For the longest time, the NBA was a sport where great players were judged on athletic achievement, mostly exempt from the influence of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs that ultimately ended the dominance of baseball as America’s national pastime (replaced by Human Checkers, 2017-present). But while the league managed to survive a variety of scandals (2004’s “Malice at the Palace”, 2013’s “Beantown Race War”) things truly reached a crossroads in 2015 when Lakers guard Kobe Bryant underwent a controversial procedure to help recover from a rotator cuff tear that was commonly assumed to be a career-ender.
Kobe Bryant: After I went down [with my injury] I thought that was it. I thought my career was over. Absolutely, without a doubt. But I talked to A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez, former baseball star and disgraced governor of New York, whereabouts currently unknown) about an operation he got in Germany to deal with a knee injury. He said it made him feel like he was a 27 year old again afterwards. So I looked into it and it seemed safe, so I went ahead with the procedure.
The procedure, then known as Humeral Pulsor Repair, involved the insertion of a microchip into the tendon. The chip would evaluate the rate of healing and make diagnostic adjustments inside the tendon. While many were initially skeptical of both the procedure and its inventor Dr. Heinrick Schnick, Bryant’s output through the 2015 season (27.8 ppg, Finals MVP) convinced a lot of players to join the “sports robotics” movement.
Amar’e Stoudemire: I thought it was great, man. I got two new knees. I stopped playing like Luc Longley. It was awesome. Dr. Schnick even replaced the finger I messed up punching out that fire extinguisher (in the 2012 playoffs). And the elbow I messed up punching out that refrigerator (in the 2013 playoffs). And the foot I messed up kicking that Blu-Ray player that wouldn’t stop skipping (in the 2014 playoffs).
Within three years players were undergoing procedures that repaired major injuries within a matter of weeks, from Derek Rose’s ACL to Chris Bosh’s robotic abdomen. The surgeries were far from perfect – few can forget the sight of Greg Oden’s knee short circuiting during his first game back in the NBA – but this was clearly the future of medicine. But the technology was not without its critics, the strongest of which was David Stern (NBA Commissioner 1984-2019, current human relations ambassador for the Bug Empire.)
David Stern: First, please allow me this moment to honor our insect overlords. All hail the mighty Chichkniknichik and his wisdom. We bow to your mighty mesothorax. (begins speaking in bug language, indecipherable) Oh, sorry. Where were we? That’s right, the robotics. I thought it could be beneficial at first, but things got out of hand. Was it necessary to JaVale McGee to add a sixth finger to his left hand? Or for JR Smith to put an “electric tattoo” on his forearm? I really don’t think it was.
J.R. Smith: I’ll tell you one thing, everbody loved that electric tattoo. I could change it to whatever I wanted. Maybe turning it into an ad for the Norelco Sensi-Touch 6 was too far, I don’t know. All I know is everybody had one after I did, until the bugs took them away.
Shaquille O'Neal (former NBA player, 1992-2011, former NBA announcer, 2012-13, currently mayor of Mars): Man, that time was out of control. Ya heard? (beat) Ya heard? (beat) Ya heard? (beat) It was nuts, like my movie STEEL brought to life. STEEL. STEEEEEEEEEEEL. (beat) And it only got weirder when MJ came back.
Chris Paul (former NBA player, 2005-2018): That was nuts. I never thought I’d play against Michael Jordan. I’m still not sure I did play against him.
Frustrated by the failure of his Charlotte Bobcats – losers of 165 games straight throughout the 2015-17 seasons – Jordan underwent two months of treatment in Prague in an attempt to return to the league at the start of the 2017-18 season. But at the age of 54, he seemed to require more enhancements than anybody had previously undertaken.
Russell Westbrook (former NBA player 2008-2020): The guy was a robot! He had two robot arms and a robot leg! He even had a weird glowing eye with a laser in it! It was just weird!
Steve Novak (former NBA player and Jordan teammate, 2017-18 season): It was exciting playing with MJ. I mean, he’s a legend. But it was – different than I thought it would be. Sometimes he would just sit in the locker room and you weren’t sure if he was asleep or thinking or what. And he talked strange. Really slow, like that computer from War Games.
Michael Jordan: I had—fun—coming back to the National Basketball Association. It was—great—to— compete against the players again. Leading the Bobcats to the championship was—great. I felt like a kid again. Again. Again. Again. (beat) I had—fun.
Carmelo Anthony (former NBA player, 2003-2019): He shocked me when I tried to post him up. It was like getting tasered.
Rajon Rondo (former NBA player, 2006-2020): I saw his arm extend on a break like Inspector Gadget. He dunked it without leaving the ground. And it only got weirder from there. Remember Mecha Gasol?
Pau and Marc Gasol, two brothers in the NBA at the end of their respective careers, decided to have their bodies fused into one player at the onset of the 2019 season, playing under the name Mecha Gasol. They led the league in rebounds for three seasons, mainly due to their having four arms.
MECHA GASOL: It was a blast teaming up with my brother. Yes, it was, I had a great time teaming up with you too. But it would be nice to maybe separate now because it’s a little pointless now. I wish we could find the doctor who did this to us. Yeah. It makes me wish we were both dead. Or at least one of us.
From that point on the modifications that players received got out of hand. From Tyler Hansbrough’s “Hand of Doom” to Omri Casspi’s cyborg doppelganger CASSPI-2, the NBA was overrun by virtually everything the sports robotics field could conjure up. Some players resisted the temptation and even took measures to best their technologically-enhanced competition.
Dwyane Wade: I would just throw a big magnet out on the court and watch them all get pulled towards it. It was funny. But people didn’t want to see the games anymore— it was boring. Guys were running spreadsheets to mathematically figure out who’d win games.
Between the lack of excitement and the public’s fascination with human checkers, the NBA’s popularity was at an all-time low. The final straw came on October 19th 2023. Prior to a pre-season contest, Metta World Peace – out of the league for five years at this point – returned to the game with his “new robot physique”, which really consisted of fireworks and a nail gun taped to his arms and chest. The Doodle Jump Arena burnt to the ground, causing the public to abandon the sport for good.
Metta World Peace: I honestly wasn’t trying to burn down the building. I was trying to set it on fire. There’s a big difference. Right? You know what I’m talking about? Hygiea Asteroids represent!
Michael Jordan: The games—were all I had. Now I have nothing. What is this—water—leaking from my eyes? So many moments, now it is all—gone. Slowing—down. Down. Dooooooooooooooooown
All archival art pulled by J.O. Applegate