In many ways, Space Jam — the cinematic meeting of NBA legend Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes that was released 20 years ago today — is very much rooted in reality. As is widely known, Jordan really did leave the NBA during the 1993-1994 NBA season to pursue a professional baseball career with the Chicago White Sox’s minor league affiliate the Birmingham Barons before returning to the Chicago Bulls the following season.
In many more ways, though, it is wildly unrealistic: He was never sucked down a golf hole, he never teamed up with Bugs Bunny to help him avoid enslavement by defeating a team of aliens in a high-stakes game of basketball, and NBA players Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson, and Shawn Bradley never had their talent stolen and stored in a glowing basketball.
But what if there did happen to be a correlation between the hampered performance of the skill-sapped NBA-ers and their play in real life during the same period of time? That seems like it’d be fun to figure out, so let’s give it a go.
First, we have to establish a timeline, which the movie doesn’t do that well aside from providing one concrete date to start with. The outside shot that leads into the scene where Barkley and Ewing have their talent stolen shows a sign outside Madison Square Garden (where Ewing’s New York Knicks play their home games) indicates that the date of a game between the Knicks and Barkley’s Phoenix Suns as November 7, and since the story takes place after Jordan’s retirement, we assume the year to be 1993.
From this, we learn a couple things, most importantly that Space Jam didn’t use the actual 1993-1994 NBA schedule, because on November 7, 1993, the Suns actually played the Sacramento Kings in Phoenix (all cited NBA statistical-related data is via Basketball-Reference). They managed to have the talents of five players stolen by staging only two games, so they skewed reality for the sake of filmmaking efficiency.
This date also tells us that Space Jam takes place in a universe where the NBA and Southern League (the AA baseball league in which Jordan’s Barons played) seasons overlapped, while in reality, they do not: The NBA season runs from October to April, while the Southern League season runs from April to September.
This presents a problem because while we have a start date for the dry spells of our victimized ballers, an end date is hard to establish. The only thing that would be revealing is the scene near the end of the movie, after the showdown against the Monstars, when Jordan arrives at his baseball game on the aliens’ spacecraft, but a few things make the scene irrelevant in terms of helping out our timeline. It’s very hard to tell which team they’re playing against since we don’t get a good look at the opponents’ uniforms, meaning we can’t compare that match-up to the Barons’ actual 1993 schedule, which seems impossible to find online anyway, and probably doesn’t match up with the team’s in-movie schedule to begin with.
There are too many inconsistencies in chronology to pin a real end date to the NBA players not having their talent, so we’ll have to think about this pragmatically. The night following the Suns/Knicks game, sports anchor Ahmad Rashad reports on TV, “In a shocking development, five NBA players have been placed on the disabled list in the last 24 hours, all suffering from the same mysterious ailment.” Then footage from that game plays, followed by clips of a game between the Charlotte Hornets and Philadelphia 76ers in which Bogues, Johnson, and Bradley also lose their talent, so we can assume that game also happened on November 7.
After that day, the affected players are seen seeking medical, psychological, and paranormal help, the Los Angeles Lakers refuse to suit up in the locker room due to fear of catching whatever plague has affected their colleagues, and then, outside an NBA arena where workers in hazmat suits are appearing busy, a higher-up from the NBA announces, “After meeting with team owners, I have decided that until we can guarantee the health and safety of our NBA players, there will be no more basketball this season.
It’s hard to know how much time passed between the players losing their abilities and that announcement, but based on how reluctant players were to play and on how seriously the league appeared to take this issue that severely affected five marquee players, a week seems like a fair window to put on the time from the losing of the talent to the end of the NBA season. A modern example of something similar to this that’s worth citing happened earlier this year, when Major League Baseball cancelled two games it was set to host in Puerto Rico, after cautious players made it clear they didn’t want to put themselves at risk. Reports of this unrest began to emerge around May 3, and by May 7, the games had been moved to Miami.
Therefore, the statistical period we’ll be looking at: November 7 to 14, 1993. Since the affected games would have happened very early in the NBA season, we’ll use the players’ overall stats from the 1993-1994 season as our baseline for comparison, since there would be an insufficient amount of immediately previous games to go off of. So, here’s what happened:
93-94: 21.6 PTS, 11.2 REB, 4.6 AST, 1.6 STL, 1 BLK, 49.5% FG
Space Jam (4 games): 25 PTS, 14 REB, 5.3 AST, 2.8 STL, 0.8 BLK, 50.7% FG
93-94: 24.5 PTS, 11.2 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.1 STL, 2.7 BLK, 49.6% FG
Space Jam (4 games): 24.8 PTS, 9.3 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.5 BLK, 56.7% FG
93-94: 10.8 PTS, 4.1 REB, 10.1 AST, 1.7 STL, 0 BLK, 47.1% FG
Space Jam (3 games): 8.7 PTS, 3.7 REB, 10 AST, 0.7 STL, 0 BLK, 50% FG
93-94: 16.4 PTS, 8.8 REB, 3.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.3 BLK, 51.5% FG
Space Jam (3 games): 18 PTS, 5.7 REB, 2.7 AST, .3 STL, 0 BLK, 56.4% FG
93-94: 10.3 PTS, 6.2 REB, 2 AST, 0.9 STL, 3 BLK, 40.9% FG
Space Jam (4 games): 13.5 PTS, 6.3 REB, 2 AST, 1.8 STL, 4.5 BLK, 43.8% FG
So what’s the deal? If anything, Johnson and Bradley performed better over that period than they did during the rest of the season, while the other players suffered no significant statistical downfalls. In fact, Ewing actually had one of his best games of the season on November 7, scoring a season-high 44 points on 17 for 24 shooting.
Based on our research, there’s little evidence to suggest that there are concrete ties between the reality of 1993 and a movie in which the world’s most famous athlete gets a game-winning, buzzer-beater dunk from midcourt by stretching his arm to twice his height while being tackled by two wildly muscular aliens. Go figure.
Images: Warner Bros.