How we finally got the 'Space Jam' sequel we deserve, 25 years later

ByTory Barron ESPN logo
Friday, July 16, 2021

On Friday, the most highly anticipated film of a sports-movie-deprived generation, er -- the summer, "Space Jam: A New Legacy," starring four-time NBA champion LeBron James, has its worldwide premiere.

If you had told the creators of the OG "Space Jam" -- the first movie to be shot in a virtual studio -- that their $80 million film that grossed $250.2 million in 1996 would still be influencing the pop culture landscape in 2021, I doubt they would have believed you. Who am I kidding? They had Michael Jordan, so they probably knew.

It seems like just yesterday NBA fans and movie buffs were diligently sleuthing around the internet and dissecting James' social media activity for any signs that "The Chosen One" would reprise or reboot the 1996 cinematic masterpiece. But in truth, the journey to a "Space Jam" sequel has been long (25 years, to be exact) and arduous. Probably even more than you realize. As the Toon Squad finally gets the band back together, let's revisit how we got here.

Feb. 21, 2014: Warner Bros. announces a plan to develop a 'Space Jam' sequel with LeBron James.

Deadline reported that broadcasting veteran Dick Ebersol's sons, Charlie and Willie Ebersol, had been hired by Warner Bros. to develop the sequel as a starring vehicle for the then-Miami Heat star.

According to Deadline, Charlie had a preexisting relationship with the NFL thanks tohis "NFL Characters Unite" series on USA Network, and he reportedly was eager to do the same with the NBA by producing the film. Willie was responsible for the script, which would be his first screenplay.

July 22, 2015: James signs production deal with Warner Bros., following his acting debut in 'Trainwreck'.

If 2014 had generated rumblings, 2015 created a roar. Rumors for a "Space Jam" sequel ran rampant when James, then with Cleveland Cavaliers, and his production company SpringHill Entertainment, inked a deal with the Burbank studio for television, movies and digital content.

The partnership came on the heels of King James' performance in the Judd Apatow-Amy Schumer comedy "Trainwreck."

I knew the man could act when he delivered, with conviction, the line: "What's the difference between Miami and Cleveland? It's the same." I also have LeBron's cameo in the film to thank for helping me discover my love of "Downton Abbey," but I digress.

July 28, 2015: In a Twitter Q&A, LeBron mentions doing a sequel/reboot of 'Space Jam.'

LeBron didn't confirm our suspicions, but at least he gave us something.

In a Twitter Q&A (remember when those were a thing?), he indulged a fan's inquiry into whether or not James' signing with Warner Bros, who had recently renewed trademarks for "Space Jam," meant what we thought it meant.

Wait, let's go back to the late 1990s

I'm calling for a quick intermission. (See how I worked that film jargon in there?)

To fully understand how we got here, and waited 25 years, we need to go back to the beginning. In the context of this story, that means the mid-1990s. A time whenBone Thugs-n-Harmony and Celine Dion ruled the Billboard charts and "Space Jam" was the 10th-highest grossing film of the year.

In 1997, high off the success of the film and with director Joe Pytka and animators set to return, Warner Bros. began plotting the sequel, which would include Oscar-winner Mel Brooks voicing the villain.

"I felt the whole point was -- like a lot of sequels -- just to cash in on the success of the original," Bob Camp, a Warner Bros. animator on "Space Jam," told the website Animated Views in 2012. "It wasn't like it was a great idea that people wanted to make a movie out of. It was just, 'Hey, Michael Jordan is a cash cow. Let's milk him for all we can.'"

There was just one problem: They had no Jordan. One title into the Chicago Bulls' second three-peat, MJ wasn't interested in a sequel. But that didn't stop Warner Bros. from trying.

Refusing to be thwarted, the studio began pursuing other options. According to Camp, it began working on -- wait for it -- "Spy Jam" with Jackie Chan and "Race Jam" with Jeff Gordon.

While I would love to further examine an alternate reality in which "Race Jam" and "Spy Jam" exist, I will instead inform you that neither made it to production.

Pytka, the original film's director, told Complex in 2016 that he was brought to the studio at one point to discuss a sequel with another athlete: Tiger Woods.

"There will never be another Michael Jordan," Pytka said in the interview. "There's only been two athletes with that kind of charisma: Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. At one point a long time back, I was called in to look at a script for 'Space Jam 2' and Tiger Woods was written into that. It never came to be. It was a strange script. But Tiger was part of it."

Surprisingly, that one didn't happen either. But perhaps even more surprisingly, there was one other sequel spinoff in consideration: "Skate Jam" with Tony Hawk.

