Michael Jordan stands as one of the greatest basketball players in NBA history, but the former Chicago Bulls superstar also transcended the sports world as a cultural trendsetter. Leveraging his talent, looks, charisma and business savvy, Jordan graced hundreds of magazine covers, earned a slew of high-profile product endorsements and ultimately launched his own wildly successful shoe and athletic clothing brand.
The magnitude of his crossover appeal and influence is perhaps best exemplified by the success of 1996’s Space Jam, a hybrid live-action-animated film that teamed the basketball great with classic cartoon character Bugs Bunny in a family-friendly, good vs. evil showdown. While Jordan didn’t have to stray far from his true self for the role, his performance helped the difficult-to-make film become a box-office hit. And he paved the way for subsequent athletes and entertainers to reach for success outside their designated lanes.
‘Space Jam’ came about from a TV commercial with Jordan and Bugs Bunny
The idea for Space Jam began with a Nike commercial, broadcast during 1992’s Super Bowl XXVI, which pitted “Air Jordan” and “Hare Jordan” (Bugs) against a group of basketball-playing bullies. Jordan seamlessly integrated himself into the zany Loony Tunes brand of humor in the Joe Pytka-directed spot, and the positive reception spawned another commercial the following year that featured Jordan and Bugs competing against towering aliens.
Before long, Jordan’s agent, David Falk, convinced Warner Bros. that a feature film co-starring the sport and cartoon icons would benefit everyone involved. Jordan would get the chance to boost his brand with a vehicle showcasing his natural charisma and Warner Bros., which had revived Bugs and the rest of the Looney Tunes lineup for the adult-oriented Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), would have the opportunity to introduce the characters to a new generation of young fans.
Pytka was tapped to direct the project, with Hollywood heavyweight Ivan Reitman brought in for creative oversight. The script, credited to Leo Benvenuti, Steve Rudnick, Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod, incorporated parts of Jordan’s real life — including his famous foray into professional baseball in 1994 — along with the not-so-real elements of Bugs and friends coaxing the athlete out of retirement for a high-stakes intergalactic basketball game.
Jordan himself was game to dive into the unknown for his first feature film — on one condition: Following a season in which his return to the NBA’s Chicago Bulls ended with a loss in the playoffs, the production could in no way interfere with his preparation for the next basketball season.
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The basketball star had to adjust to the production’s unique challenges
By the time Jordan was set to begin shooting in summer 1995, Pytka — up to his neck in complicated animation logistics — devoted much of his attention to the well-being of his flesh-and-blood star. The director brought in veteran actor T. K. Carter as a performance coach, and he shielded the basketballer from the studio politics that rejected Michael J. Fox and Chevy Chase for the role of publicist Stan Podolak (which eventually went to Seinfeld‘s Wayne Knight) and turned down Spike Lee’s offer to polish the script.
To help Jordan through the challenging process of interacting with cartoon characters, Pytka had performers dress in green suits and act out the parts in a 360-degree greenscreen set equipped with motion-tracking markers. Basketball pros served as stand-ins for the Monstars, the bad-guy alien team, and improv actors scurried around on their knees to provide a sight line for the shorter Loony Tunes, all to be eventually replaced through digital animation.
Nobody knew if this frenzied process featuring a neophyte actor and cutting-edge technology would ultimately work. But Pytka and the various art and animation heads plugged through script and scene changes while keeping Jordan focused on his task. According to the director, Bill Murray was originally only supposed to appear in the beginning of the movie, but the funnyman requested — and received — an expanded role when he saw how well production was faring.
Pytka later praised Jordan’s work ethic though the six weeks of 12-hour shooting days, though he separately noted how he believed Jordan “hated the whole experience.” Of particular irritation was the studio’s habit of allowing people not connected to the production onto the grounds to meet the basketball star, which prompted Jordan to vent to his director about being used as a publicity pawn.
Jordan used his down time to work on his basketball skills
Of course, the entire experience wasn’t a drag for Jordan, who saw his wish for easy access to a training facility granted in the form of a custom-built gym on the Warner Bros. lot. Every day, Jordan would slip away during lunch break to pump iron with his trainer, and after shooting wrapped at 7 p.m., he would return to the “Jordan Dome” to play basketball for another two to three hours.
The competition not only gave Jordan an outlet to blow off steam following a day immersed in a surreal green world; it enabled him to push his body back into prime basketball shape after his detour into baseball. Jordan and his Space Jam co-stars Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing were soon joined at the Warner Bros. gym by fellow elite talents like Magic Johnson, Grant Hill and Reggie Miller, with A-list celebrities dropping by to watch what amounted to a series of NBA All-Star games every night.
Along with the basketball court and weight room, the dome featured an entertainment center and a putting green for the golf-loving Jordan. The facility was designed, per Space Jam technical adviser Nigel Miguel, “for [Jordan] not to have to leave if he didn’t want to.”
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Jordan turned down an opportunity to star in a sequel
By the time the finished film hit theaters in November 1996, Jordan had reestablished himself as the best basketball player in the world and an NBA champion. Space Jam marked another feather in his cap, as it went on to earn $230 million globally, launch a hit soundtrack and generate $1.2 billion in merchandise sales.
The results prompted immediate talks for a Space Jam 2—and while Jordan was rumored to be along for the ride, he ultimately wanted no part in a sequel.
It’s easy to understand why from his limited public comments on the topic. During a basketball camp Q&A in 2006, Jordan stressed how difficult it was trying to act with characters that would be drawn in later, adding, “I don’t want to do that again.” And after finishing his NBA career with six titles, and seeing his net worth swell to an estimated $1.6 billion by April 2021, it’s clear he didn’t need the burden of headlining a studio franchise to achieve staggering success. However, Jordan did go on to make a special appearance in 2021’s Space Jam: A Legacy, starring LeBron James.
Space Jam remains as much a part of Jordan’s legacy as his take-off from the free-throw line at the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest or his winning basket in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. It may not be relevant to the heated barroom arguments over whether he was a better player than Kobe Bryant or James, but it’s a valid point of reference when discussing how Jordan opened up opportunities for those who followed in his massive footsteps.