It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Michael Jordan was to basketball what Babe Ruth was to baseball. The rise of his prodigious feats were an integral part of lifting his sport to higher ground. Throughout the 1990s, Jordan’s popularity made gobs of money for everyone associated with it- his fellow players, his league, television networks airing his games, shoe companies, and their respective ad agencies. Yet another group made up the oddest batch of people to profit by association with Jordan’s NBA- filmmakers. It’s truly a testament to Jordan’s mass appeal that an entire decade of sports on film was dominated by basketball.
Prior to Jordan’s arrival in the NBA in 1984, basketball had rarely been featured in cinema. The best that Hollywood had to offer was a few scenes in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979). A gradual change began in 1985 with Teen Wolf, and 1986 with the lovable underdog story, Hoosiers. While those films technically were released after Jordan’s arrival, it would hardly be fair to attribute them to Jordan’s popularity. If anything, they were a result of the epic rivalry between Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. However, it’s important to note that the thaw had begun.
Then in the late spring of 1986, Jordan dropped 63 points on Bird’s vaunted Celtics squad in a playoff game. He started winning slam dunk contests, and became a human highlight reel with each passing game. His popularity exploded. All it took for Jordan to push basketball from the sports arena completely into the cinematic zeitgeist was an NBA championship, which lo-and-behold he delivered in June of 1991. All across Hollywood, you could hear studio phonelines exploding as one studio after another approved basketball film after basketball film.
First on the scene was White Men Can’t Jump in 1992. Indicative of the transformative nature of what Jordan had done to the sports world, the director- Ron Shelton- was best known as a former professional baseball player who had written and directed Bull Durham. That is to say that Jordan’s NBA was so powerful that it flipped a former baseball player into a director of a noteworthy basketball film.
The train kept rolling in 1994 with the release of three more basketball films, all very different from one another. The Air Up There was a comedy starring Kevin Bacon. The film even adopted its name in direct reference to Jordan’s own “Air Jordan” nickname. Above the Rim featured Tupac Shakur, Bernie Mac, and a cameo role by college basketball legend, John Thompson. It was a gritty drama focusing on basketball and its role in the life of a New York City prep basketball star. The third- Blue Chips– was about the trials and tribulations of a college basketball coach at a major (albeit fictional) NCAA university. While Jordan didn’t appear in the film, it did star the next best person at the time- Shaquille O’Neal.
As all of this was transpiring, documentary filmmaker Steve James was quietly amassing footage about two Chicago-area prep basketball players. His project took several years to complete. What began in the late 1980s didn’t reach the big screen until October 1994, when Hoop Dreams– arguably the best sports film ever made- was released. Early in the film, Jordan’s feats- and the feats of other NBA stars- dominates the lives of the two prep stars, Arthur Agee and William Gates. The film provides a ruthlessly realistic take on the glorified world that Jordan and his peers had created, and it dovetailed perfectly with the ever-growing appeal of the Jordan NBA.
1995 and 1996 witnessed several more basketball films, starting with The Basketball Diaries– a film that essentially launched Leonardo DiCaprio towards stardom. Mindless comedies got into the game when Whoopi Goldberg starred in Eddie, while Dan Akroyd and Damon Wayans took a turn in Celtic Pride.
The exact moment that the Jordan-led NBA assault on cinema reached full-bloom was with the release of Space Jam, basically a 90-minute advertisement created by Looney Tunes and Warner Brothers for the NBA. The centerpiece of the film was none other than Michael Jordan, along with multiple NBA pals. The film grossed a whopping $230M worldwide, locking in the NBA and Jordan as massively viable brands that could transcend sports. Unfortunately for the league, this was the beginning of the end.
A few more basketball films trickled out of Hollywood. The first was the dopey comedy, The Sixth Man (1997). Then in 1998, noted hoops fan and 1990s stalwart filmmaker Spike Lee got involved with He Got Game. That was more or less the last whimper and cry of basketball’s magical, Jordan-inspired run on the silver screen. Jordan’s sudden retirement in 1998, coupled with the inevitable burnout following a huge-budget film like Space Jam, had left the public needing a break. The sport has offered little of substance to Hollywood since then.
By the time the smoke had cleared, an amazing amount had been accomplished. The sport had provided gritty dramas, slapstick comedies, family films, animated features, one of the best sports films ever made, a springboard for one of today’s biggest stars (DiCaprio), completely altered the career of Woody Harrelson, given several professional basketball players a starring role in their own films (O’Neal, Ray Allen, Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing), given a notable filmmaker- Spike Lee- an opportunity to chase one of his true loves, and made an obscene amount of money for all involved. It’s going to be a long time before we see a single sport dominate cinema the way basketball did in the 1990s.