You really can't make this stuff up.

Now that you're sufficiently bummed out that we were deprived of a "Space Jam" expanded universe, let us return our attention to how we got the sequel we deserve.

Sept. 19, 2018: The movie gets a(nother) director, an Oscar-nominated producer and confirmation that Bugs and LeBron are in the building.

Big-time movies need big-time players. Once LeBron was officially on board to do the movie, the film's protagonist brought in the big guns.

On Sept. 19, 2018, the Hollywood Reporter revealed that Academy Award nominee Ryan Coogler would be coming aboard in his first project since directing "Black Panther." His filmography boasts "Creed" and "Fruitvale Station." So yeah, his credentials speak for themselves.

In addition to the huge get of Coogler as producer,Terence Nance, who created HBO's "Random Acts of Flyness" and directed the experimental film "The Oversimplification of Her Beauty," came aboard to direct.

"I loved his vision for 'Black Panther,'" James told The Hollywood Reporter of Coogler at the time, adding that when he was a kid growing up in Akron, Ohio, there were no black superheroes. "So for Ryan to be able to bring that to kids, it's amazing."

When SpringHill Entertainment tweeted a picture of an animated locker room that featured the names attached to the project, it confirmed production was going down for real.

Sept. 28, 2018: Kobe Bryant says he'd like to direct the movie if offered; not interested in a cameo.

Some people view "Space Jam" as a children's movie, others view it as another way to qualify the GOAT debate. Or, at least Kobe Bryant fans did in 2018, when they took to Twitter in droves to voice their outrage over LeBron being cast alongside Bugs Bunny instead of the Black Mamba.

While their impassioned reasoning that the five-time NBA champion's pedigree surpassed that of LeBron's and that Kobe shared far more similarities to Michael Jordan than King James checked out, they were taking for granted that Kobe actually wanted to star in the film. He did not.

When asked about a possible cameo in the movie in a 2018 interview with Access Online, the late, great Bryant said: "I've got to be honest, man. Being in front of the camera was never something that excited me."

Kobe expounded that he would consider directing the movie if the opportunity were presented to him. "But being in front of the camera is something that I would never [do]."

June 20, 2019: (All-)star-studded cast of NBA and WNBA players announced.

If the sequel is unable to live up to the legacy of its predecessor, it won't be for a lack of talent lining up against LeBron and the Toon Squad.

Against? Yep, in this iteration of the film, rather than the Monstars as the primary basketball antagonists (pour one out for MJ's legendary foes), LeBron & Co. will take on the "Goon Squad," a series of AI-created digitized versions of current NBA and WNBA stars.

Among the stars trying to take down LeBron and the Looney Tunes is thePortland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard as "Chronos," theLos Angeles Lakers' Anthony Davis as "The Brow," the Los Angeles Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike as "Arachnneka," the Phoenix Mercury's Diana Taurasi as "White Mamba" and theGolden State Warriors' Klay Thompson as "Wet-Fire."

Once I got past the unfairness of the fact that Thompson has to go by the moniker of "Wet-Fire," which sounds more like a heartburn-inducing flavor offered at my local Wingstop than that of an intimidating basketball super villain, I was able to acknowledge that the Goon Squad is stacked.

ThePhoenix Suns' Chris Paul, the Sparks' Chiney Ogwumike, The Warriors' Draymond Green and the Lakers' Kyle Kuzmaalso are slated to appear in the film.

No disrespect to the the OG film's supporting cast of Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Shawn Bradley and Larry Johnson, but in a best-of-seven series I've got the Goon Squad in four.

July 16, 2019: Damian Lillard describes 'significant' role in the film.

In July 2019, Damian Lillard gave us some insight into the film. Not in the spoiler sense, but in the vein of his involvement. Namely, how long he had to film and why he had to shave his facial hair.

"That was different," Lillard told of shooting the movie. "You all know I've always had a babyface, so this season I grew a beard out, it took me like six months to grow it. I show up on the set, they make me shave it off for the animation. That's why I look like this now. It was bare-faced for the animation, 15-hour days, showing up on the set at 6 a.m., leaving at 9 p.m. It was long."

The Portland star, who spent a week in Hollywood being recruited to the Lakers by LeBron, I mean, filming, added of his role, "It's significant, it's not a cameo."

July 16, 2019: The movie gets a new (and final) director.

On the same day Dame Time detailed his involvement in the production, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that "Girls Trip" and "Night School" director Malcolm D. Lee was taking over for Terrance Nance on the Warner Bros. sequel.

