'I took that personally': Behind LeBron James' MJ moment during Space Jam: A New Legacy filming
Breaking news: LeBron James is very good at basketball.
If his lengthy list of accomplishments, which includes four MVPs, four NBA titles, and two Olympic gold medals, didn't speak for itself, his once-in-generation talent and athleticism were on full display during Space Jam: A New Legacy filming.
"I remember there was one take where he had to catch an alley-oop, and we had the camera behind the basket," recalls director Malcolm D. Lee, who, like his cousin Spike, is a diehard New York Knicks fan. "I said to the person who was throwing the alley-oop, 'Don't throw it too high.' And [James] was like, 'Don't throw it too high?!' That take [ended up] just beautiful; I jumped out of my seat watching it on the monitor. And I really wasn't even trying to game him, but it was one of those things where he took pride in it. What did Michael Jordan say in The Last Dance? 'I took that personally.'"
Like Jordan, his Space Jam predecessor, James was joined in his film by fellow NBA superstars, which led to some legendary pickup games in the gym that Warner Bros. built for its star on the studio lot. (Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, and Diana Taurasi are among the hoopers reportedly costarring.) But that didn't mean James didn't need to always be prepared for unexpected challenges from Oscar-nominated costars.
"What was cool was one of our sets was a court, so we were filming on a basketball court a lot of the time," shares Don Cheadle, who plays James' A.I. nemesis Al G Rhythm. "So it was pretty easy in a down moment to just pick up a ball and throw it to LeBron, like, 'Check up.' And he'd throw it back, like, 'Okay, let's go.' He was always game for that."
And while he knew he was playing the "latest GOAT," Cheadle has his own experience in that department, having starred as street ball legend Earl "The GOAT" Manigault in 1996's HBO movie Rebound. "You always get away with a couple [baskets] because they just underestimate you and don't think you're serious," the MCU veteran explains. "I'm like, 'You know I played the GOAT, right? You really have to D up.' And then [he] shows you that you have no chance."
But maybe Cheadle was also just wearing James down a little bit before he brought in a young ringer. "[James] and C.J. went at it all the time," Cheadle says, referencing James' onscreen son Cedric Joe. "They were always competing and him telling C.J. moves to work on, and it was just such a cool vibe. He's such a big kid in many ways."
For his part, Joe, 15, couldn't even believe he was sharing the same court with James, his personal GOAT and the star of Joe's hometown Los Angeles Lakers. "That was the greatest thing in basketball history for me," he recalls of James signing with L.A. in 2018. Well, acting opposite your idol and beating him in a game has to be challenging that now.
"We definitely went at it a couple times," Joe says. "I love LeBron so much [that] I know what he's great at, what he's not good at, so I challenged him to a free throw contest... He did give me tips on different layups and stuff. And I felt like once I was done filming Space Jam my basketball game [had] progressed; I could tell the difference in how I was playing, and using the tips LeBron gave me. I remember coming home from shooting and everybody was like, 'Oh, so you got the talk from LeBron?' Because of how I was playing. It was pretty dope getting that advice from my greatest of all-time."
Space Jam: A New Legacy premieres July 16 in theaters and on HBO Max.
To read more on Space Jam: A New Legacy, order the April issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning March 19. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
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