Man on Fire: The Voice of NBA Jam's Most Iconic Lines
Tim Kitzrow is the voice behind "Boomshakalaka!" and the other iconic lines from the arcade classic NBA Jam. He made $900 for his work, and he is still hustling.
Image via EA Sports
In the early 1990s, Tim Kitzrow liked to take his seven-year-old son to Chicago's popular arcade spots, where he could watch his kid play video games and excitedly shout the same few phrases over and over. At first, as Kitzrow recalls it today, the basketball game Run and Gun was popular among the kids at the arcade. Its commentary, however, was generic—a generic announcer making generic play-calls like "He shoots a three, it goes in"—and Kitzrow was not impressed. Soon, though, he watched—and listened—as the kids gravitated toward a new two-on-two game.
NBA Jam took the basics of basketball and amplified them into deliriousness. Players threw down dunks that involved midair somersaults, fired off two-handed shoves on defense, and bombed away from deep with a flaming basketball after making three straight shots. Through it all, an upbeat, faintly Marv Albert-esque voice would exult "He's heating up!" or "He's on fire!" Dunks were punctuated with an exuberant "Boomshakalaka!"
Kitzrow is not an avid gamer—Pac-Man is the only game he remembers ever playing from start to finish—but he had reason to care, and even feel some pride, as he watched the lines grow longer for NBA Jam. Kitzrow is the voice actor responsible for delivering those iconic phrases, which are still part of the game more than two decades later. He was paid $900 for his talents.
Born in Wisconsin and raised in upstate New York, Kitzrow was one of seven kids in his family. Growing up, his goal was to make his siblings shoot milk from their nose at the dinner table—"which," he says proudly, "I did successfully many times." His father was a teacher and in charge of films for students at his school. On the weekends, Kitzrow remembers watching the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, and Charlie Chaplin on the movie projector his dad would bring home from work.
Kitzrow decided to pursue acting and was classically trained at Purchase Fine Arts College (now SUNY Purchase). After graduating, he did some theater work in New York before moving to Venice Beach, California, where he waited tables at restaurants while auditioning for roles and teaching improv on the side. Frustrated by the acting scene and interested in comedy, he left L.A. after a year and joined the Second City Conservatory in Chicago. He arrived in town at the same time as Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Stephen Colbert, and Amy Poehler. All of them went on to become Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Stephen Colbert, and Amy Poehler. Kitzrow, like many others who pursued the same dream, was left to make ends meet in other ways.
Kitzrow made comedy tapes with his friends and played in a band on the weekends. He also started doing some voiceover work for a series of pinball games with Midway, a relatively new Chicago-based video game company. In 1992, Mark Tremell, the lead designer at Midway, reached out to Kitzrow and told him he had some voice acting work for a game called NBA Jam. Kitzrow, then a huge Chicago Bulls fan, was ecstatic. He went into the studio and delivered the lines from a script written by Jon Hay. The entire process took less than 20 hours. Kitzrow was paid $50 an hour.
NBA Jam went on to become one of the best-selling video game franchises ever, and Kitzrow's delivery and enthusiasm helped bring it to life. Did he feel any resentment about missing out on that success?
"I'm not bitter," Kitzrow says, politely swatting aside one of several attempts to fit his responses into my predetermined narrative. "When you're young and you're trying to get a start, $50 an hour was a nice paycheck. I can't look back and say I got ripped off, because that's what everyone in my role got."
Kitzrow is less reserved when the conversation turns to the use of his catchphrases today. Boomshakalaka, as a crypto-word, dates back to a Sly and the Family Stone song in the 1960s. While Kitzrow acknowledges it wasn't his invention, he does feel responsible for introducing it into the modern vernacular. A cursory Google search finds the catchphrase still being used in many unexpected places—in a Charles Schwab commercial, for instance, and by Tom Brady for a daily fantasy website ad last year. David Price recently tweeted out his shoes with a "Boom shaka laka" caption. Kitzrow laments the lack of creativity and authenticity with the usage.
"Unless a commercial is good, it would be like DIRECTV taking a Rolling Stones song and saying 'I can't get no satisfaction with this television'," he says. "It's bastardizing the phrase."
After recording NBA Jam, Kitzrow continued to work as a voiceover artist. He takes pride in having worked on video games with all four major professional sports in North America, including Frank Thomas Big Hurt Baseball, Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey, and NFL Blitz. In 2010, EA Sports released another installment of NBA Jam, and hired Kitzrow to do voice work for the title.
