A dive into mystery and majesty: The Andrew Gaze Slam Dunk board game

"All the EXCITEMENT of the REAL GAME!!"

There are rare moments in journalism when a story unexpectedly falls into your lap. You needn't seek it out, staring at a screen for hours on end trying to formulate a snappy, concise pitch — it instead finds you, demanding your attention.

Suddenly, it's there. Yours for the taking. Your fingers tremble, a million thoughts dancing through your head as the sheer enormity of the opportunity weighs in on you. And so, you pounce with the theoretical elegance of a leopard on the savanna (but the literal grace of a pudgy thirty-something white guy who hasn't left the couch in weeks).

That's how I felt when this glorious photo appeared on Twitter.

Some Aussie basketball fans may recognise the Slam Dunk board game immediately. For others, like myself, it's as if someone travelled back in time to mess with history. This looks like something that I should have known about, dammit, and the fact that it's only appearing on my timeline in 2020 is a crime.

A babyfaced Andrew Gaze highlights the cover, flanked by a pinpoint pass and an electrifying dunk from players whose identities may become apparent in due time. Below, Gaze declares that Slam Dunk has "all the EXCITEMENT of the REAL GAME!!", holding the box in-hand with a satisfied grin on his face.

The mind races. What is this majestic creation? Does it truly reach the lofty standards proclaimed by one of Australia's all-time greats? How is he able to wield the box so effortlessly despite only grasping it off-centre with one hand? The story came to me, but the answers, I would have to pursue myself.

Go west, young man

Step one, of course, was reaching out to the person who brought Slam Dunk to my attention. Nick Tan, a devout Perth Wildcats fan from Western Australia, happened upon this treasure mostly through happenstance (or fate, if you'd prefer).

"I'd actually never heard of it before until about, maybe like three weeks ago," Tan told The Pick and Roll. "I look through Facebook marketplace and eBay, for typically, just Wildcats stuff that may be on sale. I found this thing and I thought, well I’ve never seen that before, and it was $30.

"I bought it off this dude who wanted to meet in a vacant lot somewhere, which is really weird."

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The risk paid off, and Tan shared his exploits courtesy of a live stream shortly after.

Credit: Nick (@nicktan77 on Twitter)

To the layman, the gameplay appears equal parts compelling and bewildering at first, but his breakdown put things into perspective. Each player on the court has scores assigned to skills like shooting, rebounds and defence. Whoever is in possession of the ball chooses which action they'd like to perform, and draws a card with numbers corresponding to each option.

Credit: Nick Tan (@nicktan77 on Twitter)

Taking the combined total of your player's score in that attribute minus the defender's ability to nullify it, the objective is to surpass the number on the card, and in doing so, succeed at your chosen action.

Credit: Nick Tan (@nicktan77 on Twitter)

"It’s actually pretty fast paced, and it’s fun to play," Tan summated.

Seeing the game in action whetted my appetite. I needed to know more, to unlock its secrets. It was time to reach out to a basketball legend.

Cover man

Andrew Gaze recently spoke to Matt Hickey as part of his fantastic retrospective on the 1997 Melbourne Tigers' journey to an NBL championship. Following this up with a discussion about a board game was a bold gambit on our part, but fortunately, Gaze is a pro, and willing to help bring us another step closer.

"Grant Cadee and Vince Hinchen, they were the creators of the game. I remember them coming to talk to me about trying to help with the promotion of it," Gaze recalled. "They were explaining the concept, and how the game would be, and at the time I was really interested.

"I understand that they were expecting a very small run, but a lot of people bought the game, and I was happy for them and what they were able to produce."

The timing of the project arguably couldn't be better, considering basketball's meteoric rise of the late 80s, both locally and abroad.

"It was during that real sweet spot; those halcyon days of the sport, where it was really popular. Electronics weren't as huge they are today, with NBA 2K and those types of things. It was more swap cards and some of the old fashioned elements — well, they’re old fashioned nowadays, but they were current back then! They were almost like performance indicators of how popular the sport was."

Because I'm thorough (or an idiot), I had to ask about the one thing that I had been pondering ever since the beginning of this venture: whether Andrew Gaze legitimately thought that Slam Dunk had all the EXCITEMENT of the REAL GAME!!

"There might have been a little bit of licence provided," he said with a laugh. "But certainly, [with] the excitement that Grant and Vince and the others were generating around the game, and the popularity of it, I think it proved to be accurate."

An insightful response to a query that Bryce Harper probably would have dismissed as a clown question. At last, the story was clearer, and I was aware of the genesis behind its creation, as well as the success it had achieved. But an article like this only comes along once in a while.

Slam Dunk deserved the full story, and nothing less.

Back to the beginning

Grant Cadee's NBL career included stints with the the Coburg Giants, Nunawading/Eastside Spectres and Westside Melbourne Saints, but even at a young age, he had an eye for the bigger picture.

"I was still playing at that stage with the Saints," Cadee explained. "Myself and another guy who was one of our imports, Vince Hinchen, started a sports marketing company.

