In Case You Missed It: NBA in Baltimore

Chapter 9: Los Angeles

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Stage 22 at Warner Bros. had gone from a movie shoot to a receiving line.

One by one, bigwig after bigwig, glad-hander after glad-hander, men and women had started to come to the studio daily just to meet the star. Shake his hand. Take his picture. Rub his head. Whatever they wanted, the star obliged, one interruption after another, smiling through gritted teeth.

"The first week of shooting, nobody came to the stage until they started looking at the dailies [unedited footage shot each day] of Michael, and they were blown away," "Space Jam" director Joe Pytka said inside his home office. "Then they couldn't stay away. It got out of hand for awhile after they saw this was going to work. He was great. Then they were using him for publicity and every day they'd bring in some dignitary to meet him and that started to piss him off."

One day, about halfway through the six-week process, a fed-up Jordan called a timeout to confer with Pytka. They had a rapport from Pytka's directing Jordan's Nike and Gatorade commercials.

"Michael turned to me and said, 'I thought you said this would be [expletive] fun,' " Pytka said. "I said, 'It should have been.' He said, 'So why isn't it?' "

"I just think he hated the whole experience, every aspect of it," Pytka said. "Remember, in basketball, you're in total control of everything. In a movie, you're at the mercy of everybody -- the director, cinematographer and in this case Bugs Bunny and a green screen.

"Standing in front of a camera and remember your lines, acting is a devastatingly difficult profession, trying to create those emotions. ... We were very, very careful that Michael was comfortable when he came on the set. The stuff that irritated him was the PR stuff."

In the late summer of 1995, months removed from his return from his first retirement, Jordan was co-starring with Bugs Bunny in what would turn out to be a box-office hit. With apologies to Scottie Pippen, Jordan has never had a more popular or profitable sidekick.

Pytka wanted Michael J. Fox to share the marquee in the role of publicist Stan Podolak, but finding an established star willing to work with a novice and a cartoon character wasn't easy. Jason Alexander of "Seinfeld" fame said, "Thanks, but no thanks," according to Pytka. Same for Chevy Chase. They settled for Wayne Knight -- Newman on "Seinfeld."

"Nobody wanted to be in this movie," Pytka said.

It was understandable. "Space Jam" combined animation with live action, not to mention a scene-stealing professional athlete making his first movie. Jordan was an accidental movie star, brought to Hollywood after his longtime agent, David Falk, approached Warner Bros. with an idea borne out of the wildly popular 1992 Super Bowl commercial "Hare Jordan." In the Nike spot combining action and animation, Jordan and Bugs play one-on-one basketball in what amounts to the movie's trailer.

"Originally, I just couldn't think of a bigger star to pair Michael with than Bugs Bunny, so that's how it started," Jim Riswold, the ad man behind the "Hare Jordan" commercial, said from his Portland, Ore., home. He also was the brains behind successful Nike campaigns such as "Bo Knows" and "I Am Tiger Woods."

"I am forever astonished that any commercial I did was popular, let alone have a movie made from it, but if it put Bugs back in the public eye, that's great," said Riswold, a cartoon buff. "The best thing about that spot to me was that after it was out, Michael thanked me personally and told me it was his kids' favorite commercial -- because of Bugs Bunny, not him."

Falk pushed for the movie, as much for its merchandising potential as for its box-office appeal. Warner Bros. had been looking for the right vehicle to revive its "Looney Tunes" franchise and Falk sold the studio on Jordan's charisma and well-established track record as America's foremost pitchman.

"We believe Michael Jordan transcends the world of sports," Falk said in his appeal to Warner Bros. I t was during filming of "Space Jam" that the Bulls first entertained the idea of signing Dennis Rodman. During a break on the set, before the Bulls' interest in The Worm was public, Pytka asked Jordan why he didn't want to play with Rodman.

"Michael says, 'Because he is a crazy man and the only person I know who's crazier is you,' " Pytka said. "I was, like, 'Are you an idiot? All he does is play defense and rebound. You need somebody else to shoot?' ... So where was Rodman that night? Staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel where Michael was staying because they were scheduled to have a meeting to get to know each other better.

"From that day on, he would call Rodman, 'your boy' ... We had constant arguments about everything. It was great."

Jordan spent hours away from the set inside a temporary indoor gymnasium Warner Bros. built near the studio especially for Jordan. NBA stars such as Reggie Miller and Magic Johnson stopped by for pickup games, and Jordan worked out with trainer Tim Grover. It was in that mini-gym where Jordan, committed to reshaping his body for basketball after a foray into baseball, would lay the groundwork for the Bulls' 1995-96 championship season.

Pytka called the gym the "Jordan Dome," and the director took great pains to stay on a strict production schedule that called for Jordan to start filming at 9 a.m., work till 1 p.m., break two hours for lunch and a workout, and end the day no later than 6 p.m.

"It was like a playground up there, a big hangout," Pytka said.

Pytka's creative and technical genius led to an unorthodox way of shooting Jordan's basketball scenes against animated characters -- his Airness versus air, if you will.

Pytka hired a troupe of comedy actors, covered in green on a green screen set, to simulate the cartoon characters playing against Jordan. The actors ran around on their knees so Jordan would be looking where he should to interact believably with Bugs and Daffy Duck. The green covering was replaced with animation in post production.

Cinesite, the company that created "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," merged the live action and animation with the input of 150 animators. All Jordan had to do was keep a straight face while playing basketball against men dressed in green suits.

"That way he could play against a guy, not a stick, which would have been ridiculous for him," Pytka said. "One day a guy came who was 6-10, 350, and we had to put him in a green suit. Michael cracked up."

Jordan's acting itself was never going to get him confused with Sydney Poitier, his favorite actor. But for a guy making his first movie, given the time constraints Jordan was under, Pytka believed Jordan delivered a solid performance. In basketball terms, it would have been a 15-point, 7-rebound effort.

"He was playing himself, the easiest thing in the world to do, so he was serviceable," Pytka said. "I broke the scenes down so he wouldn't have to sustain a performance. A third of the way through, the editor wanted me to do full takes, which made it a little more difficult. But Michael was a foil for Bugs, so he didn't have to act."

Jordan gave himself an honest but unflattering self-evaluation at the 1996 New York City premiere.

"I'm a learning actor, I can't say I'm good," Jordan said. "This is a whole new arena. I've done commercials, which means four-hour, six-hour days. This is a long process, very meticulous, especially when you're trying to match up with an animated character you can't see."

The stat sheet for "Space Jam" is impressive. Its box-office box score: The film cost an estimated $90 million to make but grossed $90.4 million in U.S. theaters and $230 million worldwide. Jordan's salary has never been disclosed. The soundtrack went platinum six times and the hit single "I Believe I Can Fly," by Chicago's R. Kelly, won a Grammy. And Falk was right: The merchandising was even bigger, selling $1.2 billion. There are 78 "Space Jam" tie-in products that bear Michael Jordan's likeness, everything from edible cake decorations to shower curtains to toothbrush holders.

One industry insider estimated the global economic impact of the "Space Jam" franchise over the years at $4 billion to $6 billion, a number Pytka says sounds accurate. "It just shows you the power Michael had that transcended sport," Pytka said. "Try making a movie like that with Kobe Bryant ... please. And Shaq did a couple movies that tanked. Dwight Howard wants to do a movie but, really? LeBron [James]?

"No. ... Nobody has what Michael has. Ever."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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