Twenty-five years ago this week, the final episode of ProStars, a short-lived animated television series starring Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, and Wayne Gretzky, aired on NBC. Part of the network's Saturday morning cartoon slate, the show had a 13-episode run before going gently into the good night of Hammerman, Star Wars: Droids, and Rubik The Amazing Cube. As bizarre as the show was, perhaps the most surprising thing about it is that a television series featuring three of the biggest sports stars of all time could flop so completely.
Part of the reason is that, even as a kids' cartoon, the show simply didn't work. No matter that the concept fit its era. "It seems so much weirder right now than when I was in the moment back then," Brad Kreisberg, the live action director for the show, recently told VICE Sports over the phone. "But from the '70s on, if you were a big, huge star, you probably had a cartoon attached to you."
Indeed, the list of celebrities who got their own Saturday morning cartoon is long, hilarious, and extremely 1990s: Gary Coleman, Mr. T, MC Hammer (see above), Macaulay Culkin, and Hulk Hogan, to name a few. Pro Stars epitomized the celebrity marketing of the pre-Internet era, in which slick advertisements and child-friendly cartoons served the same brand-building purposes now fulfilled by vanity apps and carefully-curated social media feeds.
ProStars, like many kids cartoons produced by the kids' show factory DiC, seized on celebrity star power by turning its real-life protagonists—Jordan, Jackson, and Gretzky—into animated superheroes confronted by nonsensical problems to solve, which they did in equally nonsensical ways.
Usually, the problem was that some villain stole something from a kid or kid's family, and the Pro Stars were needed to get it back. This basic narrative arc was spiced up with bizarre details that someone either very, very strange or very, very high came up with. In the pilot episode, for instance, a kid's dad was abducted by a bad guy named Clockwork Delaronge using a remote-controlled robot of a dead baseball star named "Cleets Robinson" as part of a fiendish plan to kidnap the Commissioner of Baseball—to what end is never explained. In the second episode, the short, stocky villain Short John Silver uses a robotic octopus to imprison a Caribbean island's inhabitants so he can steal their treasure and, of course, sell it at auction. ProStars went on like this for 12 episodes; the 13th and final episode was, perhaps prematurely, a clip show.
The Pro Stars had the help of an old, gadget-savvy woman named Mom who served as the show's James Bond Q-type, providing the athletes with the tools they needed to, say, prevent an evil motorcycle gang from forcing an Australian village to build them a castle. Oddly, Mom was a blatant Jewish mother stereotype—speaking with a thick Yiddish accent, sporting a slight hook nose, and characterized by her frequent use of the exclamation "Oy vey!" That said, she also was prone to saying some very non-Yiddish things to Jackson, including "your reflexes have become stinky poo-poo" and "the next mission is quite a humdinger."
Naturally, Mom also possessed superhuman strength herself, and was able to hurl the bulky Bo across a room.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the athletes themselves did not do the voiceovers for their animated characters. Instead, they filmed short interviews which aired at the beginning and end of each episode, usually answering one question asked by a kid in a previously-taped segment. Questions ranged from "did you play Little League?" (Bo: "Yes") to "Who can do the most push-ups?" (Bo: "Bo").
These segments were directed by Kreisberg, who went on to direct, among other things, MTV's Jersey Shore and several Jersey Shore spinoffs. Kreisberg recalled that all the live-action sequences were done in a single shoot, and that the players were great to work with.
As for their animated personalities, Kreisberg said it was standard operating procedure for the athletes or their representatives to work with the studio to approve their appearance and personality, which may explain some of the more curious creative choices. Gretzky's animated likeness was obsessed with food. I asked Kreisberg about this, and while he "wasn't 100 percent sure," but said that "may have just been one of those things Wayne snuck out to them was, 'hey, I love to eat,' and they just ran with it … that was the of the company back then."
In any event, the three characters fell into pretty standard ensemble show tropes: Jordan was the level-headed, intelligent one; Bo the workhorse/strong one, and Gretzky the goofy comic relief. Well, sort of. His jokes didn't make much sense, either as sentient thoughts or as jokes. "The only water I like," Gretzky mused in the one episode, "is the frozen version known as ice."
Rather than overanalyze ProStars' plot elements or dialogue any more than we already have, we can pretty much summarize the show's flaws through this bit of dialogue:
Short John Silver: What? Wait a minute! You guys can't be here! My mechanical octopus is crushing you beneath the sea!
Michael Jordan: No, those were merely latex-based reproductions of our physical features.
Although Kreisberg doesn't remember the show all that well, he wasn't surprised to hear it missed the mark for a quality cartoon program. "I think the concept was just a little stretched on why these three were together," he said—a statement that also applies to the ill-fated, similarly-themed All-Star Cafe restaurant chain.
ProStars is a show you absolutely should not take the time to watch, even for nostalgia purposes. However, its mere existence reminds us of the silly things celebrities no longer have to do in order to grow their brands, thanks to social media and the Internet writ large. Back then, if celebrities wanted to reach kids, they had to appear on a cartoon. "This was the only way to reach a kid audience," Kreisberg said. "They were the only people watching Saturday morning television."
Now, any type of celebrity can reach their entire target audience with a single Tweet or Instagram post, which has the veneer, at least, of being more authentic than an animated likeness. Celebrities no longer have to become part of the content to market themselves. Instead, they are the content. Pro Stars and its animated brethren have been replaced by whatever photo Ronaldo posts with the blanket he's peddling, or those goofy videos Arsenal players do for the official Arsenal YouTube channel.
"Right now," Kreisberg said, "that show would be a two minute clip. It wouldn't even need the animated part." The process of celebrities marketing themselves hasn't changed all that much. It simply has been streamlined.
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