I couldn’t believe my ears. Or my eyes. Whichever. I can’t remember whether I heard or read first that the Kentucky basketball team’s favorite down-time activity was playing Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo-freaking-64.
I was fourteen when that game came out, and I spent a LOT of time playing it. Then Super Smash Bros. Melee came out for the GameCube and I promptly made it a full time job (except without the paycheck, benefits, or sense of personal fulfillment). I can’t be certain how much my friends and I played throughout high school and college, but I’m sure it’s in the thousands of hours. It’s my favorite video game ever by a large margin, and once I heard the team was spending their free time playing it, I became even more certain that they’re destined for greatness.
Coach Cal (kind of) joked last week that he had to stop a particularly competitive practice because he didn’t want a fight to break out. He claimed that he was thrilled that the team still practiced like it was December 1st. I’m telling you, as a seasoned Smash Bros. veteran, it’s just as likely that Tyler was still steaming over a tough loss from a marathon Smash session the night before and was taking it out on Andrew on the court.
Because here’s the best part of the UK basketball-slash-Smash-Bros. story: it actually does make perfect sense that this is the game they’ve settled on. For one, it’s intensely competitive (there are still tournaments held around the country for the original game today, more than fifteen years after its original release). Super Smash Bros. is at its best when a big group of people gather around one TV to throw down. In that setting, especially around a group of close friends, the atmosphere is something akin to an old And-1 Mixtape Tour stop. The guys playing are going after each other, not just to win, but to destroy the competition, to put the other dudes on a poster, WCS-style. And everybody else in the room is talking trash and waiting for that big moment to unleash a loud “OOOOOHHHHHHHHH!” when somebody gets smacked offscreen to cap off a comeback win. All that’s missing is a sideline hype man with a microphone (unless Sam Malone already has that covered).
If you’ve never played, I don’t know that I can do the experience justice. Basketball is fun and random and success on the court demands a combination of skill, luck, and cooperation. Super Smash Bros. is exactly the same way. So know that this team is putting in National Title-level work, even when they’re huddled around a TV in their hotel rooms.
Now for the fun part: which player is which character when the team turns on the console? (Note: I have no idea whether any of this is right, but I love UK basketball and I love Smash Bros., so there.)
Tyler Ulis: Pikachu – everybody’s favorite electric PokÃ©mon is small, fast, and a lot more powerful than he looks. As Ulis has shown us all year, size and appearance can be deceiving; there’s nobody on this team you want to mess with less than Tyler.
Willie Cauley-Stein: Jigglypuff – another PokÃ©mon, Jigglypuff is a difficult character to get good with, but once you do, watch out. Jigglypuff’s main attacks are, um, singing and falling asleep, so it might appear, to an outsider, like she isn’t really much of a threat. The thing is, if the ‘Puff falls asleep right next to an opponent, they’re immediately blasted offscreen and never heard from again. Sound familiar?
Karl Towns: Donkey Kong – a force, once you know how to use him. DK is as powerful as anyone in the game, and is one of the toughest characters to knock out. Like Karl, size is his greatest asset, and you can never count him out of a game. Remember the last five minutes against LSU?
Trey Lyles: Fox – versatility is the name of Trey’s game, and Fox’s too. He’s quicker than you expect, and more powerful than he appears, which mirror’s Trey’s game perfectly. If a Smash Bros. player is really good with Fox, then the opponent is in trouble. If Trey is clicking, he’s UK’s X-factor.
Devin Booker: Samus – Metroid’s star character is all about long range attacks, and can go entire matches just peppering enemies with missiles and cannon blasts from across the screen. If those attacks are landing, Samus is deadly. If not, she’s forced to fight at close quarters, which is more of a challenge.
Andrew and Aaron Harrison: Captain Falcon – I know Mario and Luigi would be the popular choice here, but their dad was an army medic, so I feel like they’d go with Captain Falcon (multiple players can fight with the same character in Smash Bros.). He’s got a lethal combination of size and power, with enough speed to catch other fighters off guard.
Dakari Johnson: Luigi – Mario’s brother kind of gets a raw deal. He’s the forgotten one, the also-ran. It sometimes feels like Dakari suffers the same fate in the shadow of two lottery picks. But Luigi packs a punch, and what he lacks in raw speed, he makes up for with power, and picking his spots to unleash it. When Dakari’s at his best, he has a quiet, but vital impact on the game.
Marcus Lee: Yoshi – fun-loving partner in crime to Mario, with a perma-grin stuck to his face. You can sometimes forget Yoshi’s even a playable character until somebody picks him and starts stomping people into the ground. That’s just the way Marcus is. When he comes flying in for a putback or a nasty block, we’re reminded that we’ve got another McDonald’s All-American capable of some incredible stuff on the court.