The news that LeBron James would be starring in Space Jam 2 was too perfect. Somehow, even more than winning MVPs and championships, taking over a Looney Tunes franchise from Michael Jordan would be the thing that cemented him as not just the greatest basketball player of his generation, but the biggest star. Plus, it provided the tantalizing possibility that every fifteen to twenty years, the greatest basketball player on the planet would, in addition to dominating their sport, need to star in a movie with a latter-day version of Newman from Seinfeld to complete their coronation.
Regrettably, it turned out to be a hoax—after “sources” claimed the rumors were unfounded, LeBron personally denied the rumors, meaning we can probably put this to bed. Unless this was a trial balloon to gauge public reaction, in which case this movie is definitely happening. And hey, it can’t hurt on his quest to become a billionaire. (“It’s my biggest milestone”).
The problem with superstar basketball players’ movies isn’t that they’re bad—of course they’re bad—it’s that it’s rather disconcerting when people who are physically perfect suddenly become stiff and unsure of how to, well, act. It takes away from Dr. J’s reputation as the smoothest to see him in The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh trying to figure out what to do with his hands. (Though, it should be noted, it absolutely adds to his mystique when, in this PG-rated movie, he manages, through some miracle of poor ‘70s lighting, to stand up, in the nude, right in front of the camera).
Even when they’re granted something beyond a cameo, athletes always play some version of themselves, which has usually been the case for all non-actors in film, from Audie Murphy to Eminem. Kevin Durant probably didn’t have to go method to play “Kevin Durant” in Thunderstruck.
Ambition can be the downfall of athlete-actors. James’ former teammate Shaquille O’Neal was well-suited to play whimsically-named basketball player Neon Boudeaux in 1994’s Blue Chips. After the movie was a small hit and O’Neal moved from Orlando to Los Angeles, he was in a position to command a starring role. Say what you will about his performances in Kazaam and Steel, but if you’re an enormous mountain of a human being, a magical genie and an elementally confusing superhero named John Henry Irons would seem to be in your wheelhouse. Alas neither role really was, and critics and audiences alike rejected them.
Even if James played it safe, presumably by playing himself in Space Jam 2, it’s very unlikely he’d be the best actor on the 2013-14 Heat–and no, that’s not a reference to Shane Battier’s flopping. In Spike Lee’s He Got Game, Ray Allen delivered what might the greatest performance by an athlete in a movie. Cast because his baby face would allow him to pass for a high schooler, and because Kobe Bryant was busy, Allen played Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee’s story of a father (Denzel Washington) fresh out of prison and seeking redemption and forgiveness. Allen delivered a surprisingly solid performance in an actual role, although perhaps Denzel Washington’s performance was more impressive when he scored a few buckets against Allen in their climactic and reportedly unscripted one-on-one scene.
But the measuring stick for LeBron James in basketball and in all things isn’t Julius Erving, Shaquille O’Neal, Ray Allen or even Kevin Durant; it’s Michael Jordan. That never-ending comparison is the reason everyone was so quick to believe and be excited by the Space Jam 2 rumors. But as we learned with The Decision, James doesn’t want to try to go down Michael Jordan’s path when it doesn’t lead where he wants to go. Instead, he’ll be taking his talents to Starz.