The year is 1996. With 10 seconds left on the clock, Michael Jordan and a rag tag group of Looney Tunes are about to be defeated by the Monstars, a gang of antagonistic aliens who have stolen the abilities of NBA legends like Charles Barkley and Larry Bird and are led by the mob boss-esque Mr. Swackhammer. They’re losing 77-76, but this is Michael Jordan we’re talking about. As the clock ticks down, he leaps from the half court line, does his finest Mr. Fantastic impression, and dunks the ball through the hoop for the win.
Amid the slow motion suspense of MJ’s buzzer beater, viewers are treated to a close-up of his shoes, a pair of black Air Jordan 11s with a Concord-colored Jumpman. The shoe would become a symbol of the cultural phenomenon that was Space Jam in the years that followed. It has been affectionately nicknamed after the movie by sneaker enthusiasts ever since. It is arguably one of the most beloved colorways of one of the most beloved Air Jordans ever, and has gone on to receive three separate releases. Most recently, a launch in 2016 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the film that was Nike’s largest single release to date at the time.
This Friday, audiences are being welcomed to the Space Jam once again. A sequel to the cult classic NBA x Looney Tunes crossover event, Space Jam: A New Legacy, is releasing in theaters with some tweaks to the formula. The main protagonist leading Bugs, Lola, and the rest of the animated squad is no longer MJ, but this generation’s biggest basketball player, LeBron James. The villain is no longer a green alien, it’s Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle). The technological capabilities of special effects in movies have evolved greatly over the past 25 years, so the movie will certainly look more polished. For some reason, there’s a cameo from A Clockwork Orange’s droogs this time around, too. There will be plenty of things to separate the sequel from the original, including the shoes, in the hopes of creating a new legacy of its own (literally, it says so in the film’s official title).
Unlike in 1996, Nike is releasing tons of promotional products to coincide with the release of this generation’s Space Jam to guarantee it feels like the biggest movie event of the summer. Back in ‘96, Nike had not released any officially licensed gear of its own to go along with the movie. The white-and-black Air Jordan 9 has become connected to the film simply because it was worn in a scene by Jordan, but had been released two years prior. The black-and-concord 11s that MJ laced up to defeat the Monstars would not even be available to purchase until four years later when they first released in 2000. And any of those vintage T-shirts you see with Nike Swooshes next to Bugs Bunny are connected to the “Hare Jordan” ad campaign that aired throughout the ‘90s, not the movie that they inspired. It seems hard to believe Nike wasn’t more involved in the promo at the time, considering the whole premise of the movie was based on its commercials, but it’s true.
For Space Jam: A New Legacy, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Nike is participating in full force. There are three pairs of LeBron 18 Lows inspired by various characters from the Looney Tunes universe, Air Force 1s, Chuck Taylors, official jerseys, a LeBron 8 complete with a Looney Tunes-ified LeBron on the left heel, and even a special colorway of the LeBron 19 to match his Tune Squad jersey that was digitized onto LeBron’s feet in the film. It isn’t just an all-black sneaker for the main protagonist this time around. There’s no mistaking what these sneakers represent, their orange and blue color palette perfectly matches LeBron’s Tune Squad uniform. Nike obviously wants Space Jam: A New Legacy to have an impact in footwear that will age with it similar to its predecessor. But this time, for better or worse, depending on who you ask, it’s much more intentional.
“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” says longtime Air Jordan collector Sean Collard (@scollard23 on Instagram). “If they had done that back in 1996 and they released the ‘Space Jam’ 11s as part of the movie promotion, that would have been huge back then. The fact that they’re doing that for Space Jam: A New Legacy, tying the products in with the movie, I think it’s genius. I have no doubt that the younger kids will probably be tied to that and don’t really want a pair. Whether or not it’s gonna be something that the teenagers want, I’m not sure, but for me, I think it’s a brilliant marketing move.”
It makes sense that Nike would want to take advantage of this cultural moment with its biggest ambassador, but will the more intentional marketing this time around have the same effect on the audience? Will kids and collectors be eager to cop “Space Jam” 19s or any of the other various themed sneakers dropping at retailers this weekend? LeBron’s movie has big shoes to fill. In 1996, those scenes were the first time many casual basketball fans had ever seen the sneakers (Jordan originally wore them during the 1995 Playoff series against Orlando Magic). In this case, we already know what LeBron is going to be wearing in the movie. Nike told us. The surprise isn’t there this time. It sort of takes away some of the mystique that surrounded the big close-up on the 11s in ‘96 before MJ’s big dunk.
