The Chicago advertising connection to ‘Space Jam’

LeBron James
scores off an assist
from a Windy City
boutique that launched
Michael Jordan’s
media stardom

In many ways, the thrill ignited by LeBron James’ decision to produce a Space Jam sequel started in suburban Oak Park, IL, nearly three decades ago.

That was where, in 1992, Chicago-based Creative Director Bernie Pitzel heard the song, “I Wan’na Be Like You,” from the Disney animated classic, The Jungle Book, which his son was watching on a nearby television.

The moment would inspire him to write a new chapter in American pop culture and, eventually, launch the film career of Michael Jordan, star of the original Space Jam.

“All of the sudden I hear, ‘ooobee doo, I wanna to be like you,’” Pitzel recalls. “That’s where it came from.”



Pitzel was working for the former Chicago mid-sized creative shop, Bayer Bess Vanderwarker (BBV) at the time, but he had taken a mid-day hiatus to polish up a Gatorade spot featuring Michael Jordan.

BBV’s concept for the commercial was typical of many in the sports-related category. “It was 9,000 shots of highlights,” says Pitzel. “I’d seen it before.”

He felt that using a modified version of The Jungle Book song — with the words “I wanna be like Mike” in place of “I wanna be like you” — would make the spot stand out.

Disney agreed, up to a point.

“They said, ‘you can have it for $20k per year, or something like that, but you can’t say ‘Be Like Mike,’” Pitzel recalls.

Bernie Pitzel
Bernie Pitzel

This was the first indication that the stars were aligning in a once-in-a-lifetime kind of way. Pitzel wrote the lyrics to a new tune, “Be Like Mike,” and enlisted Ira Antellis and Steve Shafer to compose new music.

BBV took the song and mixed it into a spot that combined footage of Jordan the superstar playing in the NBA and Jordan the everyman playing in the neighborhood. “We wanted to take him off his pedestal and make him approachable,” explains Pitzel.

The plan worked. Even though Be Like Mike “didn’t run that much” and received a lukewarm review from Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield, Pitzel says that “it really took off on its own.”

“One of the clients had gone to some kind of flea market and found this little lunch bucket that somebody had painted ‘Be Like Mike’” on,” he continues. “Somebody else rewrote The Night Before Christmas with a ‘Be Like Mike’ angle. There were people singing it at a Cubs game I went to. You’d hear it at weddings if the groom was named Mike.”

Six months after the Be Like Mike spot debuted, Charles Barkely started singing the song during a post-game interview.

Its legend grew as Jordan led the Bulls to more championships, maintained a likable image, and won America over with his million-dollar smile.

Four years later, MJ had become a global superstar and universally-recognized guy-you-could-trust, all the while making baldness attractive.

LeBron James
LeBron James

Oddly enough, the only place where fans didn’t offer boundless enthusiasm for Michael Jordan was Cleveland, Ohio, just down the road from LeBron James’ home in Akron. The city’s reluctance to embrace the superstar had little to do with his personality: the Cavaliers had narrowly lost to the Bulls in the sixth game of the 1992 NBA finals, largely due to Jordan’s performance in the final minutes.

Clevelanders never forget a loss (I, as one of them, can attest).

In 1996, Warner Brothers combined Jordan’s charismatic popularity with a cast of animated legends to make the original Space Jam. Starring Jordan as himself with an ensemble cast that included Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd, it grossed an estimated $250 million internationally and won a slew of awards.



LeBron vs MJ

Given the excitement generated by news of LeBron’s intention to create a sequel, the success of Space Jam 2 seems guaranteed.

Pitzel sees similarities between both of the stars.

“LeBron has a sense of humor that comes across, a good smile, he’s good on his feet, he’s a family man, and I think he likes to have a good time,” Pitzel explains. “LeBron’s also witty, and I think that will come out.”

Recreating the viral sensation of Be Like Mike, however, seems unlikely, but it has little to do with LeBron.

Jordan made the Gatorade spot near the beginning of an NBA era that the Bulls dominated by winning six championships in eight years. He also remained largely scandal free and rarely got involved in political or social spats.

“It was a perfect storm,” says Pitzel.

Although LeBron has collected a trio of championship trophies while simultaneously proving to be what Pitzel describes as a “squeaky clean family man,” he’s also had to deal with the ignorance and hostility of online political trolls.

LeBron at the opening ceremony for the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio
LeBron at the opening ceremony for the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio

The hassle has required him to publicly engage with morons, and he has done it with elegant righteousness.

LeBron’s production company, SpringHill entertainment, has partnered with Showtime to create Shut Up and Dribble, a three-part series airing in October that the Washington Post describes as “a powerful inside look at the changing role of athletes in our fraught cultural and political environment.”

The series’ title, Shut Up and Dribble, was directly inspired by one of the aforementioned morons who trolled LeBron James.

James also donated $8 million to the I Promise School in Akron where, according to Time Magazine, “Students Get Free Bikes, Meals, and College Tuition.”

No doubt, LeBron’s intention to make a Space Jam sequel will most likely increase the comparison between him and the star of the original blockbuster. It’s an interesting but largely meaningless pastime.

LeBron is no Michael Jordan. He is King James.



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