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Space Jam: When Michael Jordan became a pop culture icon

From the greatest upset of all time to becoming a cult classic for kids of the ‘90s, we breakdown Michael Jordan’s ”greatest achievement.”

“Welcome to the Jam!”

In 1996, we learned what Michael Jordan was really doing during his first retirement from basketball. Sure it started as an opportunity to expand his athletic career and featured a crossover into professional baseball, but that wasn’t his most important accomplishment during that era. No, that distinction belongs to Space Jam, and if you’ve seen it, then you know what I’m talking about.

In the opening scene, we see a young Mike Jordan shooting some late night hoops in his yard in Wilmington, NC. When he talks about wanting to play at North Carolina, his dad responds with “That’s a real fine school, real fine school. You can get a first class education there.” He then exclaims that he wants to play on a Championship team and then the NBA. That’s what it takes to be the GOAT. Set your goals and don’t stop until you achieve them.

The Lead Up

It all begins innocently enough when a group of odd, off-putting creatures from Moron Mountain want to increase sales at their place of business. Thus, they decide to use the success of others around them to make themselves seem more attractive. (I promise I’m not talking about anyone wearing red in Raleigh. These were ”real-life aliens” that wanted to capture the Looney Tunes and use them for their own profit. Plus, the good folks in Raleigh would at least pay for someone’s service.)

The stage, errr court, was set and the Looney Tunes would face the “diminutive” aliens from Moron Mountain. At stake was the freedom of the Tunes; win and they could stay. However, if they lost, they would be enslaved and forced to work for Moron Mountain forever.

Seems like an easy enough task, right? Bugs Bunny and his crew have an average height of right around three feet while the aliens were probably in ballpark of a foot or less.

Wrong. In order to give themselves a fighting chance, the aliens visit several NBA games and steal the talents of five All-Stars; Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson, and Shawn Bradley. This leaves those five players unable to play the game of basketball while allowing the undersized aliens to become the ”Monstars” or the ”Scream Team” as the leader calls it.

Seeing their future in Looney Tunes Land in grave danger, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck travel to the surface of ”3D Land” to plead for help from Michael Jordan. Believing that he could fly, the Looney Tunes yank Jordan through a Par 3 hole at Birmingham Pines Country Club.

At first, Jordan refuses and exclaims that he is now a baseball player but as Jim Rome pointed out, his .214 batting average for the Birmingham Barons wasn’t exactly lighting up scoreboards. After some prodding from the Tunes and being called ”washed up” and “Baldy” by the Monstars, Jordan decides to suit up again as the player/coach for the Tune Squad, with one request; that Bugs and Daffy travel to his house to get his shoes and his lucky North Carolina shorts.

The Game

In front of a capacity crowd, with more missed calls than a regular season showdown in Durham, the Monstars jump out to a massive 66-18 halftime lead. Despite plenty of opportunities for technical or intentional fouls, Marvin the Martian is loyal to his extraterrestrial brethren.

During halftime, though, the Tune Squad could regroup once they get a swig of Michael’s Secret Stuff. Fret not, Bugs lets us in on the secret that it’s only water. No need for random drug screenings here.

The second half features a heavy dose of Jordan doing Jordan things. With the help of the Looney Tunes and their ACME style antics, the Tune Squad goes on a 58-11 run to bring the score within two with ten seconds remaining.

This is Michael Jordan at his best. With the game on the line and in need of a big shot, Jordan receives a pass from Bill Murray and makes his way down the court. Except this time, as he leaves his feet, he’s met at half court by the Monstars. In perfect Looney Tunes fashion, Jordan’s arm magically begins to stretch towards the rim. With less than second on the clock, Jordan releases the ball directly through the hoop. The Tune Squad stays on earth, the players get their talents back and Michael Jordan returns to professional basketball. Everyone is a winner!

Check out this box score that was compiled by a few students at Harvard back in 2011! What’s noticeable is that neither team hauled in a rebound because only a single shot was missed during the entire game (which came at the hands of an explosion. Guess no Team Rebounds were awarded). Also, it’s noted that Jordan had a 44% usage rate. That’s unusually high, except in big games for Jordan. During Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, Jordan logged a 55% usage rate, and oddly enough hit the big shot that gave his team an amazing one-point win as time expired.

The Impact

Not many people remember that Jordan first teamed up with the “wascally wabbit” in a series of commercials for the release of new Air Jordan shoes. It was then that Warner Brothers and Jordan saw the potential in this story.

Space Jam became an immediate hit, grossing nearly $28 million over its opening weekend. It was the fourth-highest earning movie in 1996 and still remains the top grossing basketball movie since 1982. In the 22 years since the release, it has grossed nearly $250 million worldwide.

It garnered a cult following that still battles fits of nostalgia when the phrases “Welcome to the Jam,” “Hit ‘em High,” or “I Believe I Can Fly” are heard. In fact, the soundtrack was certified as a 6-time platinum album in 2001.

There were video games created (for which I can attest to wasting many hours playing, mainly because the original PlayStation took forever to load and play) that allowed the user to recreate their own versions of “The Ultimate Game” with the score usually a lopsided win for the Tune Squad.

Forget the National Championship, six NBA Championships, and four gold medals (ok, well don’t). Space Jam was an influential piece of masterfully crafted artwork that drew a multitude of kids into the game of basketball, simply because Michael Jordan helped the Looney Tunes escape a lifetime on Moron Mountain.

Sometimes, when a sports superstar tries to crossover onto the big screen, you’re stuck with a seven-foot genie or something like ‘Trainwreck’. When Michael Jordan crosses over, you get nothing but pure gold and a pop culture phenomenon.