How Michael Jordan Got His Game Back While Filming Space Jam

There have been a number of explanations given as to why Michael Jordan, then only 30 years old, decided to retire from professional basketball in October 1993. If you ask the man himself, he felt he had nothing more to prove, which is a fair point after you've won three straight NBA championships and a plethora of scoring titles. It's also been said that the July 1993 murder of MJ's father, James Jordan, was the main factor that drove the Chicago Bulls superstar to retirement. Then you've got the conspiracy theories alleging that Jordan's retirement was a cover-up for some sort of gambling-related suspension. Either way, it was hard to imagine an NBA without arguably its greatest player of all time. 

Of course, we know that the NBA did survive while Jordan was giving professional baseball a try. But His Airness did return to basketball late in the 1994-95 NBA regular season, and with that came an opportunity to star in a major motion picture alongside an all-star cast consisting of ... Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang. Yes, we are referring to the 1996 sports comedy "Space Jam," where Jordan was just one of several NBA players who made up the film's live-action cast. And while it turned out to be quite an entertaining romp for audiences of all ages, "Space Jam" also played a huge role in helping MJ return to his old form after his brief first retirement.

The Jordan Dome: A place for MJ to prepare for the 1995-96 NBA season

Michael Jordan's surprise retirement in the 1993 offseason came right at his prime, just after his Chicago Bulls had completed their first of two 1990s three-peats. But less than two years later, he was back in the NBA, temporarily wearing an unfamiliar jersey number, and still pretty darn good on the court ... but not exactly at the same level he was at prior to his retirement. Jordan was very aware of this, especially since the Bulls didn't make it past the second round of the 1995 playoffs, and as Slam noted, one of the conditions he had for Warner Bros. while filming "Space Jam" was that he have his own place to train for the upcoming 1995-96 season. Enter the Jordan Dome.

The Jordan Dome was a facility at the Warner Bros. Studios lot in Burbank, California, specifically constructed for MJ to train during the making of "Space Jam," and quite fittingly, it looked like something you would have been seeing in the animated film, at least from the outside. The interior was more conventional, with a basketball court, a weight room, and locker rooms, but it also featured an elaborate entertainment center and a putting green; in other words, it was the ideal place for Jordan to train and unwind whenever he wasn't shooting scenes with Bugs Bunny and friends. And it certainly helped that Tim Grover, Jordan's personal trainer, designed the facility's interior.

Jordan got to work out against the NBA and NCAA's finest

Building the Jordan Dome was one thing, but since Michael Jordan needed some non-animated competition to keep him sharp for the 1995-96 NBA season, several players were invited to work out with His Airness following the facility's opening. These weren't your ordinary locals either — according to Slam, invitations were extended to Jordan's NBA player "Space Jam" co-stars, other players who were also represented by Jordan's agent David Falk, as well as the UCLA Bruins, who were fresh off winning the 1995 NCAA men's basketball championship.

With all those players showing up at the Jordan Dome, MJ was now able to play 5-on-5 full-court pickup games and prepare in a more ideal manner for the upcoming NBA campaign. And it seems he didn't let the fact he was shooting a movie distract from his trademark competitiveness. "What stood out the most to me was how Jordan could film all day and some evenings and still come out and play two to three hours of games," Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller told Slam. "Most of our pickup games began around 7 pm and lasted until 10. His call time on set the next mornings would be around 5-6 am."

Another former NBA player (and UCLA alumnus), Tracy Murray, told the publication that there were "at least 100 players" at the Jordan Dome whenever everyone was available. And the star power was quite evident, with future Hall of Famers like Miller, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Tim Hardaway all putting in a lot of effort. "You were getting everybody's best shot because if you sat down, you might as well go lift weights because you're going to be sitting down for a while," Murray said.

Those pickup games were incredibly intense

Building on Tracy Murray's aforementioned comments about the environment during the Jordan Dome pickup games, we cannot stress it enough — these games may have seemed like informal scrimmages to the uninitiated, but they were almost as intense as your average NBA game. Players freely talked trash on the court, and Michael Jordan and his fellow NBA stars gave no quarter to each other. This was undoubtedly aided by the fact that there were no referees; everybody was letting each other play without having to worry about someone in a striped shirt blowing their whistle.

"It was some of the best games," Reggie Miller told Sports Illustrated. "There were no officials, so you were calling your own fouls. So it was a little more rugged and raw. I don't know how [Jordan] did it. I don't know how he had the energy to film all day and then still play three hours."

Aside from all the trash talk, Jordan was also as blunt as ever when dealing with players who weren't bringing it on court. "Space Jam" director Joe Pytka recalled to Slam that there was one unnamed 6-foot-9-inch player who got chewed out for attempting the same shot against MJ and getting blocked each time he threw it up. "He said, You've been doing the same move for the last 15 minutes and it ain't working for you," the director said. "Figure something else out. The guy was humiliated. He just killed the guy."

The aftermath: 72 wins, a fourth championship, and a return to form

When everything was said and done, "Space Jam" premiered in November 1996 and was a huge hit, making more than $230 million internationally, per Box Office Mojo. Michael Jordan helped the Tune Squad defeat the Monstars, and he was soon back on Earth to end his retirement and resume his NBA career — all's well that ends well. We all know Jordan did unretire shortly before he started filming "Space Jam." But how did all that preparation at the Jordan Dome pay off when the 1995-96 season kicked off?

For Jordan, those workouts at his eponymous dome were instrumental in helping him return to the level he was used to playing at — per Basketball-Reference, his scoring average went up from "only" 26.9 in his abbreviated 1994-95 return to 30.4 in 1995-96, and his field goal shooting improved from a pedestrian 41.1% to a far more respectable 49.5%. He also ended up winning his fourth MVP award. As for the Chicago Bulls, they went on a historic run in the regular season, winning a then-record 72 games and then moving on to the playoffs where they ran over their opposition, losing just once in the first three rounds before defeating the Seattle SuperSonics in six games to win the 1996 NBA Finals — their fourth championship and the start of another dominant three-peat to wrap up Jordan's NBA career. (That is, of course, until that Washington Wizards comeback in the early 2000s.)