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How Space Jam Sneakers Evolved Over Four Decades

author
Ian Stonebrook

This week, Space Jam: A New Legacy arrives after years of anticipation. 

When considering the partnership between the NBA’s leading man and the Looney Tunes legacy, the pairing has proven major in the world of cinema, merchandise, and footwear. Colliding worlds in the 1990s with Michael Jordan at the forefront, the same energy is amplified in 2021 with LeBron James restoring the series.

So, how did we get here, and what’s the Space Jam story meant in the greater context of footwear? Peep the timeline below as we retrace the footsteps of how hoops and cartoons added new texture to the shoe game in the ‘90s, ‘00s, ‘10s, and now ‘20s.

The Prequel: 1992 & 1993

Image via Nike

Heading into the 1991-92 NBA Season, Michael Jordan was the top player in the league and officially a champion.

He was also approaching 30.

Turning 29 just days after the Air Jordan 7 debuted at All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City, MJ’s megastar status and maturing mass appeal allowed the opportunity for a more significant, younger shift in marketing his Nikes.

Image via Heritage Auctions

Enter Warner Bros. and enter Bugs Bunny.

Teaming the 3D hooper with the 2D hopper proved a home run hit with the Saturday morning cartoon crowd, pairing MJ with Bugs in nationally televised commercials instead of Spike Lee-led campaigns seen before. 

Airing in 1992 with the “Hare Jordan” spot for the Air Jordan 7 and brought back in 1993 for the Air Jordan 8’s “Aerospace Jordan” clip, the partnership allowed Warner Bros. to appeal to a more adult audience while Nike continued to market MJ as king to the kids. It also allowed Bugs Bunny to be both bigger and more relevant when placed next to Mike.

After the Air Jordan 8 and the 1992-93 NBA Season, Michael Jordan shockingly retired from basketball, putting the partnership on hold. To the delight of fans worldwide, MJ returned to basketball in 1995, allowing the opportunity to discuss even bigger plans to play ball with Bugs Bunny on a larger screen.

On Set: 1995

Images via Jordan Brand / Nike

The 1992 “Hare Jordan” ad closed with Bugs Bunny suggesting, “This could be the start of a wonderful friendship.”

Well, he was right.

Image via Bruce W. Talamon/Warner Bros. Pictures via SLAM

Alluded in 1993’s “Aerospace Jordan” commercial, the idea of MJ and Bugs Bunny balling in outer space with Marvin the Martian and the ‘Scream Team’ had the legs to last longer than just one minute between TV timeouts.  By 1995, Space Jam was officially in the works with director Joe Pytka pulling for Chevy Chase and Michael J. Fox to be cast but eventually landing the likes of Bill Murray and Wayne Knight.

While the movie’s star, Michael Jordan, was stepping into a whole new world both literally and figuratively, his day job was still very much on his mind.

After coming back from baseball, the Chicago Bulls made the playoffs but were embarrassed by the up-and-coming Orlando Magic. For the first time since 1990, MJ’s season had ended early and without hardware. He did not like that one bit.

That summer, when Jordan wasn’t practicing his lines or launching up jumpers on a green screen, he worked tirelessly behind the scenes with trainer Tim Grover. “When [the team] lost to Orlando – that’s where the whole process started,” Grover recalled to Jordan Brand. “Initially, what they were going to do was just paint some lines on the parking lot and put a couple of hoops up and I was like, ‘No, no, no. This is Michael Jordan. We’re not playing basketball in a parking lot. Not gonna happen.’” 

Image via Streetopia

Famously, Warner Bros. built MJ a court called the Jordan Dome on set, with everyone from Magic Johnson to Reggie Miller pulling up for summer runs. The original Air Jordan 9 – a model Mike never wore in Chicago due to retirement – graced his feet when pumping iron.

Conversely, the “Columbia” Air Jordan 11 debuted on his feet during infamous shirts versus skins runs months before he’d unveil them publicly at All-Star Weekend in San Antonio. Additionally, Mike’s “Concord” 11s from the previous playoffs also appeared.

