Zach LaVine was first introduced to the world of basketball beyond the smaller circles of Minnesota Timberwolves and YouTube dunk reel fans at the 2015 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. For years, participants had been honoring past dunkers by wearing their jerseys. In 2005, Josh Smith donned a vintage Dominique Wilkins jersey and threw down a Human Highlight Film-esque windmill. In 2013, Terrence Ross pulled out the Vince Carter throwback. Both went on to win, so it seemed like a winning strategy.
But until LaVine, no one had ever dared wear the jersey of the game's greatest player. Did he go with a classic Bulls #23? He did not. Did he opt for something more hipster, a Bulls #45 or even a Wizards #23? He did not.
To the lilting sounds of Quad City DJ's Space Jam theme, LaVine entered the arena, shed his #8 Wolves jersey and revealed a Michael Jordan Toon Squad jersey.
"I love the game of basketball," he explained in a video introducing the dunk contest. "I guess it started with Space Jam. Right after that movie I went out there to my little Flight hoop and tried to do every dunk in the movie."
Although he didn’t stretch his arm out and throw it through the basket, LaVine did basically everything else and handily walked away with his first Slam Dunk Contest win in a fitting tribute to his favorite movie, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week with a return to theaters, a Blu-Ray release and the return of the prized Space Jam Air Jordan 11s to stores.
Does that make LaVine feel old?
"Nah, not at all," he says after a recent Wolves practice. "Because I’m 21."
He admits to not actually remembering the first time he saw it, though: "I was like four. I don't remember it, but I know it was around that age. It's been ingrained in my memory." Basically, by the time he was a conscious human being who could form memories he had already watched it. But of course he's seen it dozens of times since then.
"I actually saw it on TV right before I came back for training camp," he says. "It was literally the day before I left. It was on Fox or something? Might've been HBO. I was just chilling and it was in the morning – I felt like I was a kid again. I woke up, I was eating cereal and Space Jam was on. Like, 'Aw yeah, this is perfect.' I came in in the part where Michael Jordan had just gone to Looney Tunes world and he was getting hit around by Daffy Duck and stuff like that. Getting stamped A-OK.”
To be clear, Space Jam is no Citizen Kane. But watching it now, it's striking how well-balanced it is between branding vehicle and breezy entertainment. A tight 88 minutes, it humanizes Jordan by going directly at his failure as a baseball player early while still giving the payoff of turning him into an intergalactic basketball superhero by the end. For a generation of kids dreaming of one day playing in the NBA it was a perfect nexus of their interests.
"Michael Jordan was that guy – he was Michael Jordan," LaVine says. "So whatever he did, we followed. His videos like Come Fly With Me and stuff like that – we were watching all types of things. And we were all kids and it was Looney Tunes. It mixed perfectly. I think that's the creative genius right there."
Now, though, LaVine is part of a Wolves team with a young, promising core, including the athletically freaky Andrew Wiggins and the surprisingly mobile and graceful big man Karl-Anthony Towns. How would they fare against the Monstars?
"We pretty much are the Monstars with how athletic we are," LaVine laughs. "They might be a little bit more aggressive than us, a little bit stronger. A couple of them dudes look like DeAndre Jordan size. And that's the whole starting five. Give us a little bit of that Secret Stuff and we'll be alright."
He spoke with a connoisseur's confidence about the film, recalling specific jokes and lines, but one question gave him serious pause: If he could steal any other player's abilities, whose would he steal?
"Wow. That is," he sighs. "That's a great question. I'm thinking about for me, man, I would love to have ... man, I'd love to have LeBron James' body. He has the most athletic body anybody's ever seen. Or if you don't have that, I'd take Michael Jordan's competitiveness or mentality. Kobe's competitiveness. Their will to win. You can't get much better than that and I'd be well set."
LaVine is looking forward to the sequel, and maybe even a bit part. ("I'll get that Bill Murray role," he believes.) But ultimately, he thinks it's the original classic that will stand the test of time.
"When I have kids, I can probably watch it with my kids and still enjoy it," he says. "So it reaches generations. It's timeless."
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