Easter & the Saints
“Larry, I’m gonna give us both twos back there. We were in no emotional state to putt.” – William James Murray
I am incapable of objectively discussing the film Space Jam. That’s the caveat. It meant the world to me as a boy and even now, seventeen years since it’s theatrical release, it’s a work of art that I hold very near and very dear to my heart. I get that some people find the movie a bother. You won’t want to read any more of this piece if that’s the case. It’ll just send you spiraling further into what I can only assume is a super depressing loveless existence. Just continue on with your kitten killing or hatred of air or whatever it is that you do. Space Jam connected with me on a visceral level. The combination of the Looney Tunes and Michael Jordan was and is intoxicating. It leaves me drunk with joy.
When I received the VHS and it’s accompanying pog slammer — Jordan on one side, Bugs on the other — from the Easter Bunny in 1996 I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t eat any of my peeps or Butterfinger BB’s I’d also received in my Easter basket for a week. I inhaled the film. I watched it daily. It was my comfort and my joy. That slammer got a workout, too. Copped a pretty great Kazaam pog at recess from Jeremy Kennedy because of that silver disc of destruction. I’m saying, to go against a Space Jam slammer is to get involved in a land war in Asia.
I went to the Twin Cities one summer during college with a friend of mine named Ryan. Ryan refuses to wear shorts for the most part and knows more about Cormac McCarthy than I know about myself. He had a buddy interning in the Target corporate office and, as the two of them had paired up to start a non-profit together, they needed to meet to finalize plans going into the school year. Ryan asked that I tag along as he’d found cheap flights and I said yes since he was my great friend, I’d never been before, would probably never have an opportunity to go again, and I thought it an opportunity to maybe find a Minnesota Gophers hockey jersey that, for whatever reason, my Oklahoma self desired. Maybe I thought it was exotic. I don’t know. I wound up bailing on the idea once I was up there. Hockey jerseys are expensive.
While we were in town we decided to go to a St. Paul Saints game. The Saints, as confirmed on Wikipedia, are “a member of the North Division of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, which is not affiliated with Major League Baseball.” The game was a kind of careless fun that only minor and independent league games can be. Near the end of the Saints loss, the fading Minnesota sun painting the sky above the ballpark lights a kind of glossy flamingo pink — one of the first moments of my life I specifically remember thinking something was too pretty to not document — I decided to take a picture. I stared at the picture on my phone and thought about how that wasn’t enough. I needed something I could touch, something I could feel, something I could have in the future that would remind me via a sense that wasn’t sight how lovely that evening and that St. Paul sky were. I needed a souvenir.
I wound up buying a St. Paul Saints hat. It was simple and a shade of blue slightly darker than navy. There was an “S” and a “t” and a “P” on the front and the word “Saints” stitched in cursive on the back. I felt good about it and wore it with pride.
Once, when watching Space Jam at a friends’ house, it ended and I requested that it be immediately rewound to the final exchange between Bill Murray and Larry Bird. In the scene, Bill Murray wears a hat. That hat is the same one I bought at that St. Paul ballpark. I let the room know this and the room let me know that nobody cared. I wear the hat to this day and when asked about the hat’s meaning I’m generally met with “Cool story, bro.” I do not care about their flippant responses. They know not what they do.
The Biggest Performance in The Big Game
Murray’s appearances in the film, though brief, are transcendent. The delivered lines and scenes are the best and most enjoyable of the film and the back and forth banter with Larry Bird is something that would make Abbott and Costello swoon. (I refuse to acknowledge that that’s probably a gross over exaggeration and will soldier on confidently like nothing happened.)
There are separate columns and essays where one can expound upon the otherworldly comedic prowess that Murray displays throughout the film. It is not the goal of this piece to do that. Frankly, it is the opinion of this writer that there are no words to accurately capture the greatness of Murray’s sizable comedic chops and any attempts to do so would result in public embarrassment the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since Jimmy Clausen released those awful, ring laden, hair gel saturated senior pictures of his.
