Another NBA season has sports fans wondering how long Michael Jordan will play, who Rick Fox will take a swing at next and what off-the-court shenanigans Allen Iverson will pull.
But if you're more interested in action than drama, look no further than your video game console, where Sega, EA Sports and Microsoft entertain admirably with their latest pro basketball titles. In this league, the only loser is Sony's 989 Sports franchise, which seems to be stuck in the minors.
The games, which sell for about $50 and run on the Sony PlayStation, PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox or Nintendo GameCube, have become more complex over the years with the increased horsepower of the latest-generation consoles. That means they require faster fingers than ever to keep up with the fast breaks.
Few will be disappointed with Sega Sports' NBA 2K3 (Xbox, PS2 and GameCube), which is as cool as its acronym moniker. The best choice for basketball aficionados, NBA 2K3 builds on Sega's powerful legacy of well-done basketball simulations.
Game play is more reminiscent of the NBA than the other games reviewed here, which lean more toward arcade-style action. Every shot does not go in, and many passes will be botched until a console player gets his ball-handling skills down pat.
Some new options liven up the game, though, as you practice making dunks and lay-ups that were much easier to come by in last year's version. You can also dive for loose balls now by hitting the jump button.
If you have an Xbox, you're in for a treat. NBA 2K3 looks better on it than on a PS2. Xbox offers particularly smooth graphics, including good, old-fashioned, realistic sweat. Even the cheerleaders look good in this one.
Franchise mode, which is a must in any pro sports game these days, provides a solid workout for console players. NBA 2K3's off-season has an intensity all its own, as you focus on the draft, figure out who's returning and watch the rookies' workout. Of course, if you want to let the computer do all this work, you can.
The commentators are actors rather than sports personalities - the same guys from last year's game - but they do an adequate job.
You'll also be able to play NBA 2K3 on Xbox Live, Microsoft's online console world, when it's launched Nov. 15.
Microsoft's own basketball game, NBA Inside Drive 2003 (Xbox, but not Xbox Live, oddly enough) is about 75 percent basketball simulation and 25 percent arcade game - probably a better choice for casual shooters who like to see the ball go through the hoop.
The problem with Inside Drive 2003 is the same as with NFL Fever 2003: Microsoft appears to be resting on its laurels. There hasn't been nearly as much change or improvement from last year's versions as other game manufacturers have offered in their latest products.
If you didn't play Inside Drive 2002, that's not necessarily a bad thing. And Microsoft figured out that it needed a franchise mode, which was missing in last year's game. Called "dynasty mode," the year-to-year mode was a must-add in order to make Inside Drive 2003 competitive.
Game play is fast and fun, with less strategy to master than NBA 2K3. The controls seem simpler, as well, and the designers understood how important practice mode can be for someone who has never played a basketball simulation on a console before.
Graphics, which haven't changed from the 2002 game, continue to be strong. Players look like their real-life counterparts, making this one of the better games to watch.
The best sound in any of the basketball games is available on Inside Drive's courts, where depth of audio really is important. Moreover, the use of four commentators, Akemi Takei on the floor, and Kenny Smith, Kevin Calabro and Marques Johnson in the booth help keep the chatter from sounding repetitious.
You'll find EA Sports' NBA Live 2003 (Xbox, PS, PS 2, PC and GameCube) from EA Sports a touch more arcade-like than NBA 2K3, but a blast to play. Once again, the less interest you have in a hard-core simulation - and a good chunk of console players fit into this category - the more pure scoring fun you can have. And NBA Live is very fast, just like the real game.
The 2003 version has a new "freestyle control" system that allows a gamer to direct his computer-generated player's moves with the right analog stick. That means that your players can display complex moves that would require far more dexterity in other games - and that's assuming those moves are available at all. To introduce you properly to the new freestyle control, EA Sports has included a wonderful group of tutorials.
I judged NBA Live's graphics to be as good as Inside Drive's, although I wasn't particularly fond of its courtside views. I like to watch from the rafters (or the dome) so that I have a better feel for what's happening on the court. If you're into dunking, you'll have a lot more variety, too.