Flick & Role: Like Mike

For the remainder of the summer, each week we will take a deeper look at a basketball movie. Some you know, some you don’t. Today brings us Like Mike, the 2002 family comedy that stars Lil Bow Wow, Morris Chestnut, a magical pair of Nikes, a parade of NBA legends, and the kid from Jerry Maguire. 

During this past season’s All-Star—or the Corporate Cavalcade of Fun—Paolo Uggetti of The Ringer asked players participating in the Rising Stars Game how they knew Michael Jordan. These kids missed Jordan’s worldwide reign as narrated by Marv Albert, with Gatorade and John Tesh providing the soundtrack.

“Movies, Space Jam, things like that. He’s got his own shoe that sells everywhere and everybody wears it,” Ben Simmons told Uggetti. “You just knew who Michael is.”

That’s when it hit me: the narrative of the NBA gallops. As a teenager in the 1990s, marginalizing Michael Jordan was like dismissing ice cream sundaes or cute girls, a preposterous notion. But there’s always a new kid in town. Ask Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. In 10 years ask LeBron James, or whenever his bionic body malfunctions. To paraphrase Charles de Gaulle, the NBA’s pension list is full of irreplaceable men.

What got me aboard this sputtering train of mortality-infused thought? A 2002 family movie starring a boy rapper, one of the girls from The Suite Life of Zack and Cody (Brenda Song), and Jerry Maguire‘s Jonathan Lipnicki.

In Like Mike, co-produced by NBA Entertainment, hoops-loving Los Angeles orphan Calvin Cambridge (Lil’ Bow Wow, now Shad Moss) grabs a pair of Jordan’s (we assume, since the inside of the shoes has the initials “M.J.”) old Nikes (Carolina blue of course). After a jealous bully tosses the shoes onto a telephone wire, Calvin retrieves them during a late-night thunderstorm. Both he and the shoes get zapped, leading to a Spider-Man-like origin story, except the shoes are imbued with magical ability that gives the wearer the ability to crossover like Allen Iverson, dunk like Vince Carter and shoot like Steve Nash (all three players make cameo appearances).

Calvin is discovered at a game during an in-game promotional one-on-one game vs. the fictional L.A. Knights’ (not sure why the Lakers or Clippers couldn’t be used) star Tracy Reynolds (played by Morris Chestnut). Calvin promptly slays him and the basketball Cinderella story ensues. Along the way he jukes a roster of Hall of Famers, including, in addition to the aforementioned, Tracy McGrady, David Robinson, Chris Webber, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, Alonzo Mourning and Dirk Nowitzki (who is hands-down the best player cameo). Jordan is suspiciously absent. Perhaps he was busy training for his ill-advised comeback with the Wizards or just looking for his magical shoes.

Regardless, the past is all over Like Mike. Aside from MJ, who’s becoming Chuck Taylor with each passing day, the NBA players Calvin interacts with, save for Carter and Nowitzki, have retired. But they’re still around. What once was an impediment—kids crave new—is now an opportunity for an awakening. It’s easier to communicate with the past than ever before. Go on YouTube and you can find countless clips of the players featured in Like Mike, posted by industrious amateurs or by the NBA itself. Previous generations had to rely on their parents or relatives to regale us about Oscar Robertson or Wilt Chamberlain. Or they dug into musty books or old newspaper clippings to get that education. Now a kid can witness AI’s badassery and behold how high VC jumped on that 2000 night in Oakland. Hell, you can see Paul Mokeski in action. A constantly updated video library connects us to the past within seconds.

It’s helped me, too. Baseball took a large portion of my attention as a kid. I fell in love with basketball in 1991. Magic had received a death sentence, Bird was spending his off nights in traction, and a legion of ’80s superstars were retired, paying overseas, or riding the bench. I have happily frittered away hours getting acquainted with George Gervin and Alex English and in-his-prime Bernard King, witnessing the adjectives and tributes come to life. I hope kids learn that basketball has always found a way to amaze us. That doesn’t have to come from a 4-8 kid donning raggedy super shoes. Steph Curry fits the bill just fine. And before him there was Mark Price. And Nate “Tiny” Archibald. And Bob Cousy. On and on.

Yet Like Mike managed to tickle me, a relatively new parent introducing his daughter to entertainment options beyond smearing hummus in her hair. Like Mike will get a shot because it’s charming and dives into its make-believe world with gusto. Finding something you can watch with your kid that is safe for them and doesn’t crush your soul to dust is one of life’s great pleasures—take it from somebody who upon meeting Elmo will punch the fuzzy bastard square in his happy red face. Lil’ Bow Wow, on the contrary, is delightful in a far less needy fashion, and he’s surrounded by a supporting cast of capable actors, including Crispin Glover as the orphanage’s creepy (a role he practically has a monopoly on) manager and Robert Forster as Calvin’s sympathetic, paternal coach. Hell, even Eugene Levy working his trademark eyebrows and nasal delivery to full effect as the team’s public relations honcho. Nobody phones it in (OK, maybe Iverson does, see video below), which is all too easy when Lipnicki plays a street-smart orphan named Murph. Who daydreams of dunking.

The actors’ enthusiasm allowed me to buy into Like Mike’s endearing tone and its kids-our-people-too approach. Calvin grounds his me-first Reynolds, who ends up loving Calvin for his precocious self. Every kid’s fantasy is acceptance by a cool adult, never mind an NBA superstar, who is not a parent or a relative. What Like Mike also does well is portray the absolute joy of Calvin’s situation. He has a blast that rivals Kevin McAllister’s when he discovers that he is home alone: ordering room service, flying in chartered flights, razzing the Glove. And that all comes from Lil Bow Wow. Not only does he have the basketball skills—good for an actor playing an NBA player, but not actually as good as an actual NBA player—he’s an effervescent, charming performer who doesn’t attack us with those traits. He also serves as a symbol to parents that Calvin will get into good trouble, not TMZ trouble. Mom and dad can rest easy when Tracy brings a girl to his hotel room or takes too many sleeping pills before hopping into his sports car.

My daughter turns two in November. Soon her attention will turn to movies. (To prepare, I’ve bought a garage sale edition of Frozen.) Like Mike will serve as a nice introduction to the fun you can have on a basketball court, and a way for her to see the players Dad admired. Maybe she’ll see them beyond summaries in a book. If she’s not into that lesson, or even basketball, that’s fine. The great thing about looking at basketball beyond the game is understanding that everything moves on, regardless of how you feel. That’s life.