has one of the most unusual jobs in show business. The Chicago-based actor, writer and musician has been the colorful Greek chorus of sports metaphors and exclamations since "NBA Jam
" started popping up in arcades more than 17 years ago.
His deep tone and wild style and delivery made phrases like "He's on fire!" and "Boomshakalaka!" a healthy part of the gamer lexicon. And Kitzrow doesn't shy away from the fact that he's the "NBA Jam" announcer.
"I've got this kind of Santa Claus persona where I can go into a room and introduce myself, and they just light up," Kitzrow said recalling a recent visit to the ESPN studios for an appearance on the network's opinion slugfest "SportsNation."
"They go, 'Oh I spent so many quarters at the arcade,' and 'Can you say this for me?' And there is just something larger than life and magical that reminds them of a happier time in their youth. That's the best part of being the 'NBA Jam' guy, feeling like you're the ambassador of fun."
In honor of the game's release for the Nintendo Wii (and soon for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360), Kitzrow talked about how he became "the 'NBA Jam' guy," the experience of bringing an arcade classic to a home-console world and the birth of "Boomshakalaka." He was also a good enough sport to road test some of our own "Jam-isms
" for an exclusive video.
"And This Game Is Under Way ..."
Kitzrow was doing improv comedy for Chicago's Second City
and performing in a weekend band on the side, when he got his start in games.
Some of his bandmates worked day jobs in the gaming industry as sound and audio mixers and music programmers, mostly for pinball games for Bally/Midway, the now-defunct company that brought "NBA Jam" into the arcades. His guitarist needed a good "Mr. Howell" for the new "Gilligan's Island" pinball game
and asked Kitzrow if he could do a good Jim Backus
behind a mic. That led to work on 16 other games, including the replacement voice for TV host Rod Serling
for the highly acclaimed "Twilight Zone" pinball game
"In a lot of ways, it was the most fun I ever had," Kitzrow said. "I was going into a studio and doing improv and coming up with crazy voices for things like 'Attack From Mars'
or 'WHO dunnit.'
It was like being an old radio actor where I got to use tons of different voices. It was an improv fantasy to do that."
Another team at Midway, led by game developer Mark Turmell, started developing a simple two-on-two basketball game with gigantic dunks and players who caught on fire in a non-metaphorical sense. The game needed an announcer to color the action and Midway moved Kitzrow in the "NBA Jam" development team.
"It was all just right place, right time," he said.
"He's Heating Up."
The limited technology at the time didn't give Kitzrow and company much room to move around script-wise, but the short sayings and exclamations, inspired by play-by-play icon Marv Albert
, helped punctuate every dunk, pass and shove.
The most memorable lines -- like the unforgettable "Boomshakalaka!" -- came from his improv skills, Kitzrow said.
"I just coughed it up one day in the studio," he said. "I forget that almost everything I do is off the top of my head, so there was a long time (with the new game) where I was like, 'How did I do 'Boomshakalaka?'"
The arcade game became an instant hit in 1993 and scored Midway more quarters than a Jersey Turnpike toll booth. The success spawned several subsequent editions, complete with updated rosters and bigger and bawdier lay-ups, shoves and monster dunks.
"It's really the first true virtual sports game," he said. "After watching a game on TV, you would grab a basketball, go down to the rim at the park. You could go up for five or 10 minutes and all of your friends are there cheering you on and you get to be that NBA guy. It was that whole feeling of this is the new virtual playground for gamers."
"He's On Fire!"
When Midway folded in 2009, Kitzrow hooked up with Jeremy Tiner, one of gaming giant Electronic Arts' top designers on its "NBA Live
" series, through Facebook. The two struck up a friendship and, along with developer Trey Smith, helped breathe new life into "Boomshakalaka."
The game brought Kitzrow back into the studio to re-record all the lines that made his voice a gaming icon, along with a few new one-liners created by Kitzrow and company and some lucky contest winners
that previous technology didn't allow, like "Like my wife's top drawer, nothing but nylon!" and "How 'bout a little fire, Scarecrow?"
And thanks to the Internet, Kitzrow can actually read some of the comments and complaints from younger gamers who are discovering it for the first time, to the original fans of the game who still have Kitzrow's voice echoing in their skulls.
"When we were playing the trailer, I remember seeing it and hearing that there's more grit in (my) voice and more rough edges because that's what happens when you call a game at the top of your lungs and scream for a couple of hours," Kitzrow said. "And some people were like 'It's not as high-pitched' or 'There's not as much excitement in the voice' or 'This doesn't sound like the original guy.' I saw so many comments after that trailer came out.
"I compare it to huge fans of rock bands who go, 'Dude, that third note on 'Comfortably Numb' was not even close and the original was played with a Fender and this was with a S.G.' So there were comparisons, which is good that people were paying that close attention to my original, but some of them were freaking me out. What, I'm not me anymore? I think I sound like me."