‘Space Jam,’ My Dad and Me

When I was 10, I thought the coolest person in the world was Michael Jordan. The second-coolest person in the world was my dad. He played in an amateur men’s soccer league; I preferred basketball, so MJ got the edge. Like a lot of kids who grew up in the ’90s, I revered the seemingly unbeatable Chicago Bulls, and I was devastated when, on Oct. 6, 1993, Jordan announced that he would be retiring from the NBA to play minor-league baseball with the Birmingham Barons. I liked baseball even less than I liked soccer.

Jordan’s triumphant return to basketball in March 1995 was a moment of intense relief and exhilaration for me; and when the Bulls won their fourth championship, in the summer of 1996, my enthusiasm for Jordan reached a fever pitch. So when “Space Jam” debuted that autumn, I could not have been more excited. Michael Jordan teaming up with Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes in a feature film about a high-stakes basketball game? It was as if they had scanned my brain and made a movie of my innermost fantasies. I begged my dad to take me to see it, and the minute it was over, I begged him to take me to see it again.

He was not especially impressed with “Space Jam,” but it was everything I dreamed it would be. First, it was hilarious. The Nerdlucks, a cabal of short, wormlike aliens who smack one another around like the Three Stooges, had me in stitches; my friends and I impersonated their screechy, helium-pitched voices for months, to gales of approving schoolyard laughter. Jordan’s bumbling, nebbish assistant Stan — played by Wayne Knight, whom I knew as the guy who gets smeared by a dilophosaurus in “Jurassic Park,” another childhood favorite — was hysterically funny. And of course the Looney Tunes cracked me up. When the Tasmanian Devil spins around a basketball court and cleans it single-handedly in a matter of seconds, declaring it “lemony fresh” — that seemed like the funniest thing I had ever heard in my life.

What I loved most about “Space Jam” was the candid glimpse it seemed to offer of Jordan’s life off the court. I had seen him in action, and in interviews as well as in commercials. But “Space Jam” showed me a family side of Jordan. Here was the star talking to his wife. Here was Jordan watching TV with his kids. And here was a flashback of a young Jordan, shooting hoops in the backyard, talking about his hopes and aspirations with his own dad.

His father, played by Thom Barry, has only a small role in “Space Jam”: He appears in the first scene of the movie, watching his son drop bucket after bucket in the moonlight. “Do you think if I get good enough, I can go to college?” asks the young Michael, played by Brandon Hammond. “You get good enough, you can do anything you want to,” the elder Jordan replies. Mike starts rattling off his dreams: “I want to go to North Carolina … I want to play on the championship team … then I want to play in the NBA.”

His dad takes the ball and says it’s time for bed. But Michael has one more dream to mention. “Once I’ve done all that,” Michael says, beaming up at his father, “I want to play baseball — just like you, Dad.”

Last April, as the coronavirus was sending most of the world into lockdown, my dad died suddenly in his home late one night of a heart attack. He was 58. He’d been in immaculate health. We were extremely close, and spoke or texted every day. I was shattered.

Around the same time, ESPN began to air “The Last Dance,” the network’s 10-part documentary series about Jordan and the ’90s Chicago Bulls. I watched the show in the weeks following my dad’s death as a distraction from my grief. But I was not prepared for the revelations of the seventh episode, which deals with the death of Jordan’s father, James R. Jordan, at the hands of carjackers in 1993. I was struck by certain similarities: how close Michael had been to his father, how much he relied on him as a mentor and a friend. James Jordan died a week shy of 57.

After that episode, I put on “Space Jam.” Again, I was looking for distraction; again, I was floored by grief. That opening scene with young Michael and his father, such a beautiful testament to a parent’s influence, now seemed completely overwhelming. Three years after his death, Jordan Sr. had been resurrected onscreen for a heartfelt tribute. And what’s more, Jordan had invoked his father as the reason he was pursuing baseball — a career move most people had dismissed as ridiculous.

When Jordan announced his retirement, back in 1993, he told the gathered reporters that, although he was sad to leave the sport behind, he was glad his father had been alive to see his last game of basketball. The same line appears in “Space Jam,” in a restaging of the retirement news conference, and in light of the earlier scene with Jordan’s dad, the moment has a special emphasis.

At the time, pundits could not fathom why someone as gifted as Jordan would give up his place at the top of one sport just to start at the bottom in an entirely different one. Jordan used “Space Jam” in part to explain his decision, to explain that while it looked as if he was following a whim, he was actually following his father. In light of my own loss, it seemed to me that Jordan was pouring his heart out. Watching last year — nearly 25 years later — I was profoundly moved.

“Space Jam” was not really as candid about Michael Jordan’s home life as I believed when I was 10 and as “The Last Dance” made clear. Understandably, “Space Jam” did not touch on Jordan’s sometimes reckless gambling, nor on his embattled relationship with the media nor his weariness with the demands of fame. But the movie does contain some sincere and deep-seated wisdom about loss, which I was only able to see once I was was in mourning myself.

It’s about looking up to somebody and wanting to follow in his footsteps. To do right by him. To reflect back the love that person selflessly showed you. And although it might seem strange to say of a movie about Michael Jordan playing basketball with Bugs Bunny, seeing that truth in “Space Jam” after all these years helped me deal with the pain of what I’d lost.

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