LOS ANGELES—It’s fitting that Jordan Brand’s latest commercial, centered on an intergalactic basketball battle, found its inspiration a world away from the idyllic, iconic Venice Beach courts where it was filmed.
The spot’s star, Blake Griffin, took a break from the Southern Californian sun to travel back nearly 20 years and more than 1,300 miles away, to his eighth birthday party in Oklahoma. The Clippers’ high-flying power forward might have been mercilessly punishing a rim just moments earlier, but now he was at the mercy of his lips and his nostalgia as he recounted a sleepover party themed around the 1996 film Space Jam.
“I saw the movie in theaters with my brother Taylor and my dad,” Griffin remembered, his voice picking up speed. “Then we had the Space Jam birthday party. We didn’t have a lot of money, so it wasn’t a crazy decked out birthday party. But I had a Space Jam cake. We had the Space Jam plates. I definitely got Space Jam on VHS, and all my friends came over, we played basketball, and then we watched Space Jam that night in a big room before we went to sleep.”
Griffin is a skilled comedian, with appearances at Hollywood’s Laugh Factory and on late-night shows like Conan and Jimmy Kimmel Live. His ultra-dry approach and keen timing often allow the absurdity of a situation to reveal itself, as he glances at the camera with a knowing look to share the joke with the audience. Not here. He was so engrossed in the memory that it was too late to save himself.
“Then, on my 21st birthday, we got the Space Jam cake again, exactly like the one at the first party,” he continued.
If this had been a sketch, one of Griffin’s fellow actors might have interjected—“Cool story, bro”—to poke fun at the five-time All-Star for so unapologetically nerding out about a kids movie. Finally, Griffin returned to the present moment, laughing at himself as he glanced around the small, makeshift tent.
“I guess you could say Space Jam has been a big part of my life,” he concluded.
The 26-year-old Griffin is hardly alone when it comes to romanticizing the film, which pitted Michael Jordan and a team of Looney Tunes cartoon characters against a squad of aliens who stole their basketball abilities from NBA stars Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson, among others. Rumors have long suggested that LeBron James might star in Space Jam 2. When asked by a fan on Twitter last week whether he had plans to appear in a sequel, the four-time MVP replied, “Maybe, guess we’ll just have to wait and see.” Last month, TheClassical.org wrote an oral history of a fake sequel, while SB Nation’s Tom Ziller called the original movie “a true piece of art” in response to a claim that it was “overrated.” The Space Jam train kept chugging this week, when comedian Josh Fadem released a spoof sequel that quickly went viral, while a YouTube user used the movie’s theme song in a video of him dunking on a Nerf hoop in his office after he was apparently laid off by his employers.
Jordan—the sneaker company—seems more than happy to add fuel to the ongoing “good old days” conversation that was spawned by its namesake. Enter Griffin the pitchman.
Just days before he joined the DeAndre Jordan rescue effort in Houston, Griffin spent a July afternoon filming a Space Jam-inspired commercial for his latest sneaker, the Super.Fly 4, which is set to release this Saturday. The premise of the commercial—named “The Dunk to End All Dunks”—is straightforward: Griffin must avoid peril by defeating Marvin the Martian, an original Space Jam character, in a Slam Dunk Contest. SI.com was on set and given a behind-the-scenes look at the filming process.
While the concept was simple, everything else about the shoot was pretty over the top. The commercial’s director is none other than Jon Favreau, whose big screen credits include Iron Man and Chef. Back in 1996, when Griffin and his friends packed in to sleeping bags to watch Space Jam, Favreau was famously leaving one of the greatest voicemails in history while starring in the movie Swingers. Encouraged by his teenage son Max, a sneakerhead, to shoot the spot, Favreau paced around the set in Air Jordans (what else?) and fielded an endless string of phone calls between takes.
Meanwhile, hundreds of extras lined up to watch the imaginary Dunk Contest from behind barriers that read “Acme Crowd Control.” At various points, the fans were encouraged to react is if they were experiencing an earthquake. Their collective reaction was frighteningly believable, and you could almost hear The New Yorker come running every time the mass of limbs went flying.
As gawkers assembled nearby and real pick-up games continued on adjacent courts, multiple video cameras—some mounted on cranes—filmed each dunk from different angles. More than a dozen staffers helped stage each shot, and Favreau called the action from a nearby tent, where video of each take was instantly queued up so that it could be reviewed. The appropriately-named child actor Emjay Anthony stood in for the diminutive Marvin so that Griffin’s conversations would come off more naturally, and a go-between was used to facilitate the conversation between the production team and the actors, ensuring that the basketball actions were both authentic and captured on camera. In a nearby parking lot, a massive food truck, repainted with a Jordan theme, waited patiently for its cameo.
The best part of the entire shoot? Griffin’s stunt double was his older brother, Taylor, a 2009 second-round pick who has spent the last few years in the D-League, where he averaged 10.7 points and 6.5 rebounds for the Santa Cruz Warriors last season. To complete the doubling effect, the two brothers were dressed identically in a sleeveless black top, green shorts, black knee sleeves, red socks, and the Marvin-themed black/green/red Jordans. When Favreau needed a clip of the shoes landing hard on the pavement, Taylor, 29, was instructed to climb onto a table and jump off. (Blake is on the Clippers’ books for $18.9 million next year, after all.)
