Like Mike: A 20 Year Retrospective

In case you wanted to feel your own mortality, this year will mark the twentieth anniversary of the classic sports comedy Like Mike. 

In Like Mike, Calvin Cambridge (Bow Wow) discovers an old pair of shoes at his orphanage with the initials “M.J.” written on them. After the shoes get struck by lightning, Calvin starts to possess the basketball skills of Michael Jordan and gets scouted by fictional NBA team, the L.A. Knights. While on the team, he strikes up a bond with the reluctant Tracy Reynolds (Morris Chestnut). Though the shoes eventually lose their powers, Tracy ends up adopting Calvin (and his best friend, Murph) and grants him what he truly desires: a family. 

While the premise might have been zany, Like Mike did a wonderful job of blending comedic and heartfelt moments. In addition to the strength of its lead actors, the movie had a stellar supporting cast of Crispin Glover, Jesse Plemons, Eugene Levy, Jonathan Lipnicki, Brenda Song and Robert Forster, who all shined in their roles. The dozen NBA cameos featured in the film also brought a touch of fun realism.

Twenty years later, the movie is still warmly remembered by people who grew up with it. I remember wearing the DVD out as a kid, dreaming that I would one day dunk a basketball like Bow Wow. That dream didn’t last very long, but the film provided me with many good times nonetheless. It also helped me remember the difference between an isosceles and acute triangle.

For the film’s upcoming twentieth anniversary, I spoke with producer Peter Heller and director John Schultz. Here are some interesting things we discussed:

1. The movie got off the ground quickly.

In the early 2000s, Peter Heller managed a screenwriter named Michael Elliot, who had written a script called Brown Sugar. The project captured the interest of several studios before getting stuck in turnaround. During the delay, Heller approached Elliot to see if he had any other ideas for scripts. 

“Mike pitched me several ideas, all of which were good,” Heller recalls. “He’s always had great ideas. He pitched me Like Mike. What’s really interesting is I’m a cinephile, so I immediately thought, ‘Oh, wow! It’s like The Red Shoes, but with a kid.’ He had not seen The Red Shoes. For him, it was purely the idea that a little kid would get a pair of shoes that magically transformed him into Michael Jordan, who at the time was not just the most popular basketball player, but one of the most well known people in the world.”

Heller knew right away that the idea would be marketable. Elliot wrote his first draft of Like Mike within a few weeks and the two began pitching to studios. The film quickly landed at 20th Century Fox, who, in turn, reached out to director John Schultz.

“20th Century Fox had the original script and wanted to start ASAP,” says Schultz. “I had done Drive Me Crazy with them already, and developed another movie that a WGA strike killed, so they knew I was available. And I had attended University of North Carolina just like Michael Jordan, so I guess that was enough ‘like Mike’ for them.”

2. Bow Wow was the only actor considered for the role of Calvin Cambridge. 

Before pitching the script to studios, Heller and Elliot already had Bow Wow pinned for the lead role. His involvement was a big factor in attracting 20th Century Fox. 

“Mike had been working on a piece for MTV and at some point connected with Lil’ Bow Wow and his mom,” says Heller. “That was how he got attached. He had just come out with his first album and was in the Snoop Dogg universe, so that really helped us get a major studio on board.” 

Another factor that helped Bow Wow secure the role was his exceptional talent for basketball.

“He was short for his age, but he was a great ball handler and could put up a set shot like nobody’s business,” says Heller. “That was a real asset because he was totally believable on the court. We didn’t have to stunt double Lil’ Bow Wow. All of the NBA players and even the college guys who played the other teammates on the Knights were just amazed by him.”

Although Bow Wow had achieved success as a musician, he was inexperienced when it came to acting. Schultz recalls creating a fun environment on set to help guide the young star’s performance. 

“Bow Wow was fourteen when we started,” the director remembers. “He had braces and was a kid. The braces came off, and by the end of the shoot we had to shave him! He was growing a lot. I had been making movies since age thirteen, back then with my friends, so I had a lot of experience working with fourteen year old actors. It was mainly about creating a positive environment where we were all having fun. He was very enthusiastic.”

