Twenty years later, we see now more than ever how Space Jam defined an entire generation, and we needed it.
I turned twenty three this year in September.
I wasn’t overly excited about it. After all, in the grand scheme of things 23 isn’t all that much of a mile stone in cultural standards. We turn eighteen, then twenty one, then it seems like we just celebrate (or dread) whenever birthdays with a “0” at the end of the number roll around once a decade.
I woke up on September 16th to text messages and Facebook posts from friends wishing me a happy birthday. I made the walk to class, went through the motions and met up with a few friends for lunch. At lunch a friend of mine wished me a happy birthday and I thanked him. He then followed it up with a question:
“It’s your Jordan year bro. How’s it feel?”
Twenty Three. The number may not be all that symbolic in the world of birthdays, but in American culture is has meaning that cannot be understated. Twenty Three is a symbol of greatness, a symbol of marketing genius, overcoming the odds, striving for greatness, it represents what many kids from the 80’s and 90’s grew up singing along with on Gatorade commercials, to “be like Mike.”
The more I have lived as a twenty three year old, the more I find importance in that statement.
At twenty three I’ve encountered my own struggles against odds against me. Every one does at this age. We’re fighting to compete in the job market, trying to finish our degrees, sacrificing our personal lives and time for opportunities that are promised to lead to other opportunities. We are fighting desperately to earn chances. We want to be heard, to be accepted, to be respected, and above all else, we just want to make it.
Maybe it’s a personal bias in me, but I feel my generation is special. We as millennials have lived through some of the most trying times in American history. We’ve came into this world at the coattails of the Gulf War, watched the world panic into Y2K frenzy at the new millennium, watched stunned as our sense of protection came shattering down on 9/11 as grade schoolers, and watched as Americans went under drastic financial and social change over the last decade. To think, websites and social media as heavy as they are in our day to day life, are only about as old as we are.
I believe if I had to define our generation, I would have to say we are the last of our kind. We remember how America was before the social media boom. We are attached to technology because we have had to adapt to it just as you have. Our entire job structure and career path, including our educational experience, all have changed in the last twenty years. Today’s teens born in this millennium didn’t have that struggle. They grew into this climate. They look at tragic events we remember as photos in text books. As a matter of fact, today’s high school freshmen weren’t even alive during the events of September 11th, 2001.
I believe we all have our cultural icons in each generation. The Beatles, Elvis, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Michael Jackson, Steve Jobs, and Andy Griffith among many others define what we consider a role model or a hero in our society. If you asked me today who the next generation has chosen to be their representatives, I couldn’t with a clear conscience tell you that I agree with the Kardashians. That’s neither here nor there.
For us millennials, it was one man and one man alone.
Michael Jordan made us believe.
I’m sure many will try to convince me otherwise, but I don’t think we will ever witness something like Michael Jordan again.
That goes beyond basketball.
If you look at the timeline alone of the release of Space Jam, you see how we all witnessed the dedication and love Jordan had for the game of basketball. The movie reintroduced an entire generation to the athlete. Jordan had left the NBA in 1993 after his father was murdered. He was playing minor league baseball with the Birmingham Barons, and not doing all that well. It was more than just the plot to the film, it was real life.
Jordan returned to the NBA after filming Space Jam wearing number 45, because he wanted a fresh start and took pride that he was wearing 23 in the last game his father watched him play. After a disappointing playoff performance, he returned to his original 23 jersey and won three more championships, with the first of the second three peat coming on Father’s Day. Michael Jordan laying on the floor crying as he told reporters that this trophy was for his father is a memory burned into the minds of everyone who watched it.
Michael Jordan made us believe in ourselves.
We may not have been able to run like Mike, jump like Mike, dunk or shoot like him, but we certainly tried. My first gym class in elementary school was full of kids shooting fade away jumpers with their tongues hanging out of their mouths.
Michael was the symbol of excellence. It went beyond the court.
We believed we could do anything if we put our mind to it and put the work in. From the posters in our school library with MJ reminding us how important reading was, and the ads in magazines reminding us to buckle up when we drive (one day), we literally viewed Jordan as our symbol of greatness in every walk of life. We wanted to be the best we could at everything. Reading, tests, homework, basketball, soccer, dancing, music, no matter the medium, we all wanted to be like MJ.
We all wanted the newest Air Jordan’s so we could pretend to play like Mike. I still remember my parents getting me my first Jordan jersey in the late 90’s. I wore it to every basketball practice that season. My generation saw Jordan return to the Wizards, and at 40 years old he reminded us, that even on bad knees and a sore back, we could always accept failure, but we could never accept not trying.
Space Jam represented all of that to us.
I was three when the movie hit theaters in 1996. My parents bought me the VHS tape when it came out and I’m honestly relieved that there was no such thing as a “View Count” back then on VHS tapes, because I wore the tape out where I watched it so many times. I had all the Happy Meal toys from the movie and blared the soundtrack in my basement while I played basketball on my mini goal over the closet door. I wasn’t the only one. We all felt that way.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Space Jam.
There has of course been a celebration of sorts. The film played in theaters for one night only here in Lexington and around the country. I took two friends of mine who had never seen the film in it’s entirety. We saw a few people wearing the Space Jam jerseys in the theater, and when R.Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” hit the speakers, there was a notable cheer in the audience full of “20 somethings”.
Nike, who unarguably is Jordan’s greatest of sponsors and a defining reason Jordan has remained so culturally relevant to the next generation, isn’t letting the anniversary go by unnoticed.
Nike’s ad campaign this year is based around Space Jam, all leading to the release of Jordan’s shoe from the film on December 10th.
It started with the question, “What would it be like if the Monstars came back for revenge?”
Nike began their ads with posters and videos telling people to “Comply” with the Monstars. To “Comply” with defeat, and simply accept that no one could stop them.
It transitioned to current Jordan Brand athletes Blake Griffin and Jimmy Butler leading a platoon of kids from the playground to meet with Bugs Bunny (who now works at a Foot Locker in the ad), for the gear they need to beat the Monstars. The ad ends with Butler spray painting over the “Comply” posters left by the Monstars with one defining phrase for our entire generation:
It may be just another genius marketing campaign from Nike, but to so many our age, it has significant relevance.
Defy the urge to comply.
We all face our own Monstars in real life. They don’t take the form of aliens from Moron Mountain. They take the form of heavy class loads with a full time work schedule. They take the form of a recovering and often struggling economy. They appear as people telling you that you can’t do something, as someone telling you your dreams aren’t worth chasing or not beneficial to society. They take the form of high rent and low wage jobs and sleepless nights before midterms and finals. They take the form of low gas lights while you drive from internship to internship hoping that today may be the day you get your next opportunity to show the world what you have to offer.
The odds seem to indicate compliance as the only choice sometimes when you read about the latest political controversy or the latest disappointment in the global economy.
But that’s not what we were raised to believe. It’s not what we were raised to accept.
Twenty years later, Space Jam is back to remind an entire generation of kids, now young adults, to never accept compliance. Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes defeated the odds in Looney Tune land, and now Space Jam reminds us that our battle is still on going, and that we still have odds to defy. No outcome is ever guaranteed, especially in today’s world, but Jordan taught us that although we may taste defeat in life at times, we can never accept not giving it our best shot.
Space Jam is back to remind us to continue to defy.