In January 1999, the NBA faced the onset of an existential crisis. After a six-month labor dispute that cut the season to 50 games, Michael Jordan, its most marketable and popular star, announced his (second) retirement. Over the next two years, average NBA attendance fell each year, television ratings fell steadily, and by 2001 only 15% of 18–24 year olds had a deep interest in the league. Emerging talents like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett were just beginning to attract loyal fans, and the NBA knew it had to abandon its linear entertainment model to captivate its young demographic.
Around the same time, Shad “Bow Wow” Moss (then “Lil Bow Wow”) had quickly become the greatest children’s performer – one of the greatest musicians, period, in fact – in the country. As hip-hop saturated the mainstream and became the biggest-selling music genre, the 11-year-old, originally discovered by Snoop Dogg in the early ’90s, burst onto the scene with his debut album, “Beware of Dog”. who sold $2.7 million in records and went platinum in 2001. In addition to selling out his first 50-date tour that year, the rap superstar had also begun venturing into Hollywood, making appearances in small films and TV shows that took advantage of his outsized personality and charm.
So in 2002, when the producers of a children’s basketball fantasy called Like mike approached the league to lend their best emerging shots to a basketball fantasy starring Moss, it looked like a slam dunk. The film, about a 13-year-old who learns Michael Jordan’s skills on the court by wearing a pair of the star’s magically enhanced sneakers, promised to be the NBA’s gateway to a new teenage audience. . In the film, the orphan suddenly named Calvin Cambridge (Moss), joins a struggling NBA team (in make-up), the Los Angeles Knights, and puts them in the running. Now, thanks to full league participation, Calvin’s fictional road to the title would pit him against real then-budding superstars like Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson, as well as established players like Alonzo Mourning. and Jason Kidd.
It was, to say the least, a fruitful partnership for film and professional basketball. Released twenty years ago this week, Like mike grossed $52 million and skyrocketed in popularity among young Millennials during its hugely profitable DVD afterlife; the film is now a nostalgia staple for those who grew up watching it on repeat. But its greatest legacy is how it embodied the future mainstream convergence of basketball and hip-hop culture, foresaw the NBA’s immense rise in popularity among young adults, and signaled the growing symbiotic bond between Hollywood and professional sports. “It definitely gave me a surge of energy that I don’t think I could have gotten just from being a rapper,” Moss says. “The NBA was turning over a new leaf – it was the perfect marriage.”
When writer Michael Elliott first pitched producer Peter Heller his project for Like mike, Heller knew he had something special. “I was like, ‘This is The Red Shoes and basketball is great,’” he recalls. “I haven’t had that kind of certainty more than two or three times.” It didn’t take long for Elliott to find his star: he recalled a moment he had witnessed two years earlier on the set of the MTV made-for-TV movie, Carmen: a trendy hope, when a cameo Moss trained his music producer Jermaine Dupri in the field. “I was always into sports as a kid watching Michael Jordan,” Moss says. “When I became famous, I was still playing in tournaments across Ohio, Indiana and the Midwest.”