The spot opens with Griffin shooting hoops on the Venice Beach courts alongside his gangly sidekick Dr. Drain, played by teenager Frederick Williams. If Dr. Drain looks familiar, that’s because he previously appeared in a 2013 Jordan commercial with Griffin. A gun-wielding Marvin quickly appears and the contest begins, with Griffin falling behind early. Thankfully, Bugs Bunny arrives to save the day, pulling up in the food truck to deliver the Super.Fly 4s that Griffin will need to prevail.
Griffin’s winning dunk sees him launch from the opposite foul line, to the moon, and back to Earth before throwing down a two-handed slam with so much force that it sends a shockwave through the crowd. Bugs Bunny then finishes off Marvin by blasting him back into space.
Much like Space Jam itself, the commercial’s plot is designed for maximum accessibility. The scene-to-scene action is predictable, and the only truly complicated elements are the special effects, which give Griffin a smoke trail as he leaves Earth and cover him in fire when he returns.
Griffin said he had no hesitation coming back to a Dunk Contest for the commercial’s plot, even though his 2011 Slam Dunk Contest title occasionally draws criticism. In that contest, Griffin memorably jumped over the hood of a Kia to throw down an alley-oop dunk, as a choir performed R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” on the Staples Center court. The spectacle led some to believe that the Slam Dunk Contest had strayed too far from its roots, while others charged that the title was gifted to Griffin.
“I don’t regret it,” Griffin said of his one and only real Slam Dunk Contest appearance. “It was something fun. I wanted to try it. People are going to say whatever they want to say about me for the entirety of my career. At some point, you realize that’s just how it is and you go on worrying about yourself and not things that are out of your control.”
Much like his Space Jam experience, Griffin fondly remembered sitting in front of the television with his family, marveling at Vince Carter’s performance during the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest. He counted the Jordan/Dominique Wilkins showdowns and Jason Richardson’s performances among his other favorites, but it was Carter who stoked his interest in competing.
“I was sitting there watching Vince and thinking, ‘Wow. That’s incredible’” Griffin recalled. “I thought then and still think now that no one is ever going to top Vince Carter. That had everything you want to see in a contest.”
Since 2011, Griffin has gradually put to bed the “Just a dunker” knocks he received earlier in his career. His playmaking and mid-range shooting have improved, and he’s dedicated himself to mastering the finer points on offense. This off-season, he’s focused on his post game: honing his precise footwork, learning to turn over both shoulders to set up hook shots, practicing the quick spin to set up his face-up jumpers, and studying up on how he should handle double teams when they come from different places on the court.
Although Griffin might dunk less frequently these days, he most certainly still dunks. The same detail-oriented approach he has used to fill out his game still applies to his slamming. As the afternoon wore on, Griffin threw a series of alley-oops to himself off the backboard, altering the angle of his shoulders slightly from take to take to help the production team get exactly the version of the dunk they desire.
Watching Griffin work on set was possibly more entertaining than the actual commercial. Coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals (and, at the time, facing the possibility of losing DeAndre Jordan in free agency), Griffin looked very happy, joking with his brother, mingling with various staffers and responding to a few Clippers fans who called his name from off the set.
Griffin also appeared inspired. The shoot was winding down, and Favreau, Griffin and others huddled around a monitor in the director’s tent, watching a replay of Griffin’s response to his contest-winning dunk. On the monitor, Griffin turned away from the hoop with a scowl on his face, and he raised both of his arms, with empty hands, in a menacing and triumphant pose. Favreau was delighted and he began to pump his fist. “That’s the one,” someone said, and relief seemed to sweep over the group.
Well, most of the group. Everyone, really, except for Griffin.
After taking instructions all day, Griffin offered one of his own to Favreau, and the Hollywood director listened intently. “One more,” Favreau commanded, and everyone got back into place. Griffin completed the dunk again, exactly as before, but this time he pinned the ball to the court as he landed. Then, he raised it up above his head as he turned towards the camera. Even though it was a minor tweak, the ball-palming clearly reinforced Griffin’s superhero-esque power and larger-than-life persona in the cartoon spot.
Favreau yelled “cut” and everyone beelined again for the replay monitor, with heads nodding up and down before the video even started. Favreau and Griffin were cheek-to-cheek, like two teenagers eagerly eyeing a selfie, as they watched the shot play back. A hearty round of handshakes broke out once the tape confirmed that Griffin’s version was better than the previous take. Sure enough, Griffin’s version eventually made the final cut.
“It was just a little touch,” Griffin said afterwards, grinning. “I just wanted to put a little touch on it. I didn’t know what to expect working with Jon. I loved him as a fan. Getting to actually work with him has been so awesome [because] he’s so welcoming and open.”
Seeing that partnership, and hearing Griffin wax about his love of the subject matter, it was hard not to wonder: What, exactly, is standing in the way of a Space Jam sequel?