“I definitely remember the hype [for Space Jam in 1996],” says Collard. “When you’re a kid growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the first thing you do is you look for what sneakers they’re wearing. There was no social media where you were being blasted with images of new sneakers that are coming out this year, next year, two years from now, whatever it’s going to be.”
Sneakers as a whole are in a much different place now compared to 1996, too. Sure, Air Jordans have always been highly coveted, but colorways weren’t flooding the market like they do today. Basketball sneakers had much more lifestyle appeal in the ‘90s, as opposed to being as performance-driven as they are now. Reselling wasn’t an entrepreneurial opportunity for high schoolers yet either. The “Space Jam” LeBrons are already fighting an uphill battle for real estate in the minds of collectors and casual sneaker fans. And now, they even have to compete with themselves. A full collection of over 10 movie-inspired sneakers and matching gear is much different than a singular colorway of Air Jordan 11s to pinpoint to a movie. And with dozens of other new releases always on the horizon aside from the new collection, including the retro of the “South Beach” LeBron 8 this month that seemed to overshadow LeBron’s Space Jam offerings just a bit, can the excitement even be the same? For some, maybe not. For LeBron collectors like Florida native Jared Breaker, who goes by @karatekickz23 on Instagram, the shoes are still a big deal.
“I want the 19s when they do come out,” says Breaker, who plans on taking his son to the theater to see the film this weekend. He was around 7 years old himself when the original film was released in 1996, and remembers watching the VHS tape hundreds of times as a kid. These days he isn’t an Air Jordan collector. His signature sneakers of choice have LeBron’s logo on them. He’s going to have his special pair one way or another. “I’ll be trying to get the 19s, but SNKRS being the app that it is, I can’t guarantee a W, but I’ll be looking on StockX and GOAT if I can’t get them for retail.”
Despite his personal excitement, Breaker still acknowledges that the LeBrons hitting retailers will probably not be met with the same level of fervor from the masses, at least initially.
“[The ‘Space Jam’ LeBrons are] not going to be close to the legacy the Jordans left behind. I do think the movie will be better though,” says Breaker. “But I think people will appreciate it more once LeBron leaves the game. Once he does leave the game and people start to appreciate and miss that talent, I think it will elevate it. It won’t be anywhere close to that level now, but as time goes by, it will evolve.”
There is still some indication that these LeBrons connected to the film could be valuable on the aftermarket immediately. Following the first reveal of James in his Tune Squad jersey back in August 2020, prices of the “Orange Box” LeBron 15 he was wearing in the teaser skyrocketed. It was the first shoe that had been connected to LeBron’s sequel in any capacity, although we know now it was simply a placeholder. Before the reveal, the colorway was selling on StockX for right around the $300 mark. Now, every listing on the platform is $825 or higher.
Let’s be honest though, as amazing as James is, his sneaker line (now entering its 19th installment) isn’t exactly the cultural phenomenon that Air Jordans were in the ‘90s. Sure, he has plenty of fans supporting his on-court play, collectors and casual basketball players who still buy a lot of LeBrons, and some memorable peaks sprinkled across his sneaker timeline. But a typical LeBron just doesn’t have the cultural cachet that an Air Jordan does.
Is comparing both sneakers entirely fair? Maybe not. But the fact both legends have now captained the Tune Squad adds yet another layer of the never-ending MJ vs. LeBron debate that fans love so much. The comparison was inevitable. Can the LeBron-fronted Space Jam: A New Legacy carve out a cultural legacy like the original did? It is unlikely. It will certainly have one, though. Theaters will be packed to watch the film on the silver screen this weekend. Kids will be rocking their movie merch and sneakers back to school in the fall. Maybe in 20 years people will be lining up to cop a LeBron 19 retro during the holiday season and get nostalgic for its 20th anniversary.
Maybe some of us are just too old to fully understand how big the latest Looney Tunes crossover is going to be. At the end of the day, it’s for the kids anyway, right?
“LeBron is today’s superstar. This is for this generation. I think it’s cool they’re going to have their own Space Jam because I know a lot of kids who are massive LeBron fans,” says Collard. “I’m happy for them to have their own legacy to hold on to.”