“Basketball Jones” and 90s R&B Carried Space Jam to Victory
Artists best known for bumpin’ and grindin’ elevated Space Jam to a cult classic.
Plenty of story beats from Space Jam could rank as my second favorite scenes. For one, there’s the racially transcendent moment when Bill Murray professes, “Larry’s [Bird] not white. Larry’s clear.” This claim has since been corroborated as fact by numerous documentaries, interviews, and anecdotes, which generally amount to describing Bird as one bad mo-fo.
For two, there’s when Michael Jordan struts onto the Looney Tunes practice court in his dress shoes and completely tears the wood flooring from its base. I’d like to think that this scene alone is responsible for all of the “SNEAKERS ONLY” signs plastered on gym doors around the world. Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, and Larry Johnson knocking their heads on a door frame as Muggsy Bouges skates right under is another gem. So is when the Tasmanian Devil is introduced, at which point he crushes two basketballs between his molars. This scene is single handedly responsible for the way I eat my grapes. Two at a time. Everytime.
But believe me when I say that unequivocally, the best scene in the entire movie is Charles Barkley’s Basketball Jones.
To get the full importance of Basketball Jones, we have to step back to 1973. Perennial potheads Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong drop the track “Basketball Jones” as part of their album, Los Cochinos. Featuring Marin squeaking out his highest falsetto in the role of Tyrone Shoelaces, “Basketball Jones” chronicles the story of Shoelaces, whose entire life has revolved around hooping.
(Coincidentally, the same year Cheech and Chong released “Basketball Jones” is the same year that Space Jam shows a young Michael Jordan shooting in the driveway, aspiring to play for University of North Carolina. Make of that what you will.)
The Space Jam soundtrack would forgo a Cheech and Chong reunion, instead opting for a cover version by Barry White and Chris Rock, swapping out the original’s orchestrated soul for drooling, downtempo R&B. “Basketball Jones” plays shortly after the Monstars drain the talent of five NBA players. Coping with the sudden dip in their talent, all of the players head to the doctor to figure out what’s wrong with them.
Well, all of them except for Charles Barkley. The Round Mound of Rebound instead heads to his local playground where, to the sultry growl of Barry White (Chris Rock’s ad libs were cut for the film), he’s laughed off the court.
The scene is great for a host of reasons. Barkley doesn’t hesitate to ask the group of girls to play, a surprising and welcomed inclusion given the WNBA was still in its infancy. The scene also establishes Barkley as something of the butt of the joke, a mantle he dons to this day on Inside the NBA. Most importantly, the scene frames the movie around contemporary R&B, which dominates the track listing for Space Jam’s Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture soundtrack.
Space Jam attributes its cult following to being more than a children’s flick. The movie frequently plays to the older audience that’s likely watching with their kids. There are moments like the Larry Bird bit, or when the psychiatrist implies Ewing has erectile dysfunction, or when Barkley mentions that he’ll never date Madonna again.
The R&B driven soundtrack is another such adult concession. Though film music veteran James Newton Howard scored the movie, inclusions like Seal’s “Fly Like an Eagle,” R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” and D’Angelo’s “I Found My Smile Again” take Space Jam to more mature territory.
Though the year-end 1996 Billboard Hot 100 Chart would see Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” (yes, that Macarena) at its apex, Space Jam would clearly draw inspiration from years prior. In addition to Coolio’s somber g-funk tune “Gangster’s Paradise” taking the top spot, 1995’s list featured two TLC cuts (“Waterfall” and “Creeps”), Seal (“Kiss from a Rose”) and a Boyz II Men track (“On Bended Knee”) rounding out the top five, with artists like Method Man and the group All-4-One, both of which featured on Space Jam’s soundtrack, not far behind.
Realistically, R&B shouldn’t work in a movie about cartoon characters playing intergalactic basketball for the fate of their species. The genre carries an emotional weight which, while often disguised by danceable beats, is a step beyond the laughter or gross-out antics a flick like Space Jam employs. (Remember seeing the inside of MJ’s ear, or that disgusting spit shine on the Looney Tunes court?)
But for that same reason, the Space Jam soundtrack fits, with tracks like “Basketball Jones” and Monica’s “For You I Will” creating a sense of ambition that resonates with the audience. Here are some of the most iconic players in the NBA, their personal and professional highs and lows are emphasized by Seal’s swelling, raspy vocals and Monica’s heartfelt willingness to sacrifice for her love.
Like Michael Jordan’s entire career, Space Jam’s soundtrack imbues the movie with a sense of aspiration. The film ends with Jordan making his return to the hardwood (donning his ill-fitting no. 45) overtop of “Fly Like an Eagle.” On the Looney Tunes front, Bugs and the gang defeat the Monstars and avoid being sold into amusement park slavery. R&B helps Space Jam be about more than basketball, creating the musical backdrop for Jordan and the Looney Tunes’ search for their identities.