Can LeBron’s ‘Space Jam’ Movie Create New Sneaker Legacy?

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The year is 1996. With 10 seconds on the clock, Michael Jordan and a ragtag group of Looney Tunes are about to be defeated by the Monstars, a gang of antagonistic aliens who have stolen the abilities of NBA legends like Charles Barkley and Larry. Bird and are led by mob boss Mr. Swackhammer. They lose 77-76, but it’s Michael Jordan we’re talking about. As the clock ticks, he jumps off the half-court line, does his best Mr. Fantastic impression, and dives the ball through the hoop for the win.

Amid MJ’s buzzer slow-motion suspense, viewers are treated to a close-up of his shoes, a pair of black Air Jordan 11s with a Concord-colored Jumpman. The shoe will become a symbol of the cultural phenomenon that has been space jam in the years that followed. He’s been affectionately nicknamed after the film by sneakerheads ever since. It’s arguably one of the best-loved colorways of one of the most beloved Air Jordans of all time, and has since received three separate releases. Most recently, a 2016 launch to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the film which was Nike’s biggest single to date at the time.

A close-up of the Air Jordan 11 “Space Jam” in 1996’s “Space Jam.” (Image via Nike)

This Friday, the public is once again welcomed to the Space Jam. A sequel to the cult classic NBA x Looney Tunes crossover event, Space Jam: A New Legacy, hits theaters with a few tweaks to the formula. The main protagonist leading Bugs, Lola and the rest of the animated team is no longer MJ, but the greatest basketball player of this generation, LeBron James. The villain is no longer a green alien, it’s Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle). The technological capabilities of special effects in movies have evolved significantly over the past 25 years, so the movie will definitely look neater. For some reason there’s a cameo from A clockwork orange‘s droogs this time too. There will be a lot to separate the sequel from the original, including the shoes, in hopes of creating its own legacy (literally, it says so in the movie’s official title).

Unlike 1996, Nike is releasing tons of promotional merchandise to coincide with the release of this generation. space jam to ensure it looks like the biggest cinematic event of the summer. As of 1996, Nike had not released any officially licensed gear to accompany the film. The white and black Air Jordan 9 became linked to the film simply because it was worn in a scene by Jordan, but was released two years prior. The 11 black and concords that MJ laced up to defeat the Monstars wouldn’t even be available for purchase until four years later, when they were first released in 2000. And any of those vintage T-shirts you see with Nike Swooshes next to Bugs Bunny are tied to the “Hare Jordan” ad campaign that aired throughout the ’90s, not the movie they inspired. It seems hard to believe that Nike wasn’t more involved in the promotion at the time, given that the entire premise of the film was based on its commercials, but it’s true.

For Space Jam: A New Legacy, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Nike is fully involved in this. There are three pairs of LeBron 18 Lows inspired by various characters from the Looney Tunes universe, Air Force 1s, Chuck Taylors, official jerseys, a complete LeBron 8 with a Looney Tunes-ified LeBron on the left heel, and even a special colorway of the LeBron 19 to match his Tune Squad jersey that was scanned on LeBron’s feet in the movie. It’s not just an all-black sneaker for the main protagonist this time around. There’s no doubt these sneakers represent, their orange and blue color scheme matches LeBron’s Tune Squad uniform perfectly. Nike obviously wants Space Jam: A New Legacy make an impact on shoes that will age with them like its predecessor. But this time, for better or worse, depending on who you ask, it’s much more intentional.

Nike LeBron 18 Low Space Jam: a new Legacy collection
Some of the sneakers released by Nike for “Space Jam: A New Legacy”. (Image via Nike)

“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” says longtime Air Jordan collector Sean Collard (@scollard23 on Instagram). “If they had done this in 1996 and released all 11 ‘Space Jams’ as part of the promotion of the film, that would have been huge at the time. The fact that they were doing this for Space Jam: a new legacy, linking the products with the film, I think is genius. I have no doubt that younger people will probably relate to this and don’t really want a pair. Whether it’s something teenagers want or not, I’m not sure, but to me, I think it’s a brilliant marketing move.

It makes sense that Nike would want to capitalize on this cultural moment with its biggest ambassador, but will the more intentional marketing this time around have the same effect on audiences? Will kids and collectors be eager to cop the ‘Space Jam’ 19s or any of the other themed sneakers dropping in retailers this weekend? LeBron’s movie has some big shoes to fill. In 1996, these scenes were the first time many casual basketball fans saw the sneakers (Jordan originally wore them in the 1995 Playoff Series against the Orlando Magic). In that case, we already know what LeBron is going to wear in the movie. Nike told us. The surprise is not there this time. It sort of takes away some of the mystique that surrounded the close-up on 11s in 1996 before MJ’s big dunk.

