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‘Drove Michael crazy’: ‘Space Jam’ director on ups and downs of Jordan’s star turn

"Space Jam" director Joe Pytka, left, plays basketball with Michael Jordan on the green-screen set of the animated film, released in 1996.
(Joe Pytka)

The hit docuseriesThe Last Dance” discloses how Michael Jordan benefited from invaluable support throughout his Hall of Fame career from several key figures, including teammates Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman and coach Phil Jackson.

But there’s one off-the-court standout in Jordan’s MVP gallery that deserves a special mention. He’s definitely the most recognizable, thanks to his long ears, fluffy tail and a mischievous, sly demeanor that has charmed audiences young and old for decades.

Call him Bugs.

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.

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A peek inside ‘Jordan Dome,’ the massive basketball facility that Warner Bros. built for the superstar during filming of ‘Space Jam.’

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 last week. “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.”

The trio — Jordan, Pytka and Bugs — had worked together previously in 1992 and 1993, when Pytka, an award-winning commercial and music video director, directed two innovative commercials promoting Nike’s Air Jordan shoe line.

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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 zap the prowess 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.

Jordan and the iconic cartoon character share top billing for the film, which also features Bill Murray, Wayne Knight and a then-unknown Patricia Heaton, who would go on to become one of TV’s comedic leading ladies in “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Middle.” Jordan plays straight man to the Looney Tunes characters and their slapstick-y antics. One of the most memorable scenes features Bugs planting a big wet smooch on a less-than-pleased Jordan.

To make the basketball star more comfortable during filming, comedian and actor T.K. Carter (“Punky Brewster”) was brought on board to help him learn his lines. “T.K. was a terrific actor, and I wanted him to help Michael with his dialogue,” Pytka said. He also hired other comedians to interact directly with Jordan and fill in for the Looney Tunes characters that would be added to the film later.

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Michael Jordan, Joe Pytka and Jim Riswold, on Pytka's shoulders, in a still from the filming of an early spot for Nike's Air Jordans, "Rockababy."
Michael Jordan, left, Joe Pytka and Jim Riswold, on Pytka’s shoulders, in a still from the filming of an early spot for Nike’s Air Jordans, “Rockababy.” A few years later, Pytka would direct Jordan in “Space Jam.”
(Joe Pytka)

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.

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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.

“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.”

Not everything on the production ran smoothly. Pytka became frustrated with the complicated “politics” and the differing agendas of the studio, teams of executive producers and others. The initial script was bad, and, at first, inexperienced animators were attached.

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“The producers had no idea how to do animation,” Pytka said. “The different factions didn’t know what they had and they didn’t know how to do it. When they figured out how to do it, they insinuated themselves into the process.”

Pytka also wanted the script to be a little edgier, even suggesting that Spike Lee be brought in to punch up the material. He was turned down.

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.

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Although the film received mixed reviews, “Space Jam” was a huge hit with audiences, grossing a reported $230 million worldwide. It produced a hit soundtrack, highlighted by R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” And it raked in an additional sum from ancillary games, apparel, videos and other merchandise, Pytka said.

But when it was suggested that “Space Jam” is regarded as a classic, Pytka was more modest. “It’s a nice little film for Saturdays.”

Still, he has obvious pride about the continuing popularity of the movie.

“A friend of mine sent me a picture of her 4-year-old son watching it. She said she discovered it on Netflix and showed it to him. He now watches it every day. The French newspaper Le Monde said it was one of the best films to watch during the pandemic because it makes people feel good.”

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Pytka attributed the ongoing affection for “Space Jam” to Jordan.

“Michael is just magnificent,” he said. “His Highness? Please. When he’s in the air, he moves like a ghost.”


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