"We were both playing together, became friends, and felt like there was a bit of a void. TV had just started to pick up basketball, there was one game a week, and we felt like there was an opportunity to sell some sponsorship, which was new to the game at that stage.

"So we did that and really from then just started to look for projects. I guess in the crude sense, I was only twenty years old and it was to make a dollar out of the game at that stage.

"We came up with the idea for a basketball game. We sat around with pen and paper, looked at anything else that had ever been done and came up with something that we thought reflected the kind of flow of the game.

We spent about six months throwing paper into the bin, and eventually came up with a concept that we were able to get to market."

Though the pair clearly possessed the basketball acumen, they were treading into unexplored territory by attempting to create a board game.

"A game’s like a story that never ends, you know, if there’s a point where people get stumped because the game doesn’t have a next move, it really doesn’t work," Cadee continued. "So you’ve got to go through what happens if this happens, and what happens if this happens.

"Back then, thirty-two years ago, I didn’t have the aid of sophisticated computer programs to work with. You’ve got to remember, there was no internet back then, so we were pretty down and dirty with the way we put it together. Eventually, we got a concept that worked and kind of replicated the fact that you have to make decisions in the game — do you want to shoot a 3, do you want to shoot a 2, do you want a fast break and take chances that you’re going to turn the ball over?

"They were the sort of concepts that we wanted to make as realistic as possible for people playing the game."

Once they had the foundation in place, it was time to see if they could crack the board game market, and a whole new set of challenges opened up from there.

"We got a mock up together that we thought worked, we did the rounds and went to the big game companies in Australia. We found out really quickly that it’s one of those industries; it’s like the book industry. Back then you had to have a distributor that knew that business and had ins to the major retailers.

"We found somebody that was really keen on the game and liked it. Back then, it was Hunter Sports. They were one of the bigger game distributors in Australia and they took it on. From memory, I think they did a 15,000 initial run — which was a lot — and then they eventually did another 15,000 run and I think another 10,000 run, which back then made it a pretty big success."

Beyond the strength of its gameplay, Cadee also echoed Gaze's sentiments on the impeccable timing playing an important part.

"It was late 80s, early 90s, the game was probably never more popular. You had the influence of Jordan, and the NBA was as big as it’s ever been. We just felt like there was a market there of people that were interested in the game and therefore would pick it up."

Cadee and Hinchen took the concept to the NBL to see if they would be interested in lending official branding to the product, however the asking price, according to Cadee, was too high. An unfortunate result, for sure, but perhaps the most interesting step in Slam Dunk's journey would take place overseas.

"The NBA licensed the game and called it NBA Jam Session," Cadee revealed. "So we were able to use their branding and their players, which we weren’t able to do here in Australia."

https://twitter.com/paddymartin01/status/706331131021389824

NBA Jam Session was released in the USA in 1994, featuring players like Hakeem Olajuwon, Shawn Kemp and Alonzo Mourning. Certainly not too shabby for a project that had started with pen and paper.

Slam Dunk

Like the board game itself, I had been taken on quite the journey from the moment I had first laid eyes on its bright, enticing cover.

I couldn't help but want to see the concept revived in the modern era of basketball, and let a new generation of fans to live out the thrill of the game. Alas, the men who had made it possible had a far more pragmatic view.

"I think these days, people probably lean towards the online and electrical type of entertainment," Gaze opined. "But me personally, and maybe I’m showing my age, I think that there’s something nice about those elements. I don’t even know if trading cards are still as popular, but I thought they were great ways in which people could learn about players and be really competitive about certain cards and rare cards.

"All those things were really helpful for the promotion of the game. I think those types of thing would still hold up, but you’d probably need more of a sociologist to explain to me whether within the community these days those things are as appealing as they once were."

"We were sort of in the changing era," Cadee added. "Over that next 18 months, early 90s, video games started to become more in vogue with the younger demographic, so demand for board games became a little old fashioned.

"Look, who knows? Maybe with the whole situation that everyone’s gone through now, kind of like the anecdotal examples of families sitting around playing board games again... it may sort of create a re-interest in board games."

Truly, a chaotic mix of elements came together to make Slam Dunk the success that it was, but most poignantly, it was the starry-eyed whimsy of its creators that allowed it to even happen to begin with.

"I think we were probably blessed by the fact that we didn’t know much," Cadee confessed. "The whole thought of how hard it is might have turned us away, ten years later when we were a little more worldly. But at that point we sort of didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t make it work.

"I think any experience was a benefit for us, because we didn’t realise how hard it really was. We sort of caught a niche at the time that was successful given the numbers and the population here in Australia."

At least, I had gotten to the bottom of it. The investigative itch had been scratched, and I had surely gotten my fill of deep dives into basketball board games from yesteryear.

That was, up until another tweet came onto my timeline, arousing my curiosity all over again.

Dammit Nick, you had to go and do it, didn't you? It looks like we've only just begun.