from NBA Jam were Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, who were available to play on the arcade versions, but were removed from the Tournament Edition home console versions This was likely due to legal conflict. Barkley was starring in a bizarre RPG game called Barkley Shut Up and Jam! (1993), and Shaq was starring in a game called Shaq Fu (1994), which was as terrible as it sounds. Miller, lacking the notoriety of either man, never had a game conflict—he appeared in all versions of NBA Jam.
The NBPA represents active players, and it is probably not a coincidence that both Miller and Barkley's video game appearances petered out after their retirements. Miller's last home console appearance was in NBA 2K5 (2004); he retired at the end of the 2004-2005 NBA season. And prior to his Dream Team appearances, Barkley's last home console appearance was in NBA 2K1 (2000) as a member of the 80's East team; he retired at the end of the 1999-2000 NBA season.
Barkley's unexpected appearances in 2K13 and 2K17 only occurred due to JAY-Z's intervention. Hov was an executive producer of 2K13, and according to a Game Informer interview with senior producer Rob Jones from 2012, he would not stand for Barkley's absence:
"[JAY-Z] said, ‘What do you mean not going to have the Dream Team?’ We said, ‘We don't feel that it would be useful if you don't have Barkley on it, and Barkley has notoriously not wanted to be in games since he retired.’ He said, ‘That's crap.’"
JAY-Z got on the phone with Barkley, and talked him into making an appearance. Because under its current agreement with the NBPA, 2K only has the rights to use the likenesses of active players who are under the union's licensing agreement. For retired players, 2K must either get permission from the NBA Retired Players' Association, or many times, in the case of bigger stars like Barkley and Miller, from the players themselves.
If Miller has a motivation for saying no, he's never said so publicly. Barkley, however, has been more outspoken about his reasons. He stated to Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck that he wants 2K to donate money to the NBA Retired Players Association in exchange for his commentator participation. He reiterated this claim on Inside the NBA and on the Bickley and Marotta Friday radio show in 2017, this time with more specificity. He wants there to be an annual donation:
"What I think would be fair is, if they gave a million dollars—and I’d even let them keep the tax write-off—if they gave a million dollars a year to the retired players association that went to a good cause—health plans or something like that or just gave them money to help them get on their feet, I’d let them use my likeness in a heartbeat."
Unless JAY-Z or someone equally famous individual wants to convince Sir Charles otherwise, the ball, metaphorically, is in 2K's court. And through it all, there's an irony here. In a weird, counterintuitive manner, Miller and Barkley are in the game because you can't stop thinking about their absence. And at least in Barkley's case, that appears to be the point.