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Michael Jordan's Space Jam: Funny Stories, Box-Office Sales, Creation, Legacy

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistMay 3, 2020

Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan poses with a cutout of Bugs Bunny at a news conference, Tuesday, June 20, 1995, New York. Warner Bros. announced at the meeting the Jordan will join Bugs, and other members of the Looney Tunes family in an original live action/animation feature called
Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press

This week's episodes of The Last Dance on ESPN will portray the moment when Michael Jordan went from being the best basketball player in the world into a worldwide icon, including his foray onto the big screen in Space Jam.

The movie, which was released in November 1996, was originally a box-office hit with a worldwide gross of $230.4 million, per Box Office Mojo. It even spawned an ESPN 30 for 30 parody video in 2013.

Even though the original Space Jam has developed into one of Film Twitter's favorite movies, director Joe Pytka said getting it off the ground was a struggle because professional actors thought the premise wasn't going to work.

"We had a hard time casting a lot of the minor characters because people just didn't want to be in a movie with Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny," Pytka told Entertainment Weekly's Derek Lawrence in 2016. "I mean, they're going to work with an animated character and an athlete—are you serious? They just didn't want to do it."

One major actor the movie did cast was Bill Murray, whose role was expanded once he found out how Pytka and the crew were able to combine the actors and animation:

"Bill only came in for the golf course stuff because he didn't like the idea of working in animation. While we were shooting the golf course scene, he asked how I was dealing with the actors dealing with the animated characters. When [he] found out how we were doing that, we wrote a couple of extra scenes for him at the end of the movie, when he comes back to the basketball game."

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Pytka noted the production crew worked to make Jordan comfortable in his role as an actor, including building an on-set basketball court that would allow him to practice between shooting.

The director recalled a story of playing against Jordan as they were making the movie: "Michael and I played a lot of one-on-one. Once, Michael came up and asked, 'Why are you never on my team?' I said, 'Because I want to see the ball every once in a while.'"

It sounds like Pytka got off easy in that instance because Jordan didn't put away his intense competitive edge and penchant for trash talk on the set.

Former basketball player and actor Keith Gibbs, who was an extra in Space Jam, told Grantland's Jason Concepcion in 2015 about the "nonstop" trash talk he received from Jordan during pickup games:

"I walk in, and it's Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley, Alonzo Mourning, Charles Oakley. Grant Hill shows up. Jerry Stackhouse shows up. Now, all of a sudden it's an NBA All-Star pickup game. Every night. I did that for about a month and a half, two months. Then the UCLA kids came in, and they had just won a national title—Ed O'Bannon and those guys. Just phenomenal. Best pickup games I've ever been a part of. It was unreal.

"Yeah, so Jordan ... I had to guard Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan in back-to-back games. It was so bad. I was friends with Chris Mills and Tracy Murray — we had been to some camps together. One play, I got switched onto Jordan, because Chris was like, 'Keith, you take him.' Jordan hit a 35-footer on me. I mean, it was ridiculous: leg out, tongue out, all that stuff ... hit a 35-footer on me and goes, "GET THE F--K OFF THE COURT."

As the legend of Space Jam has grown in the 24 years since its release, Warner Bros. is capitalizing on that popularity. A long-awaited sequel starring LeBron James will be released in July 2021.

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