By Joel Dryden
CALGARY — Though he might not be in the good graces of Canadian basketball fans after eliminating the Toronto Raptors from the 2016 playoffs, Lebron James is this generation’s crossover star of the NBA. From hosting Saturday Night Live to a surprising comedic turn in Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, James is not only one of the greatest basketball stars of his generation, but also has assumed the role of NBA ambassador, ubiquitous not only on the court but off.
But James’ career has yet to reach its apex if the rumours swirling are to be believed – he could follow in Michael Jordan’s footsteps by starring alongside the Looney Tunes in the oft-rumoured Space Jam 2.
The original Space Jam, released in 1996, is a much-loved childhood favourite for those who grew up in the ‘90s. From Moron Mountain to Mike’s Secret Stuff, from I Believe I Can Fly to Bill Murray’s bizarre umbrella hat, many of us grew up wearing out our VHS tapes watching Jordan team with Bugs Bunny to defeat the Monstars.
“I was the biggest Michael Jordan fan, but I also loved Looney Tunes as well. For a kid who is obsessed with a sports player, to see them with their favourite cartoon character, that’s pretty remarkable,” says Daniel Bennett, also known as the hip-hop artist Transit. “I remember studying every single part of the movie. One year, I got the Space Jam bedding set, I think a Space Jam comforter, Space Jam wallpaper, Space Jam posters all around my room.”
Bennett, who purchased a Tune Squad jersey donning “22” – Murray’s number on the team – recalled his experience wearing the jersey at his first show in Chicago.
“I came out to the Space Jam theme at the concert. I think they didn’t like it as much as I liked it,” he says. “But it’s such a nostalgic thing. I think it was a lot of people’s first encounter with basketball. Anytime I wear that Tune Squad shirt at a bar there’s always some enthusiastic drunk guy who gives me a hug and says, ‘That shirt’s amazing.’”
One of the men responsible for the movie that captivated a generation of Bugs Bunny and/or Chicago Bulls fans is Herschel Weingrod, a screenwriter with a resume of nostalgic best-ofs, including Kindergarten Cop, Trading Places and Twins. Weingrod was brought on with partner Timothy Harris to rewrite an earlier draft of the script producers weren’t quite satisfied with.
“First of all, in order to write it, we had to watch about 30 years of Looney Tunes cartoons. To write for Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and Sylvester and Tweety and all of those characters, you have to understand their voices,” he says. “So there was Looney Tunes police. We would hand in a draft and they would say, ‘Bugs would never say that.’ (We’d say), ‘Actually, let me refer you to a cartoon from 1946…’”
As Weingrod and Harris got to work revising the script, producers asked to pair which NBA stars they would like to get involved. They got whoever they asked for – stars like Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Muggsy Bogues and Shawn Bradley.
“Oh! This is sounding pretty interesting,” Weingrod says. “Then I said, ‘What if Michael is playing golf with Larry Bird and Bill Murray?’ [They said,] ‘OK.’”
After Stan (Wayne Knight) is flattened by the Monstars and the match appears lost for the Tune Squad, Murray – who plays himself – appears, volunteering to be the team’s fifth member. After Jordan scores the winning points, Murray puts an end to his NBA career and promptly retires.
“Most of what Bill Murray says he just makes up on the spot and it’s just so brilliant and it makes the writer look 50 times better,” Weingrod says. “He made up that beautiful part, there’s a scene where he says to Michael Jordan, ‘You’re not playing anymore and I was wondering, I’m white and I’m slow and I can’t jump but I can dribble and I can shoot, do you think I have a shot?”
Jordan tells Murray no, to which Murray asks, “It’s because I’m white?”
“And Michael says, ‘No, Larry Bird is white.’ And Bill Murray made this thing up about, ‘Larry’s not white, Mike. Larry is clear,’” Weingrod says. “I mean, shit like that he just made it up on the spot and he’s cracking everybody up [on set].”
Weingrod has heard the rumours about a Lebron-led Space Jam 2, but he and Harris have yet to be contacted to help out on a potential sequel. Like many fans of the original, he thinks a retread – such as Lebron teaming with the Looney Tunes again to defeat a new group of space aliens – wouldn’t satisfy.
“Someone’s going to have to come up with new twists on the familiar story that still resonates with people. If you end up alienating the fanbase from the earlier one, you’re going to get the kind of reaction like, ‘Ben Affleck is Batman?’” he says. “I was reading comments about Space Jam and half the people didn’t even like the first one but even those ones were saying, ‘No, no, leave it alone.’”
If Space Jam 2 does come to fruition, Bennett says he will be front of line.
“After becoming a dad and watching it again with my son and him loving it from his perspective, that’s when I’m like, this movie is going to become a life-long thing,” he says. “If number two comes out, I’m going to drop everything I’m doing and take my kid out of class to go watch it.”
Screenwriter Herschel Weingrod looks back
Prior to Space Jam playing at the Plaza Theatre June 17, the screenwriter of that film – and Kindergarten Cop, Twins and Trading Places, among other ‘90s classics – answered some questions about those VHS tapes you burned through as a child.
BeatRoute: How does it feel to know many of the films you’ve written have become cult classics?
Herschel Weingrod: It’s always a surprise and an honour that people still do view that work fondly. It seems to hold up well for lots of people. People throw lines at me, they quote lines, which I find amusing. “It’s not a tumour!” and all that stuff. I did a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) last year and most of the questions were either about the alleged sequel to Space Jam or they just asked me, “is it a tumour?”
BR: Trading Places (1983) was very early on in your career. How did you get that movie made?
HW: We met someone at Warner Brothers and he said (the idea) is very funny, but if I can’t get Richard Pryor to play the black guy, how can we make the movie? I said, well there’s this kid on SNL, Eddie Murphy, and he said, “I don’t think he’s going to be a movie star.”
Then we got a meeting at Paramount and we told these other producers the same pitch. They got all excited and Paramount made a deal with us to write the script. The rest turned out rather well. It was like a happy accident.
BR: Are you involved with Kindergarten Cop 2?
HW: Kindergarten Cop 2 was released straight to video with Dolph Lundgren in the Arnold role. They never asked us if we wanted to be involved.
BR: Will you watch it?
HW: If they send me a Blu-ray I’ll watch it. I have no intention of paying to see it.
BR: If you were brought onto Space Jam 2, what would be your story treatment?
HW: You’d have to invent some new really villainous group of cartoons and Bugs Bunny has to recruit Lebron James and some other NBA stars to help them beat these guys. (Maybe) they’re going to have the NBA guys’ powers taken away. I don’t know if you can duplicate that. It’s just obvious theft, it’s not original thinking.
Space Jam plays June 17 at the Plaza Theatre. The Fifth Reel will be serving up a special theme drink for the evening – a little something called Mike’s Secret Stuff. For tickets, visit fifthreel.ca.AB, Alberta, Herschel Weingrod, Plaza Theatre, Space Jam, The Fifth Reel