Even though NBA Jam is the most popular franchise he's associated with, it is not the highlight of his career. That, he says, would be MLB Slugfest, a street-style baseball game first released in 2003. Kitzrow was given the creative freedom to write scripts for the game, and performed as an announcer alongside Chicago sports radio personality Kevin Matthews, who played a character named Jimmy Shorts. The Tim and Jimmy banter from the game—the two discuss how cloudy weather would impact Jim's solar car and what they'd do with a time machine ("I would go back and date Cleopatra")—and has found an afterlife on YouTube. It's easy to tell why it's Kitzrow's favorite work. It sounds like him.
"It's a trade off," Kitzrow says. "When you're younger, you think you're going to reach your dreams, and you don't know that a lot of things don't work out for actors, especially the money part. I used to think I was just a stage actor, and later I realized I had other skills. Writing became my favorite aspect of the creative side because you can create content that is unique, and the voice just goes along with it."
Kitzrow has continued to write and find steady voiceover work over the years. He has also done everything else he could, from regular restaurant work in Chicago's many steakhouses to interior design projects for nightclubs and other venues in the city.
Kitzrow does have his regrets. In the 1990s, after reading Phil Jackson's Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, Kitzrow envisioned a live action movie pairing quotes from the book with live footage of the Chicago Bulls team. There was artwork, some of which has since been posted to Kitzrow's Facebook page; there were storyboards and a detailed script, including scenes with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. In one, Jordan flies to Mars with a bunch of kids. They ask him, "Don't you need a helmet?" "Only against the Knicks," he responds.
After a year of developing the idea with a friend, Kitzrow cold-called Jackson's agent, Todd Musburger, and met at his office two days later to make his pitch. Musburger was interested, and believed that if he could get Jackson on board, Jordan and Pippen might follow. The idea was passed along to Jackson who, according to Kitzrow, green lit the idea and wanted to make it happen.
Upon hearing the news, Kitzrow celebrated what he believed was his big break. After years of voiceover work and making ends meet, his creative vision would be fully realized. You already know that this doesn't end happily.
Kitzrow never received an actual answer as to why the project was put on temporary and then permanent hold, but he believes Jackson and Musburger had problems getting approval from the Bulls' front office and management, who were not on the best terms with their head coach at the time. A few years later, Kitzrow read in the newspaper that Jordan had signed on to do a movie that would become Michael Jordan To The Max, he was devastated. He calls the whole episode "the toughest thing I've had to deal with in my life."
Kitzrow is motivated not by fame so much as by a desire to have his creative voice heard. If he can parlay his place in the NBA Jam universe into those opportunities, he will. It was at an appearance at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3, that Kitzrow realized what being "the NBA Jam guy" meant. The president of EA Sports introduced him to a large crowd, many of whom grown up playing NBA Jam at the arcades. "They told me their favorite memories," he says. "They asked me to say all the classic lines. I felt like I was in an invisible suit until someone heard my voice and then all of a sudden I turned into this instant celebrity."
In 2013, Kitzrow recorded a video package for ESPN, lending his voice to an NBA Jam-style presentation of the top ten dunks of the year. The person in charge of in-game presentation for the Houston Rockets saw the video and called Kitzrow earlier this year. It led to a throwback NBA Jam James Harden highlight package narrated by Kitzrow that was shown at a Rockets home game. In an era of nostalgia and Throwback Thursdays, the NBA Jam guy struck a nerve.
Kitzrow is cautiously optimistic that his work with the Rockets could lead to more. He dreams about calling the slam dunk contest at All-Star Weekend. He has thought about a NBA Jam-themed sneaker campaign for Harden. "You could call the sneaker the Hardenizer!" he says. "It would be perfect for a Super Bowl commercial." Steph Curry would be the perfect "He's on fire!" superhero. Blake Griffin could star in a Taco Bell commercial with spicy burritos using the same catchphrase. Kitzrow has a long list.
In the meantime, he auditions for television and radio spots, writes comedy sketches, and develops screenplay ideas. "I'm filing things away," Kitzrow says. "So if I get the opportunity, I have plenty of material. I love it." Two decades later, Tim Kitzrow hopes his favorite NBA Jam memory is yet to come.