Sept. 16, 2019: Production wraps with LeBron delivering a helluva farewell speech.

LeBron, phenomenal basketball player and world-class motivational speaker? On the final day of shooting, the film's leading man delivered a heartfelt speech to the cast and crew.

King James began by reflecting on what the opportunity to be in the sequel meant to him, saying, "I'm gonna be honest completely with you guys -- when I found out about the project, I was like it's 'Space Jam!' It's a movie that I grew up watching. People in the movie that I idolize. I was like absolutely, I gotta do it. There's no way I can turn down 'Space Jam!'"

The Lakers star also joked that he almost reconsidered his commitment upon learning that the production schedule was so demanding.

Then, he quickly shifted back to disarming sincerity.

"I'm just a small kid from Akron, Ohio -- a very small town outside of Cleveland. From a single-parent household, I'm the only child, my mother had absolutely nothing. She was walking around high school when she was 16 years old and she was pregnant with me as a high school sophomore. So I'm really not supposed to be here. Growing up in the inner city, as an African American kid, there's no way you're supposed to f---ing make it out. And, the fact that I'm who I am as an African American adult now with three kids of my own, and I made it out of the situations that I was in. This s--- is like extra credit for me, man."

LeBron closed his remarks by thanking everyone involved in the film saying, "Ya'll say you appreciate me, but I'm s--- without ya'll."

April 3, 2021: Zendaya is announced as the voice of Lola Bunny and the first trailer is released, revealing the movie takes place in the larger Warner universe.

You know how with rap songs if you want to ensure it's going to be a hit, you put Drake on the track? Well, Zendaya is the actress equivalent of that.

Basically what I'm saying, is that the moment news broke that Zendaya had been tapped to voice Lola Bunny is the moment I bought all the way in on this thing.

If that revelation wasn't enough cause for excitement, the first trailer went way harder than it had to.

In the first peek at the film, it became clear "Space Jam: A New Legacy" takes place in the larger Warner Bros. universe. For the untrained eye, that means cameos aplenty.

In the trailer alone, the Night King and a "Game of Thrones" dragon, King Kong, Batman, Joker, Robin, Penguin, The Mask, Harry Potter, the Flintstones, Iron Giant, Pennywise (from "It"), Mad Max and an agent from "The Matrix" could all be spotted in the crowd.

June 10, 2021: Second trailer gets to hooping and provides a first look at some of the basketball stars.

For lack of a better way to put this, the second trailer pumped up the jam. (It's a "Space Jam" article, what do you want from me?)

We got to see more action on the court and more of LeBron's daunting quest to put together an elite team in an effort to rescue his son from the grips of an evil algorithm who lives in the Warner Bros. server-verse (played by Don Cheadle) who wants to play him in basketball.

Bron's list of potential teammates included Gandolf, King Kong and Superman. While I'm not sure what King Kong would do in the paint, Gandolf would undoubtedly be an asset on both ends of the floor.

At this point, I'm sipping the Kool-Aid and fully prepared to claim this film could pull a "Toy Story 3" or "Godfather Part II" and outshine it's namesake.

July 9, 2021: Soundtrack released with Dame D.O.L.L.A.

The "Space Jam: A New Legacy" soundtrack saw the OG film's soundtrack Seal, Quad City DJ's, Busta Rhymes and Coolio and raised it with Chance The Rapper, Lil Uzi Vert, Saweetie, John Legend, the Jonas Brothers and one Dame D.O.L.L.A., aka Chronos, aka Dame Lillard.

The musical stylings of the sequel and its much-ballyhooedpredecessor have one thing in common -- aside from the artist Salt-N-Pepa, who appears on both albums -- and that's a desire to be legendary.

"We knew that with the soundtrack for this one, that whole idea of making a soundtrack for this generation, but still having that melting pot, was something we all really wanted," Spencer Beighley, head of film at SpringHill, said in a feature for Billboard.

It wouldn't be unfair to assert that the new soundtrack has a greater legacy to live up to than the new film. As someone who still gets irrationally hyped upon hearing the words "it's your chance, do your dance," it's good to know Beighley understands the gravity of the situation.

Premiere: Bron and Bosh together again

Whether the movie is a huge success or a total flop, at least we'll always have this pure moment at the premiere to fall back on.

Chris Bosh, clad in a Kobe Bryant No. 8 Lakers jersey, came out to support his former teammate on his big night.

And I, from behind my keyboard, got significantly more emotional than was warranted watching two-thirds of the Big Three embrace.

Where's Dwyane Wade when you need him?

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