‘The Last Dance’ wasn’t Michael Jordan’s first movie role; in the 90s, His Airness teamed up with Bugs Bunny in ‘Space Jam’

  • Recent Netflix documentary series has put ‘Air Jordan’ back in the spotlight
  • NBA basketball legend MJ helped the Looney Tunes team defeat the alien Monstars in the 1996 cult classic
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Bill Murray, left, Bugs Bunny, and Michael Jordan are shown in a scene from the Warner Bros. film 'Space Jam'.

The Last Dance docuseries jointly produced by Netflix and ESPN show how NBA basketball legend Michael Jordan got a lot of help throughout his career from several supporting figures, including Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson.

But there’s another standout in Jordan’s MVP gallery that deserves a special mention. He’s definitely the most recognisable, thanks to his long ears, fluffy tail and a mischievous and fun personality that has charmed audiences young and old for decades.

Jordan and Bugs Bunny joined forces in 1996 for the blockbuster film Space Jam. The comedy earned hundreds of millions of dollars while securing Jordan’s status as one of the most well-known and beloved personalities in the world.

Pairing the player sometimes called His Airness with His Hareness, the film, which blended live action and animation, was made at Warner Bros. Studios during summer 1995, following the season in which Jordan had returned to the Chicago Bulls after playing baseball for a year and a half.

“It was a great experience working with Michael,” Space Jam director Joe Pytka recalled in a phone interview recently. “He just rose to the occasion. Anything you would ask him to do, he came through with flying colors. He’s a gifted human being.”

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The film starts with Jordan announcing his retirement from basketball to fulfill his desire to play baseball. Meanwhile, in outer space, the villainous Mr. Swackhammer (Danny DeVito), who owns the struggling Moron Mountain amusement park, dispatches a team of aliens known as the Nerdlucks to abduct Bugs Bunny and his Looney Tunes pals – Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester, Tweety, et al. – and bring them back to Moron Mountain, where he will turn them into an attraction.

Bugs tries to deflate the plan by challenging the diminutive Nerdlucks to a basketball game. But the aliens magically steals the powers of several pro players, including Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing, transforming them into the Monstars. Fearing certain defeat, Bugs tracks down Jordan and recruits him to help the Looney Tunes team win.

A pair of 1985 Nike Air Jordan 1s, made for and worn by U.S. basketball player Michael Jordan, are seen in an undated handout photo ahead of an online auction by Sotheby's New York. Sotheby's/Handout via Reuters

Seven-foot pro players were recruited to play the Monstars. Dressed in green-screen suits that covered their bodies, they would act out the scenes playing basketball with Jordan while animators watched on the sidelines. They would later draw the action based on what they had witnessed on the court.

Although the filming of Space Jam was the primary focus, Jordan was also determined to get his body back in prime shape for the upcoming season. So Warners built a massive structure on the lot near the set with a full-size basketball court, numerous weight machines and other exercise equipment.

Jordan would invite pros from in and out of town to come play and work out at what became known as the “Jordan Dome.” Among the players showing up were Rodman, Ewing, Charles Oakley and Reggie Miller.

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“Rather than going to play at the park, the pros would go to the Jordan Dome,” said veteran NBC sportscaster Ahmad Rashad. “It would be like a playground scrimmage. It was serious business.”

Pytka said he and Jordan would sometimes play one-on-one on the court. The daily schedule was structured to make the experience easier for Jordan: “There was a late call to the set, a two-hour lunch break, and we would wrap early.”

At times, public relations folks would bring entourages from China and Japan to the set to take pictures with the star. “Drove Michael nuts,” Pytka said.

Although the film received mixed reviews, “Space Jam” was a huge hit with audiences, grossing a reported US$230 million (HK$1.8 billion) worldwide.