The Transformative Power of a Jersey

On “Space Jam,” Childhood Idols, and the Things We Wore Because of Them

A viral video from December shows an adorable young fan going bonkers after opening his Christmas present, a jersey of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.


As a kid, I, too, coveted the jersey of a wide receiver — that was David Boston, after his heroics propelled Ohio State to victory in the 1997 Rose Bowl. I also loved the Roberto Baggio AC Milan uni my aunt and uncle bought me. And then there was my most prized jersey of all, the black pinstripe jersey of Michael Jordan, my favorite player and childhood idol.

Sometimes a kid’s favorite athlete is simply the best player on his or her hometown team. Other times, the process of choosing a favorite athlete is more personal, even subconscious. We admire certain players because they represent who we are or who we’d like to be; our favorite players are optimized, actualized versions of ourselves.

Young fans see the world through the lens of exaggeration and romanticism. To them, these players aren’t mere mortals; they’re mythical creatures with extraordinary powers. We don’t just want to be our favorite player, the person; we want to be our favorite player, the superhero.

While a Superman fan may fantasize about the powers of flight and X-ray vision, a Steph Curry fan dreams of otherworldly dexterity and precision. When someone dons a LeBron jersey, they imagine themselves with the leadership and strength of legend. Wearing my Michael Jordan jersey, I felt a little boost of swagger and tenacity, like I could score 38 points in the NBA Finals while sick with the flu as MJ once did. When I wore his jersey, I felt like I’d taken some of Jordan’s peerless abilities as my own.


Space Jam (1996) brings this phenomenon to the screen, when tiny aliens penetrate the bodies of NBA players and literally steal their skills in order to — buckle up — defeat Jordan and a team of Looney Toons (aka the Tune Squad) in a basketball game, for the purpose of — wait for it — winning eternal ownership of Jordan and advertising him as the main attraction at the aliens’ outer-space amusement park. Weirdest pitch meeting in film history.

Despite — or because of? — its wildly outrageous premise, Space Jam has solidified itself as both a timeless hit in popular consciousness and as a 90s nostalgia cult classic. The film is 21 years old, and yet, recent examples of its unwavering relevance abound. For example:

1. A live table reading of the screenplay, featuring a roster of NBA players and celebrities.
2. A mockumentary about the Tune Squad’s game vs. the aliens’ squad, The Monstars.
3. The increasingly surer promise of a Space Jam 2, starring LeBron James.
4. A guy I literally saw today on the street, who was wearing a matching Space Jam hat and T-shirt.

Whether it’s 1996 or 2017, a Tune Squad jersey is the most enviable swag on the market. It doesn’t matter whether you like sports, movies, the Looney Toons, Michael Jordan, the Bulls, or whatever; for any Space Jam fan, the Tune Squad jersey transcends age, race, gender, geography, and sports allegiances. It is at once nostalgic and relevant, ironic and earnest, obscure and recognizable, exclusive and accessible. It is universally likable, timeless, and cool; the same way the movie’s legend grows with time, so does the jersey’s.

My friend Bryce as MJ, and his brothers, respectively as Bugs Bunny and the Monstar who stole Muggsy Bogues’s talent. (I think.)

The only thing sweeter than rocking the MJ 23 Tune Squad jersey, is the move my friend Mike pulled two Halloweens ago. Taking the reference a step further, he threw on a backwards hat and a red tee and went as Bill Murray, whose cameos (as himself) light up the film and whose late-game assist — spoiler alert! — propels the decimated Tune Squad to an impossible victory.

Shortly after, Bill Murray tells MJ: “I don’t play defense.”

From left to right: The writer as grapes, Mike as Bill Murray, and our friend Naomi as Cheryl Strayed from “Wild,” or so she claims.

In Space Jam, fantasy universes collide.

In Toontown, where the Looney Toons live, even humans can be sucked down through a hole on a golf course and stretch their body the entire length of the floor for the game-winning basket. In Movie World, the place behind the big screen where Hollywood makes magic, Bill Murray can randomly show up wherever.

I first saw the film as an eight-year-old, comfortably nestled in Kid World — a place I frequently mention, credit to the writer Bill Bryson — which is reality through the eyes of children. Kid World is governed by imagination, adventure, and wonder; everything there is a caricature: bigger, better, sexier, scarier. In Space Jam, at the intersection of Cartoon World and Movie World and Kid World, the fantastic is commonplace.

Adding another dimension to the equation: When we’re young, pro athletes exist in something I’ll call Sports World, a place inside our TV screens or on professional courts, a place visible to those living in the mortal world, but protected from it by a force field. Sports World is ruled by athletes like MJ — half mortal, half legend — who do incredible, otherworldly things.

We can’t touch Sports World, but when we throw on a jersey, we feel a little closer to it; suddenly the unthinkable seems a little more possible. And for kids like that OBJ fan, sometimes it is.

What jerseys did you rock as a kid, and which do you rock now? How did you select which jerseys to wear and what significance do they hold to you?

Do different kinds of clothes have a transformative effect in other areas of your life? How so?

Who were your favorite players growing up, and who are they now? How have your feelings toward or your relationship with those players changed over the years?


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This is the fourth installment in the Make Believe Boys series, which explores humor, wonder, and nostalgia at the intersection of movies, sports, and personal history. For more Make Believe Boys, read about childhood fantasies, the making of legends, and amazing/terrible movies.