3. The film was co-produced by the NBA.

It was immediately apparent to 20th Century Fox that in order to make the film, they would need the cooperation of the NBA. Basketball TV ratings were declining at the time, and the NBA saw Like Mike as a promising opportunity to appeal to younger audiences.

“The NBA had relatively recently started a content division, which by now has grown enormously into NBA Productions,” says Heller. “But back then, it was a much smaller idea. It’s hard to remember this, but twenty years ago, the NBA was on the downswing. Their numbers on TV were down, the audience was getting older, young people were not as interested as they were in the 80s and 90s. It was a period when rap music was exploding, but was associated a lot in mainstream media with gangster rap and violence in urban areas, and the NBA was unfortunately getting some of that. The idea of teaming with 20th Century Fox for a movie that made the NBA look good was a great appeal to them.”

While they didn’t have much influence over the script, an NBA advisor was present on set to make sure certain regulations were met.

“We had to make the NBA look good and they had a bunch of regulations at the time,” continues Heller. “One of them was that the players’ jerseys always had to be tucked in. We had an advisor on set all the time who would point out different things like that.”

4. There were differences between the original draft and shooting script.

During the film’s development process, Elliot’s original script went through a number of rewrites from different parties. While the core of the story remained consistent, screenwriter Jordan Moffet contributed one major change. 

“Mike had the terrific idea of magic sneakers and the overall engine of the movie, that an orphan would play basketball, but the real wish fulfillment would be to end up with a family,” says Heller. “What Jordan changed enormously was in Mike’s draft, the family that Calvin ends up with is this female team owner who has dedicated herself to her career. The Knights are a losing team, she’s a woman in a man’s world and then she builds this relationship with Calvin and ends up adopting him. For a variety of reasons, that just wasn’t the way Fox wanted to go.”

This character was cut from the script entirely and the decision was made to have Calvin be adopted by one of his teammates.

“The whole idea that an NBA player would adopt Calvin was what Jordan really brought to his draft,” continues Heller. “Then when we cast Jonathan Lipnicki, we had two great little kids and the idea that an NBA player would adopt both of these kids was very appealing to Fox.”

Schultz recalls one small, but meaningful moment cut from the original draft that he ended up revisiting during shooting.

“My favorite scene was when Bow’s alone in the Forum before he gets adopted,” says Schultz. “That beat was in the original draft and had been cut. I asked Michael if there was anything he missed from his original draft, and he said that scene. So I shot it. It was needed, and so cool to have that space empty with Bow. He really performed it well.”

5. Michael Jordan gave his blessing for the film to be titled Like Mike. 

While the “Mike” in Like Mike most certainly refers to Michael Jordan, the NBA legend doesn’t appear in the film.

“The relationship with Jordan was interesting,” says Heller. “We very much wanted to name the movie Like Mike. Technically, that phrase wasn’t trademarked and even if it had been, a title is separate usage from something that might be trademarked. When both Fox and the NBA got involved, we very much wanted Michael Jordan’s blessing to call the movie Like Mike, which we got.” 

While he allowed use of the title, Jordan chose not to be involved with the film in any other capacity.

“It would have been great to have him in the movie at some point,” Heller expresses. “But he had his own brand and all sorts of things going on. Pretty much from the beginning, we knew that we had his blessing to use the name, but that was it.”

6. Jesse Plemons almost wasn’t cast in the movie.

Years before turning in Emmy and Oscar nominated performances for projects like Fargo, Black Mirror, and The Power of the Dog, actor Jesse Plemons cut his teeth on the set of Like Mike portraying the orphanage bully Ox. According to Schultz, getting Plemons cast was no easy task.

“I had to fight like hell to get the studio to agree to cast Jesse,” he recalls. “He was not a traditional ‘look’, but I could already see he was a massive and unique talent, and I refused to take no for an answer. I had to really go to bat, and to [Fox Filmed Entertainment CEO] Tom Rothman’s credit, he listened and finally agreed. Jesse’s stellar career pleases me, because he deserves it.”

