I like to think of the weekends as “dealer’s choice.” I spend my weekdays viewing the suggestions you all send my way, and then on Saturdays and/or Sundays I go to the theater and I pick another film to watch at home. This gives me some flexibility as well. In today’s film, Space Jam (1996), there is a bit of a synergy as it is available at home and I have been seeing trailers for its sequel, Space Jam: A New Legacy, in theaters. I never thought the original was the greatest movie ever, though some have a devotion that I have never fully understood. However, the one thing that it does have that will always keep me coming back is Michael Jordan. If you were born in Chicago like me and raised on its sports teams (except the White Sox), then you understand what Jordan means to me. There have been only a handful of athletes who have transcended their professions to be recognizable by people who are not sporting fans. The first was Babe Ruth (and if you think baseball players are amazing today, take a look at his statistics some time). Then came Muhammad Ali. When Jordan arrived, we Chicagoans could hardly believe that such a figure played for a team from our city. We are a proud group, but as Midwesterners we also do not expect great things to happen to us. And when he brought us six championships, it almost defied logic. There were some negative aspects we would hear about every once in a while, such as a potential gambling addiction, but in our eyes he could do no wrong. Even though he is originally from North Carolina, the fierce determination with which he competed made him one of us. It is an iron will that built the city to such Olympian heights, and what raised his teammates to the level they needed to be at to succeed so superlatively. Hence, him getting into film was seemingly only natural.
It is Jordan’s humble roots in North Carolina where Space Jam begins. A ten year old Michael Jordan (Brandon Hammond) is in the backyard shooting hoops when his father, James (Thomas Barry), comes out to bring him inside. Before quitting for the night, young Michael lays out his life plan: he will go to college at the University of North Carolina, get drafted into the National Basketball Association (NBA), win championships, and then play professional baseball. Fast forward to present day (with a montage over the opening credits that show highlights of Jordan’s basketball career), and most of these things have been accomplished. Hence we see a press conference where he retires from basketball to play baseball. This is not too dissimilar from what happens in real life, and he is sent to the minor leagues of Major League Baseball (MLB) to work on his game. Given his enormous popularity, the Barons (the actual AA affiliate he played for in the White Sox organization) assign him a handler to attend to his needs, Stan Podolak (Wayne Knight). Meanwhile, in the far reaches of the galaxy, a cartoon alien, Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito), who runs a failing theme park is looking for a new way to bring back business. He notices a group of his cronies watching classic Looney Tunes and orders them to travel to Earth to kidnap them and bring them back to their planet as prisoners. These minions have two problems: they are a bit diminutive (“ain’t they?”) and not very bright. Thus, when they accost Bugs Bunny (voiced by Billy West) and pals and attempt to force Bugs and company to board their ship, they are outwitted in typical Bugs fashion. Bugs challenges the aliens to a game of basketball, which he believes will be an easy way to get the tiny extraterrestrials to go away. After all, the book (that Bugs surreptitiously made up on the spot) says that they must be given a chance to defend themselves. In panic, the aliens travel to a few professional basketball games and end up stealing the talent of some of the game’s best players. This also makes them much larger than what they were, which means that the chances of the Looney Tunes winning the proposed match decreased considerably. The one basketball player that the aliens missed because he is currently playing baseball is Michael Jordan. Sending Daffy Duck (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker), they manage to suck Jordan down to their land while he was playing golf with Bill Murray and Larry Bird. The cartoons beg Jordan to help, which he agrees to because he sees the aliens as bullies. The resulting game features a great deal of cartoonish action, which is still mildly entertaining. And, of course, Jordan makes the final shot to win the game, a dunk where he jumps from mid-court, is met in the air by all the “Monstars” (the name for the alien team), but then wildly stretches his arm the rest of the way to the hoop because, well, this is cartoon land and the laws of physics do not apply. With the day saved for the Looney Tunes, they bring Jordan back to his baseball team. The film ends with him giving the NBA players back their talent, and him deciding to return to basketball.
Looking at Space Jam today, you might expect our “cancel culture” to catch up with it eventually. There definitely are stereotypes, though they are not as overt as one might suppose from something made in the 1990s. Still, I am not here to talk about dated material. The aspect I would like to focus my Catholic thoughts on is fatherhood. This involves a little extra background about Michael Jordan. His father, James, is somewhat of an enigmatic person. What we do know is that he was a motivating figure in the basketball star’s life. Jesus’ Earthly father, Joseph, is another person that we know little about from the Bible, but tradition does tell us a few things. Both Joseph and James died relatively young. Each were equally important to their respective sons. For Jesus, growing up in a traditional Jewish household, Joseph would have taught Our Savior much, not to mention his trade, being a carpenter. When Space Jam was released, it was not too long after Jordan’s dad had been tragically murdered. Thus I appreciated the attention given in the film to seeing the son honor his father by playing baseball as his dad wanted. Subsequent interviews with Jordan at the time and since confirm the fact that he switched to America’s Pastime because it was something his had always dreamed for him. Christianity teaches us to honor our parents. That can come in many forms other than simply us doing what they want us to do. Following our Faith is one way. Bringing so much joy to sports fans with such skilled play can be another. It is made all the more special by close relationships. As always, Jesus points the way in all of it.
I have to confess that part of the reason I watched Space Jam recently was so that it would be familiar to me when Space Jam: A New Legacy is released. It is a pity, though, that this new one will feature LeBron James, of whom I am not particularly fond. Admittedly, this is fueled by petty sports jealousies and rivalries, though I would like to point out that LeBron will never be Michael. And, hopefully, the original film will remain better than the sequel. We will just have to wait and see.