Article Thumbnail

The Behind-the-Scenes Story of ‘He’s on Fire!’ in ‘NBA Jam’

It started at a Chicago Burger King in 1992 — and ended up in basketball history

For most of the 1990s, NBA Jam’s iconic “He’s heating up… He’s on fire!” burned as bright as any of the other decade’s pop-culture totems (Hanson, Jennifer Love Hewitt, the Beek). It didn’t truly ignite, though, until it came in contact with the griddle at a Chicago Burger King. 

“Sometime in 1992, Mark Turmell, a developer at Midway Games [NBA Jam’s developer], and a designer named Jamie Rivett went to Burger King for a brainstorm lunch to think of some kind of power-up for the game,” says Reyan Ali, author of the book NBA Jam. “They’d been working on it for a while. So they had all the crazy dunks, the really good graphics and even the NBA license at this point. But Turmell was always trying to think of new things that would add some novelty to the game and give arcade players the much-needed instant gratification that’s so important.”

Rivett was a big fan of fire and smoke effects — something he had experience with from working on Smash TV — and so he thought that was a good place to start. “Eventually,” Ali explains, “that led to an ‘On Fire’ mode. But when they pitched the idea to Sal DiVita, another designer on the game, it was immediately shot down.” Essentially, the “On Fire” power-up was too powerful, so DiVita didn’t want to invest time in designing flames and smoke for the feature. Undeterred, Turmell just took the fire and smoke graphics from Smash TV and inserted them into NBA Jam. “DiVita relented and made the graphics you know today,” Ali continues.

The idea was for NBA play-by-play legend Marv Albert to provide the voice behind the phrase describing the character’s transformation from basketball pro to superhuman fireball capable of making shots from anywhere on the court (and dunking from skyscraper-esque heights), but his fees were astronomical. So Midway turned to a local Chicago actor named Tim Kitzrow instead. 

At the time, Kitzrow was bouncing around Second City, which frequently lent Midway its talent. “Even Tina Fey’s voice can be heard on an old pinball machine,” Ali notes. 

“Jon Hey, the guy tasked with writing NBA Jam’s script, just watched a ton of NBA on NBC games with Marv Albert,” Kitzrow recalls. “And whenever [Detroit Pistons] Vinnie Johnson, the Human Microwave, would come in, Marv would always say, ‘The Microwave… he’s heating up!’ And: ‘He’s on fire!’ So it was a total Marv-ism.” (Johnson himself got the “Microwave” nickname from the Boston Celtics’ Danny Ainge, who, after being torched by Johnson for 22 points in very short order during the fourth quarter of a 1985 game, told reporters, “If that guy in Chicago is the ‘Refrigerator,’ then Vinnie Johnson is the ‘Microwave.’ He sure heated up in a hurry.”)

“When Tim was given his marching orders by Jon Hey, he basically said, ‘I want it to be loud, bold and energetic. I want it to be big!’” Ali tells me. “I don’t think he said Marv Albert specifically, but it was Tim’s inclination to go with Albert. Albert was the voice of basketball at the time.” 

Kitzrow in the studio, courtesy Ali

“What I loved about Marv is that on any and every play that had even a little bit of athleticism and excitement, he was all over it. If you were in the other room, you wanted to run in from the kitchen and go, ‘What just happened?!’” Kitzrow adds.

While Kitzrow recorded Marv-ism after Marv-ism, another spark ignited. “One of the artists, John Carlton, was over at his desk, where he always listened to Sly & the Family Stone’s ‘I Want to Take You Higher.’ The chorus is ‘Boo shaka-laka, boo shaka-laka,’” Kitzrow explains (the actual lyrics are “boom shaka-laka-laka,” for what it’s worth). “I was in the booth and Jon Hey goes, ‘Tim, Jon wants you to say “Boom shaka-laka!”’ I was like, ‘What’s boom shaka-laka?’ He goes, ‘Just say it.’ So I said it: ‘Boom shaka-laka!’ And that was that,” Kitzrow laughs. 

“I don’t think NBA Jam would be nearly as successful as it was without Tim,” Ali says. “He was crucial to the game. You could hear, ‘He’s heating up… He’s on fire!!!,’ and you’d immediately know the game — even if you were on the opposite side of the arcade.”

Unfortunately for Kitzrow, his contract ended the day he left the studio. He was paid hourly for his voiceover work and didn’t receive any residuals for his work. “At the time, it was a good gig,” Ali says. “Tim got paid well — $50 an hour — for a fun project. But when you consider the fact that the arcade version of NBA Jam alone made a billion dollars, it’s tough to swallow. Like the guys who worked on Mortal Kombat, you just don’t know at the time that it’s going to become such a huge thing.” 

Twisting the knife further, when Acclaim Entertainment, which published NBA Jam and subsequently owned the rights to the name, made NBA Jam Extreme, it did shell out for Albert. “Marv made six figures for his work on NBA Jam Extreme, whereas Tim made next to nothing for his work on both the home and arcade versions of NBA Jam, but that’s just how these things tend to go,” Ali explains. 

Nonetheless, Kitzrow continues to do voice work (he’ll even record an NBA Jam voicemail just for you) and remains optimistic that he’ll get his moment in the hallowed halls of NBA history. “It’d be fun if one of these days I had a chance to meet Marv Albert,” he tells me, adding that there’s been “some talk” about an exhibit in the NBA Hall of Fame about the era kicked off by NBA Jam

“Certainly now all the kids who grew up playing the game are in their 30s and 40s, so they could go to the Hall of Fame and say, ‘Oh cool, that’s when I got into the NBA!’” he continues. “Because the game really did bring in so many more fans to the NBA. Even players loved it. So it would be really cool to see that happen.”