The Big Game against the Monstars and the Tune Squad is most likely well tread territory for those of you bored and awesome enough to read this far, but on the off chance your memory fails you or, by some crime against your very humanity, you have not yet seen the film, let’s revisit the game that changed everything.
The Monstars had stolen talent from former NBA players and were out to make the Looney Tunes their slaves on Moron Mountain at the request of Swackhammer, a poop green colored creature, squatty and gross and unable to make anyone think of any person other than the man who voiced him, Danny DeVito. Desperate and needing help, the Tune Squad kidnapped Michael Jordan with the help of a golf hole, a super magnet, and the most agile rope known to man or cartoon. Will Rogers couldn’t make a rope do the things that Bugs was able to make that rope do.
Jordan does what he can to help the Looney Tunes prepare for the battle but as the first half of the game comes to a close, a “pretty one sided” contest is completely out of hand. Jordan is powerless without some help, reminiscent of his late 80’s era Bulls teams, and can only do so much against aliens that now have the incredible basketball abilities of Larry Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Mugsy Bogues, and, to a lesser extent, Shawn Bradley.
These aliens don’t play. They have superior strength, speed, height, stamina, and can dunk from well beyond the three point line. Their hands are bigger than the backboard and all of them play with an edge. The first half is a clinic, the Monstars playing a brutal brand of basketball that the Tune Squad has absolutely no answer for.
After a halftime that sees Wayne Knight get shot up by the Monstars and Jordan, by way of Bugs Bunny’s clever altering of a normal water bottle, give the Tune Squad some of his “Secret Stuff”, the game takes a drastic turn. The Tune Squad is reenergized and inspired and it shows. The Monstars, while prolific, displayed something that has befallen many of our greatest empires: hubris. Extreme hubris. They were great, yes, but they knew they were. They were overconfident and got lazy, counting on the Tune Squad to fade softly into the ACME powered night. This is not an attribute of a Jordan led squad and Jordan, along with his cohorts, went to work, chipping away at the seemingly insurmountable lead.
Back come the Tune Squad. Incredible plays by Daffy Duck, Jordan, B. Bunny, Lola Bunny, Sylvester, Pepe Le Pew, and countless others, finally using all that Loony Tune land has at its disposal — costumes, scooters, football helmets, extreme skunk smells, overly sexualized female bunnies, etc. — and they manage to cut into the lead greatly.
But still the Monstars power on like tanks through a sleeping straw village in the night. They hurt most all of the Tune Squad’s players and their bench is so decimated by injuries that late in the 4th quarter, after Wayne Knight is literally flattened while taking and making a deep three, Jordan is forced to look at the possibility of forfeiting the game because they don’t have enough players. Marvin the Martian, the official who has let a lot of physical play go unchecked this game, decides to grab his rule book and not allow Jordan and his Tunes to Gene Hackman it and ride with four players.
Side note: It can’t be overstated how poorly this game was officiated. It’s a black eye for the ACME League on par with Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Martian let this one get out of hand. He’s lucky that only one player wound up in an iron lung. Just a complete embarrassment. Cuban would’ve had five aneurisms arguing these no calls.
Dejected, without hope or help, Jordan looks to his bench. It is then when our savior appears. Billy Murray, rocking a pair of J’s, a backwards St. Paul Saints hat, and a couple yacht-fulls of swagger, comes into the mix singing the song of the Tunes and the world smiles because even in the dark places where Swackhammer festers, goodness and truth still exist. Murray, because of his close relationship with an unnamed producer on the film — We aren’t told who, but it’s most likely Ivan Reitman — had a teamster drop him off and now, Tune Squad jersey on his back, he’s available to play.
