With the recent speculation that ‘Space Jam 2’ is a “go” with LeBron James taking over for Michael Jordan, our latest #HSTBT explores the origins of the original film.

As baseball starts slowly revving up its engine after the All-Star break, and the NFL prepares for mini-camp, sports fans are encountering the inevitable dog days of summer and are pining for any kind of story. Early last week, LeBron James and his SpringHill Entertainment group inked a deal with Warner Brothers. In addition to playing a prominent role in Judd Apatow’s latest film, Trainwreck, the speculation began that James’s partnership with Warner Brothers was the first hurdle cleared in an attempt at making a sequel to the 1996 film, Space Jamwhich remains the highest-grossing basketball film of all-time.

LeBron James commented, “Connecting with my fans and telling meaningful stories have always been my passion. In everything I’ve done, from Nike commercials to Uninterrupted and Survivor’s Remorse, it’s always about connecting with people of all ages and providing unique content they can all enjoy. And I’ve always loved movies, which makes Warner Bros. the ultimate partner to help us continue to push the envelope. I can’t wait to see what we come up with.”

While there hasn’t been an official announcement, Space Jam 2 starring LeBron James seems to be a real possibility. Capital New York’s Alex Weprin also noted on Twitter that Warner Brothers had filed a new trademark for Space Jam in June of this year.

The blend of NBA star power and iconic animated characters seem to be a match made in heaven. However, it wasn’t Hollywood who came knocking on Michael Jordan’s door.

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In 1992, Nike ran a Super Bowl commercial for the Air Jordan VII which was directed by Joe Pytka and was the brainchild of Wieden + Kennedy’s Jim Riswold – who also famously created the “Bo Knows” campaign for the Swoosh. “Originally, I just couldn’t think of a bigger star to pair Michael with than Bugs Bunny, so that’s how it started,” Riswold said. “I am forever astonished that any commercial I did was popular, let alone have a movie made from it, but if it put Bugs back in the public eye, that’s great. The best thing about that spot to me was that after it was out, Michael thanked me personally and told me it was his kids’ favorite commercial — because of Bugs Bunny, not him.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, it was Michael Jordan’s longtime agent, David Falk, who pushed for the commercial to be expanded/adapted into a feature film – as Warner Bros. had been looking for the right vehicle to revive its Looney Tunes franchise and Falk sold the studio on Jordan’s star power. “We believe Michael Jordan transcends the world of sports,” Falk said in his appeal to Warner Bros.

Despite being a retired athlete at the time, Warner Brothers greenlit the project and entrusted the film to Joe Pytka – a longtime Jordan collaborator who had directed the “Hare Jordan” Nike commercial – and a person with whom the studio believed could extract enough “acting” out of MJ to make the 100 million USD project soar.

Over the years, Pytka had been responsible for countless star-studded ads for clients like Pepsi, Nike and McDonald’s – as well as the stirring This-Is-Your-Brain-on-Drugs PSA. AdAge‘s Bob Garfield has said of Pytka, “He is to my mind the greatest director of television commercials who has ever lived.”

In 1995, Joe Pytka and his team embarked on a six-week shoot with a then retired Michael Jordan. “When we first started working with Michael, he was a little bit nervous if he didn’t do something athletic,” Pytka remembers. “The first commercial I ever did with him, all he ever did was dunk. And he was coming off a knee injury, so he wasn’t so secure with his body. I remember when we did ‘Hare Jordan,’ it was a lot of green screen and technical stuff. He was a little insecure, but after that, the Michael in him came out. It was just a matter of keeping him entertained so that he didn’t lose interest in what we were doing. The first words out of his mouth on set were, ‘how long do we have to shoot?’ I said, ‘look at your contract.’ He said, “eh, eh. I have a golf game. I have to be out of here at 4.’ So the important thing was for us to get a shot of him to keep his interest.”

Halfway through the six-week shoot, Jordan barked at Pytka, “I thought you said this would be [expletive] fun.” “It should have been,” Pytka barked back.

One way Warner Bros. attempted to appease Michael Jordan’s unease with the filmmaking process was by building a basketball court near the set which was coined the “Jordan Dome.” With NBA stars like Magic Johnson and Reggie Miller stopping by for pick-up games, no one could have predicted that Jordan’s comeback for a championship run with the Bulls would be forged on a court in close proximity to a movie set where cartoon characters were dropping anvils on each other. Yet, the daily schedule – where Jordan would start filming at 9 a.m., work till 1 p.m., break two hours for lunch and a workout, and end the day no later than 6 p.m. – allowed ample time for MJ to resharpen his basketball skills.

When Space Jam was reexamined by the Chicago Tribune in 2009, they estimated that the film had a global impact of between $4-$6 billion USD. Joe Pytka said that those figures sounded accurate, adding, “It just shows you the power Michael had that transcended sport. Try making a movie like that with Kobe Bryant … please. And Shaq did a couple movies that tanked. Dwight Howard wants to do a movie but, really? LeBron [James]?” No. … Nobody has what Michael has. Ever.”

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.

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