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To Space Jam and Beyond: Can LeBron James Become a Real Movie Star?

Rumors have been circulating about a Space Jam sequel starring LeBron James. But what if James has more in mind than just walking in Michael Jordan's foosteps?
July 30, 2015, 11:55am
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Like the ingénue character in All About Eve, LeBron James continues not to squelch the idea that he's readying a Space Jam sequel—thus usurping Michael Jordan's iconic 1996 performance, in which he so memorably saved Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, et al. from indentured servitude at the hands of the evil other-planetary theme-park owner Swackhammer.

Right now, I like to imagine, James is hearing pitches from writers on how to LeBron-a-size that plot, perhaps even taking a lunch with Lena Dunham to get her opinion. The Space Jam sequel became a fast-moving pop-culture discussion point last week, complete with naysayers, when James's SpringHill Entertainment struck a deal with Warner Bros. to develop movie and TV projects. This week, during what I didn't know was called a Twitter "Ask Me Anything" session, James responded to a question about his possible updating of the MJ/Looney Tunes fantasia by tweeting, "Maybe… Guess we'll just have to wait and see."

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Being 31 and single when the original Space Jam came out, I never saw it, and so last week I rented it on iTunes. It's cute. I had no idea Bill Murray was in it. More to the point, I had totally forgotten that Shawn Bradley once existed in the NBA.

Jordan, I was reminded, had at the time thrown his best-player-ever brand for a loop, retiring after the '93 season to play baseball for a year before returning to the Bulls. To that end, the best part of the movie is early on, when we see him with minor-league baseball's Double-A Birmingham Barons, striking out to the effusive compliments of his teammates.

James, who was about to turn 12 when the movie came out, is now, interestingly, at a similar superstar station in his career. His transcendence has long since been a given, he's a global entity, and his sports resume features championships with Miami and an unforgettable performance in last season's NBA Finals.

Space Jam was shot in the summer of 1995, the season after Jordan returned to the Bulls, post-All-Star break. He only played in 17 regular-season games, and the Bulls lost to the Orlando Magic in the second round of the playoffs. Then he made Space Jam. The film's producer, Ivan Reitman, told USA Today in 2013 that Jordan had a special court built on the Warner Bros. lot for workouts. Jordan went on to win three more rings.

Might James be feeling the same mid-career itch? His biggest project is still the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the fact that he is getting nice notices right now for his turn in Trainwreck doesn't feel coincidental, either in terms of the Space Jam chatter or his own post-NBA ambitions.

More than Space Jam 2, I wonder if he's serious about acting after basketball. But even more than wondering this, I wonder how far we are from witnessing our first-ever superstar athlete turned star actor.

Sports and entertainment keep hurtling toward each other at ever increasing speeds, cross-dressing in one another's metaphors and clichés. Jake Gyllenhaal recently went on ESPN radio to plug his new boxing movie, Southpaw. When then host Colin Cowherd purred about Gyllenhaal's competitive fire for landing good roles, Gyllenhaal began his answer by saying, "I pride myself on being a good teammate."

The difference between professional acting and professional athletics is that one requires craft and a lack of self-consciousness, and the other requires craft, a lack of self-consciousness, and a talent that very few human beings have. In other words, a Gyllenhaal could never be a LeBron, but couldn't a LeBron become a Gyllenhaal?

I'm surprised it hasn't happened yet. I tried to think of an athlete who's come close, and gave up at Ray Allen's tender performance in He Got Game. Googling didn't help—there was Esther Williams, and then you're into your Arnold Schwarzeneggers (bodybuilding?) and Fred Dryers. Who am I missing? Shaquille O'Neal, an inveterate ham, does have an impressively long IMDb page. Perhaps I should check out his performance as Officer Fluzoo in Grown Ups 2.

Comedies, of course, offer safe self-parody of the star athlete's existing brand (which only makes the fact that Allen did He Got Game in his prime seem all the more unusual). Here's guessing James will give a fresher performance in Space Jam 2 than Jordan did in the original. James is at once looser-seeming about his insane fame than Jordan was and a product of a different cultural moment. In Space Jam, you can practically see the pedestal Jordan is standing on. But if I recall 1996 correctly, someone like Bill Simmons, a knowledgeable-fan personality, and someone like Magic Johnson, a one-of-the-greatest-players-that-ever-lived personality, could never have shared a TV studio and analyzed the first half of an NBA game from basically the same platform of credibility with viewers.

Presumably, Space Jam 2 will only require that James project his worldwide appeal onto an existing franchise. Money in the bank. What would be more interesting is if he were to shock everybody and cast himself as Swackhammer.