After some confusion on the part of Swackhammer as to whether or not he’s Dan Akroyd, Murray is added to the Tune Squad roster and into the timeout we go. In the huddle he begins to bark orders at the rest of his teammates about what they should do on offense until he’s told by Jordan that they’re on defense. Murray doesn’t do defense. He allows Jordan to strategize unfettered and at the end of the timeout demands something of Jordan: “Don’t lose that confidence.” Jordan shakes his head.
We see the scoreboard. It’s 77-76. Monstars are up. Immediately Murray makes an impact. His is a creative and boast filled game fit for the New York City asphalt. We see him whisper into the ear of Duck a recommendation that becomes Duck Ronnie Lott-ing a Monstar. This leads to a steal by Murray. Then Murray, startling fluid and adept on the hardwood, dishes off to start the break. The handle and passing ability displayed by Murray are both professional in quality. You know what happens next. After a wonderful bit of passing, incredible handle by L. Bunny, B. Bunny uses his length to intercept a pass with his ears, and we wind up with Murray dishing to Jordan and Jordan taking off from half-court, finishing a shot at the buzzer to win the game.
Murray’s a +2 for the game in just 10 seconds of play. Calculate that had he played the whole game and, well, that number would be staggering.
His per 36 averages, particularly in steals and assists, would be off the charts, and it’s clear that he is the floor general and backcourt mate Jordan was missing for the greater part of the game. A player who can create his own shot, get others the ball in positions to succeed, and further help the Tune Squad develop an identity both on offense — as a run and gun team that gets out into the open floor and puts pressure on the transition defense of the opposing team — and on defense — as a team that harasses and traps and allows their defense to fuel their offense. A kind of cartoon version of Nolan Richardson’s 40 minutes hell. This would prove invaluable for viewership as well. The final score of the game, a mid 90’s Heat-Knicks vomit of a score, was 78-77, Tune Squad. What a joy it would’ve been for the fans to see this kind of Maravichian play for an entire game.
Point being, had Murray been playing the whole time, the game wouldn’t have been as close as it was and Jordan wouldn’t have needed to realize — through the flattening and re-airing of Knight — that even humans can achieve amazing feats of physical alteration in Loony Tune Land.
Holes & Critiques
Now, speaking on Knight’s being knocked out of the game and relegated to the IR, some might say that Murray’s playing the whole game would’ve made him susceptible to injury. I’d point out that he has battled and defeated creatures from the supernatural realm before and come out unscathed. If he can go toe to toe with Zuul and The Keymaster and Gozer the Gozerian and come out on top, then I think he can come out uninjured against a group of super strong extra terrestrials that for the better part of the film were too dumb to realize what an incredible physical advantage they held over their boss who was, essentially, enslaving them.
Another critique might be of Murray’s stamina, something that was clearly an issue as, after only ten seconds of play, he was limping around in obvious pain and announcing his retirement from the game of basketball. To that I’d say that it’s Loony Tune Land and all he’d need was to see the flattening of Knight to know that his body, in that world, is capable of standing up to immense trauma. Combine that knowledge with adrenaline and his natural propensity for coming through in the clutch and rising to the level of his opponent (See: Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, et. al) and he’d be more than fine.
The Legacy of William James Murray, the Basketball Player
Common sense and the eye test would lead one to believe that Murray would have scored, at the very least, a couple buckets had he played the full 48. But, even if he’d gone scoreless, his offensive creativity and leadership would’ve been more than enough to give the Tune Squad a huge lift. One that might have had them defeating the Monstars handily. As it is, though, he showed up in the nick of time and, clear floor general he is, managed to set the stage and the table for the most epic game winning shot of Jordan’s illustrious career.
Of all the impressive achievements of Space Jam — the black Concords that became the Space Jam J’s, “I Believe I Can Fly”, the Space Jam theme song, that girl that told Barkley to “be gone” — the most impressive achievement is only Murray’s: For ten seconds, he made Michael Jordan the galaxies’ second most entertaining basketball player.
Let’s go, Bulls.