In case fans have wondered what became of the character Ox, Schultz has a wishful theory: “I developed a theory watching Jesse in Breaking Bad that Todd was Ox grown up. He left the orphanage and went to live with his Uncle in New Mexico. Makes sense to me.”

7. All of the NBA player cameos were shot in one day.

Throughout the film, viewers were treated to a fun assortment of NBA cameos, including players like Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, and Dirk Nowitzki among others. In a miraculous feat, all of the cameos were shot in one day at the 2002 NBA All-Star Game, with very little preparation.

“Coming up with gags for the cameos was fun. None of it was really scripted,” says Schultz. “We had forty-five minutes with each player to conceive, rehearse and execute their part.”

“Most of the NBA All-Stars wanted to participate,” recalls Heller. “Some of them, their managers and agents were very specific. Like, ‘They’ll come in, they’ll give you one take and then leave.’ But most of them, once they were there, enjoyed it. Even if their managers were telling them they only had one take, they were like, ‘Nah, I want another one! I want Bow Wow to dunk on me!’”

“Every single player was super easy to work with,” Schultz concurs. “They understood what we were doing, never messed up, and had great attitudes, very positive. By far the easiest people I have ever worked with. Time was the only challenge, but the players’ attitudes made it work.”

8. Fred Armisen tried to adopt Calvin. 

Out of the star studded cast of Like Mike, one recognizable name that you probably didn’t realize was in the movie is Saturday Night Live and Portlandia star Fred Armisen. Credited as “New Age Dad,” he appears as an eager parent vying to adopt Calvin midway through the movie. He has about five seconds of screen time and no dialogue in what was one of his earliest on-screen roles. 

“I had forgotten that,” laughs Heller. “Barry Josephson was also a producer on the movie and he was very well connected because he had been the president of Columbia Pictures. He just wanted to pepper the movie with anybody and everybody who could add a little more pizazz. I think Fred was somebody he brought in. He brought in Jimmy Kimmel. He brought in a bunch of young comedy people who he was aware of because we wanted the movie to appeal to adult audiences as well.” 

9. There were aspirations to do a sequel. 

After the success of Like Mike, Heller and Elliot expressed enthusiasm in making a sequel, which would follow Calvin Cambridge on another adventure. For whatever reason, Fox opted to go a different route and produced the 2006 direct-to-DVD sequel Like Mike 2: Streetball, which featured no involvement from the original cast or crew. 

“There was a lot of interest from us to do a sequel. We really wanted to do it and to this day, I don’t know why they didn’t,” Heller says. “We had various concepts about how he would get the powers back or if he would get the powers back. You could roll out a lot of different scenarios for bringing him back.”

All hope might not be lost, as Bow Wow tweeted last year that he and Elliot were discussing ideas for a sequel. Since Disney acquired Fox’s film catalog in 2019, it seems like Disney+ would be a fitting home for a Like Mike revival of some sort. We’ll see what happens!

10. The film’s creative team made an effort to respect its audience.

While magic shoes and basketball might have been the selling points of Like Mike, Schultz and Heller believe it was something deeper that led to the film’s lasting adoration.

“We worked not to be stupid or cloying or talk down to the audience,” explains Schultz. “We just tried to make it as enjoyable as possible and as real as possible despite the conceit of magic shoes.”

“It wasn’t done in a cynical way and it wasn’t done in a schmaltzy way,” says Heller. “John Schultz deserves so much credit for that. It’s such a difficult thing for a director to control that tone. Not to get too broad with the comedy, not to get too schmaltzy with the emotion. You want it grounded in as much reality as you can, even though you’ve got a four foot tall kid dunking a basketball. I think John really pulled all of that off.”

Schultz also attributes some of the movie’s success to its ensemble of adult actors.

“We tried to populate it with interesting characters like the adults – Crispin Glover, Eugene Levy, Robert Forster,” he says. “And anchoring it all is Morris Chestnut, who was so patient with kids, so kind, and so relatable that his excellent performance really pulled the audience in.”

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