“I vividly remember the hype [for Space Jam in 1996], said Collard. “When you’re a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, the first thing you do is research the sneakers he’s wearing. There was no social media where you were getting images of new sneakers coming out this year, next year, in two years, whatever.

Jordan 11 Space Jam Profile
The 2016 Retro Air Jordan 11 ‘Space Jam’. (Image via Nike)

Sneakers as a whole are also in a much different position from 1996. Sure, Air Jordans have always been highly coveted, but colorways didn’t flood the market like they do today. Basketball sneakers had a lot more lifestyle appeal in the 90s, instead of being as performance-focused as they are now. Resale was also not an entrepreneurial opportunity for high school students. The “Space Jam” LeBrons are already fighting an uphill battle for real estate on the minds of collectors and casual sneaker fans. And now they even have to compete with themselves. A full collection of more than 10 movie-inspired sneakers and matching gear is very different than a singular Air Jordan 11 colorway to identify a movie. And with dozens more new releases still on the horizon outside of the new collection, including the retro of the “South Beach” LeBron 8 this month that seemed to eclipse LeBron’s space jam offerings just a little, can the excitement even be the same? For some, maybe not. For LeBron collectors like Florida native Jared Breaker, who goes by @karatekickz23 on Instagram, shoes are always a big deal.

“I want 19s out,” says Breaker, who plans to take her son to the theater to see the movie this weekend. He himself was around 7 years old when the original film was released in 1996 and remembers watching the VHS tape hundreds of times as a child. These days, he’s not an Air Jordan collector. His signature sneakers of choice feature LeBron’s logo. He’s going to get his special pair one way or another. “I’ll try to get the 19s, but SNKRS being the app it is, I can’t guarantee a W, but I’ll look on StockX and GOAT if I can’t get them for retail.”

Despite his personal enthusiasm, Breaker still acknowledges that the LeBrons hitting retailers are unlikely to encounter the same level of fervor from the masses, at least initially.

“[The ‘Space Jam’ LeBrons are] will not be close to the legacy left by the Jordans. I think the movie will be better though,” says Breaker. “But I think people will appreciate him more once LeBron leaves the game. Once he leaves the game and people start to appreciate and miss that talent, I think it will elevate him. It won’t be near that level now, but over time it will evolve.

Nike LeBron 19 Space Jam: a new Legacy side
A preview of the Nike LeBron 19 that LeBron James will wear in ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’. (Image via Nike)

There are still indications that these movie-connected LeBrons could be immediately useful in the secondary market. Following James’ first reveal in his Tune Squad jersey back in August 2020, prices for the “Orange Box” LeBron 15 he wore in the teaser have skyrocketed. It was the first shoe that had been connected to the LeBron suite in any capacity, although we now know that was just a placeholder. Prior to the reveal, the colorway was selling on StockX for around $300. Now, each ad on the platform costs $825 or more.

Let’s be honest though, as amazing as James is, his sneaker line (now entering its 19th edition) isn’t exactly the cultural phenomenon that Air Jordans were in the 90s. Of course, he has a lot of fans. who support his game on the court, collectors and casual basketball players who still buy plenty of LeBrons, and a few memorable peaks sprinkled across his sneaker timeline. But a typical LeBron just doesn’t have the cultural cachet of an Air Jordan.

Is comparing the two sneakers completely fair? Maybe not. But the fact that both legends are now captains of the Tune Squad adds yet another layer to the endless MJ vs. LeBron debate that fans love so much. The comparison was inevitable. Can LeBron’s forehead Space Jam: A New Legacy carve out a cultural legacy like the original did? It’s quite unlikely. He will definitely have one, though. Theaters will be packed to see the film on the big screen this weekend. Kids will be rocking their movie merchandise and sneakers at school in the fall. Maybe 20 years from now, people will be lining up to buy a retro LeBron 19 this holiday season and will be nostalgic for its 20th anniversary.

Maybe some of us are just too old to fully understand the magnitude of the latest Looney Tunes crossover. In the end, it’s for the kids anyway, right?

“LeBron is today’s superstar. It is for this generation. I think it’s cool that they have their own space jam because I know a lot of kids who are huge LeBron fans,” Collard says. “I’m happy for them to have their own legacy to hold on to.”

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