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Jordan's Daffy Move

The NBA star hopes his silly turn with cartoon characters shows his human side to fans. Playing himself wasn't as easy as making a dunk shot, he says.

November 10, 1996|Gene Seymour | Gene Seymour is a staff writer at Newsday

NEW YORK — Security is tight. Why wouldn't it be? If the two very tall, very broad guards patrolling the third floor of the Essex House on Central Park South had even an inkling of the number of people in the lobby who would give their arms and legs to call on the man staying on the floor, they would ask for massive backup. Pronto.

By the way, when we say there's just one man occupying this floor, we do not exaggerate. The whole third floor of this luxury hotel has been yielded to Michael Jeffrey Jordan, basketball legend, idol for children and grown-ups alike, multimillion-dollar trademark for dozens of products and now . . . a Warner Bros. cartoon character.

Actually, Jordan is a live-action star of the forthcoming mostly animated feature "Space Jam," in which he plays a temporarily retired basketball star named Michael Jordan who is recruited by Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the gang to be their player-coach in a hoop duel against aliens who want to kidnap and export them to a tacky interplanetary theme park.

On this warm autumn afternoon, Jordan, 33, is receiving visitors from, it seems, everywhere in the universe. Yet despite this frantic pace, Jordan seems relaxed, congenial, attentive throughout the conversation about movies, loafing and the complex business of being Michael Jordan.

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Question: So, what's it like to be a cartoon character?

Answer: (Laughs) Well, I like cartoon characters, so it's not, like, a pejorative thing to be called one. . . . But in a strange way, I think this movie gives me a chance to show a human side to Michael Jordan. So many people give me godlike status. And that can get very embarrassing. But I'd rather be silly.

Q: How do you get silly in real life?

A: Oh, I'm a prankster. I do it to people who are my dearest friends. Let's say it's somebody from the Bulls sitting on the bench, eating ice cream and he just loves that ice cream. (He demonstrates jabbing his fingers into an invisible cone.) No one knows the cute silly things I do and I figured this movie would help bring that out.

Q: What attracted you about this film?

A: This was the first thing that came up where I got a chance to play myself with animated characters that I worked with before [in TV commercials for Nike]. And Joe Pytka and Ivan Reitman have their own track records. It seemed a great relationship.

I just had to play myself. Which I thought would be simple. Initially.

Q: How did it become hard to play yourself?

A: People may assume that playing Michael Jordan should be easy. To Michael Jordan. But in my real life, there's always a shield and you never really let that shield down till you get a certain comfort around people who know you and understand who you are. What they were asking me to do is be me in a way that I feel comfortable with everybody looking at me and watching me. And that took some time.

Q: Yet you seemed loose around people like Larry Bird, Bill Murray. . . .

A: Well, we knew Bill. Larry and I knew him. And I worked with Larry before. . . . So when we got to the part about golf [in the movie], which is a common denominator with all three of us, it wasn't hard. And Bill made sure it wasn't hard for Larry and me by taking away the script--so most of it was freelance and we were banking off of him. It was easy because of the chemistry. He knew he was in control.

Q: I can imagine you guys and Murray goofing around between takes.

A: Actually, it was a pretty meticulous process. When things broke down or the director couldn't figure out what he wanted, Bill took over. And to see him do that tends to relax you. It's like, I'm with the pro. He knows what he's doing.

Q: How much did Reitman contribute to this atmosphere?

A: He was a coach. So he had a great vision of what he wanted. And I got confused a couple times in terms of what he was looking for, especially with the green scenes [a green backdrop was used for all the animated sequences with Jordan]. I started interpreting lines my way. But he saw them a whole other way.

What was also difficult for me was the time frame. I had to do these [animated scenes] day after day and there were days that mentally I was confused about what are we doing today and what are we doing yesterday and to tie it all together.

And that's where Ivan's coaching came in. He helped me by bringing out little guys in green outfits to portray the different characters. And it is tough when you're sitting here or coaching and talking to the characters and you're moving your eye lines this way and that. But the voices are coming in from all different angles and you're trying to focus on different moods and on what they're saying and where it's coming from. . . .

And there were days when I just got dizzy saying, "How'd I get myself into this?"

Q: Is the concentration required for that kind of work different from when you're absorbed in a game?

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