The Original: 1996

Image via Evan Agostini/Liaison/Sportscasting

On November 15, 1996, Space Jam opened up in theaters. The timing couldn’t have been better, hitting the big screen just days after Michael Jordan opened the 1995-96 season and received his fourth ring.

At that point in time, MJ was defending his title in the Air Jordan 12. In the cinemas, MJ was dueling it out with the Monstars in what we now know as the “Space Jam” Air Jordan 11.

Seen for the first time in sample form during the 1995 NBA Playoff series against the Orlando Magic when Mike was sent home early, the PE pair now had new life through film. At that time, fans couldn’t cop that colorway, only igniting the fever around the icy exclusive. 

Image via “Space Jam” (Pytka, 1996)

Elsewhere in Space Jam, MJ could be seen rocking the same Air Jordan 9s he had in the weight room as well as the model’s cleated equivalent, playing off his real-life baseball sabbatical. 

As Hypebeast notes, MJ can also be seen wearing the Nike Air Max Triax Extra, with the Air Jordan 10 “Shadow” making a cameo in his trophy room.

Image via Julian’s Live

The only other Mike model of note is the Air Jordan 2, worn by Bill Murray in 1994 retro form. Recently, this pair was auctioned, going for a whopping $22,400. While Mike’s publicist in the film, Wayne Knight of Seinfeld fame, wore the Nike Air Structure Triax on-screen, Mike’s agent in real life, David Falk, was making moves behind it.

In Space Jam, Falk clients ranging from Charles Barkley to Patrick Ewing appear, wearing their signature models of the moment on screen.

The Retros: 2000 & 2009

Air Jordan 11 “Space Jam” (2000), image via Depop

By the year 2000, Michael Jordan retired from basketball – again – and the newly formed Jordan Brand was working less with Warner Bros. on ad campaigns and more with musicians of the R&B and jazz variety.

However, when it came time to roll retros out in full force, the never before released “Space Jam” Air Jordan 11 hit retail for the first time on December 13, 2000. The reaction was absolutely bonkers, igniting the momentum around all types of retro Jordan products and starting the holiday season Air Jordan 11 trend.

AJ11 “Space Jam” (2009), image via SoleSavy

After almost a decade, the Air Jordan 11 “Space Jam” returned in 2009. While the market had matured to mass at that point regarding retro Jordans, the nostalgia around the cartoon kicks was still at a fever pitch. The pop-culture cache was through the roof, as the red-hot Lil Wayne referenced the retros in the all-star posse cut “Forever” off LeBron James’ More Than a Game documentary.

Foreshadowing?

A New Deal: 2014 – 2020

Image via Nike

Rumor has it; a Space Jam sequel was in the works as early as 1996. However, as soon as Michael Jordan was out, so was Warner Bros., pushing the idea into the distance for years to come. Though Wikipedia notes sequel pitches starring everyone from Jackie Chan to Jeff Gordon and Tiger Woods to Tony Hawk were considered, the only athlete fit to fill MJ’s shoes eventually proved to be LeBron James.

The Space Jam sequel buzz began years before the actual movie would arrive. Because of this, Nike and LeBron leaned into the anticipation by teasing many “Space Jam” themed shoes. This included a string of Zoom Soldiers in the famous Air Jordan 11 color blocking and eventual Nike LeBron 17s in high and low form playing off franchise themes.

AJ11 “Space Jam” (2016), image via Nike

In 2016, Jordan Brand celebrated 20 years of Space Jam by reuniting with Warner Bros. for a full-fledged, remastered Air Jordan 11 retro release. 

Cut to the same specifications as MJ’s big-screen samples; the shoes were said to be the highest-selling release in brand history. On top of that, 2015 also saw apparel and storytelling riffing off the original “Hare Jordan” campaign.

A New Legacy: 2021

Image via Nike

After all the build-up and buzz, Space Jam: A New Legacy is nowhere. The Nike LeBron 19 is the game shoe for the leading man, with a slew of sneakers set to celebrate both the moment and the Looney Tunes franchise.

From Air Force 1s to Chuck Taylors, low-top LeBron’s to crib colorways, there’s no stone left unturned on this summer sequel.

quotes

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