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Preview: 'Space Jam'

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How does a man who can fly enter a room? Gracefully, if uneventfully, with cup and saucer in hand, and five or six aides in tow. All he asks of them is more coffee, and as they disappear he lowers himself onto a couch. His famous smile is in hiding. He speaks softly.

Michael Jordan is tired, and a little shy, and way out of his element. He’s accustomed to doing interviews in the glow of a recent victory, not in the shadow of a large career gamble. Nonetheless, he has agreed to come to this Santa Barbara hotel bungalow to answer questions because his newest employer, Warner Bros., has put a lot of time and money into making Space Jam, his big-screen debut, a success. The live-action animation adventure, set to open Nov. 15, teams Jordan with Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes against outer-space bad guys (Monstars) in a fate-of-the-Tunes-determining basketball game.

And if Warner has its way, Michael Jordan will become this season’s Most Valuable Product. At $125 million ($90 million for the film, $35 million for the promotion), Jam is among the most expensive in Warner Bros.’ history. The studio is hoping to create a franchise that will sell as much as a billion dollars in merchandise. Space Jam marks the launch not only of the studio’s feature animation division but of a new WB Toys unit designed to sell everything from Michael Jordan talking dolls to cookie jars. It’s a strategy that already has drawn criticism for being more about marketing than moviemaking. ”We hope to equal some of the biggest movies in the industry’s history in box office performance worldwide as well as consumer-products performance,” says the studio’s marketing head, Rob Friedman. But, he adds, ”domestic gross dictates everything else that happens, and that is not driven by toys.” And in a competitive season during which Space Jam will have to face down 101 Dalmatians and almost 40 other movies, its success isn’t as simple as a slam dunk.

So what does the man whose face launched more than a million McDonald’s Super Size french-fry cartons have to say about his celluloid adventure? ”I’m afraid to see it,” says Jordan. ”I don’t know if I’m any good. I’m afraid to have high expectations. In basketball, I control far more. There’s so much of the unknown here.” He says he wishes Bugs Bunny had top billing. ”That carries all the weight,” he adds. ”That would take the pressure off.” And as he speaks, the truth becomes clear: Michael Jordan is nervous.

Right here would be a perfect time for a loud, cartoon-sounding screech. A guy who, at 33, has won four NBA championships, eight scoring titles, four MVPs, and two Olympic gold medals, who will make $30 million playing basketball this season plus an estimated $40 million in endorsements (for, among others, Wheaties, Nike, Hanes, and Gatorade), is talking about a rabbit taking the pressure off? What, exactly, is up, Doc?

”I think nervous is the wrong word,” says Jordan’s longtime manager, David Falk. ”He doesn’t want to anticipate success before it happens. He’s a person who performs and then talks about it.”

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