In January of 1999, the NBA faced the beginning of an existential crisis. At the end of a six-month labor dispute that cut the season to 50 games, Michael Jordan, its most marketable and popular star, announced his (second) retirement. Over the next couple of years the NBA’s average attendance dipped annually, television ratings dropped steadily, and, by 2001, just 15 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds had a rooting interest in the league. Emerging talents like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Garnett were only just starting to attract loyal fans, and the NBA knew it needed to pivot from its linear entertainment model to captivate its younger demographic.
Around the same time, Shad “Bow Wow” Moss (then “Lil Bow Wow”) had quickly become the biggest kid performer—one of the biggest musicians, period, actually—in the country. As hip-hop saturated the mainstream and became the top-selling music genre, the 11-year-old, who was initially discovered by Snoop Dogg in the early 90’s, burst onto the scene with his first album, “Beware of Dog,” which sold $2.7 million records and went platinum in 2001. In addition to selling out his first headlined, 50-date tour that year, the rap superstar had also begun to venture into Hollywood, making cameos in small movies and television shows that took advantage of his outsized personality and charm.
So, in 2002, when the producers of a kid-oriented basketball fantasy called Like Mike approached the league about lending their emerging hotshots to a basketball fantasy starring Moss, it seemed like a slam dunk. The movie, about a 13-year-old who gains Michael Jordan’s court skills by wearing a pair of the all-star’s magically-enhanced sneakers, promised to be the NBA’s gateway to a new audience of teens. In the film, the suddenly-soaring orphan named Calvin Cambridge (Moss), joins a struggling (made-up) NBA team, the Los Angeles Knights, and brings them into contention. Now, thanks to the league’s all-in participation, Calvin’s fictional road to the title would pit him against such real, then-budding superstars as Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Allen Iverson, as well as well-established players like Alonzo Mourning and Jason Kidd.
It was, to say the least, a fruitful partnership for both the movie and professional basketball. Released twenty years ago this week, Like Mike grossed $52 million, and its popularity among young millennials further blew up during its immensely profitable DVD afterlife; the film is now a nostalgia staple for those who grew up watching it on repeat. But its larger legacy is the way it embodied the soon-to-be mainstream convergence of basketball and hip-hop culture, forecasted the NBA’s immense rise in popularity among young adults, and signaled the growing symbiotic bond between Hollywood and professional sports. “This definitely gave me a wave of energy that I don’t think I could have gotten just by being a rapper,” says Moss. “The NBA was turning a new leaf—it was the perfect marriage.”
When writer Michael Elliott first presented producer Peter Heller with his draft for Like Mike, Heller knew he had something special. “I was like, ‘It’s The Red Shoes and basketball, it’s brilliant,’” he recalls. “I haven’t had this kind of certainty more than two or three times.” It didn’t take long for Elliott to find its star: He remembered a moment he’d witnessed two years earlier on the set of MTV’s made-for-TV-movie, Carmen: A Hip Hopera, when a cameo-ing Moss schooled his music producer Jermaine Dupri on the court. “I’d always been big into sports as a kid watching Michael Jordan,” Moss says. “When I became famous, I was still playing in tournaments through Ohio and Indiana and the midwest.”