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The Forgotten Michael Jordan '90s Cartoon ProStars Was Even Weirder Than Space Jam

April 28, 2020 1.8k views7 items

In addition to being arguably the most famous athlete in history, Michael Jordan was also one of the most successful crossover pop-culture icons in sports. The 1996 Looney Tunes live-action/animation hybrid film Space Jam will always be remembered as Jordan's most miraculous cultural achievement outside of basketball, but that wasn't the first time the Chicago Bulls legend stepped into the cartoon world. Jordan, along with Wayne Gretzky and Bo Jackson, lent his likeness to an NBC Saturday morning cartoon called ProStars, which might have fully disappeared into the vortex of forgotten TV failures if not for how bizarre its premise was.

  • 'ProStars' Featured Fictionalized Versions Of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, And Bo Jackson Saving The World

    Video: YouTube

    Premiering on September 14, 1991, ProStars was a highly hyped addition to NBC's Saturday morning lineup. At the time, NBC was a major player in the sports broadcasting space. NBC had broadcast rights for the NBA, NFL, the NHL All-Star Game, the Olympics, and Notre Dame college football. It was only natural to supplement that coverage with a sports-adjacent series that could appeal to children (who would then hopefully tune into real sports broadcasts) with a show that was allegedly developed by classic animation house DIC Entertainment for ESPN first.

    Michael Jordan was an obvious pick to lead a sports-focused cartoon, since in a Nickelodeon survey in 1991, he was found to be more famous than the President of the United States. Gretzky had recently been traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings - a splashy move from a tiny Canadian town to the epicenter of the entertainment industry. Bo Jackson, a two-sport star in baseball and football, was a mainstay on TV thanks to the "Bo Knows" commercials for Nike, one of which even featured Gretzky.

    ProStars would combine the sports milieu with the typical trappings of Saturday morning kiddie fare: high-tech laser battles for the purposes of selling toys, over-the-top villains, and perfunctory moral lessons at the end of each episode to pay lip service to the idea of early-childhood education. As described to the Los Angeles Times, the ProStars would be outfitted with a variety of outrageous gadgets that would take the form of traditional sports equipment: "A basketball that becomes a communications satellite, a hockey stick that becomes a laser homing device, a baseball bat that shoots out a grappling hook, all kinds of things from the world of sports that are transformable items."

  • Photo: NBC

    They Battled Bikers, Robots, And Rainforest-Destroying Supervillains

    Befitting the absurd premise, episodes of ProStars are surreal, nonsensical, and possessing of only a tenuous grasp on reality. In an episode with curious similarities to the eventual plot of Space Jam five years later, an imaginatively named supervillain named Dr. Lobe challenges the ProStars to compete against his army of robots to rescue a child. 

    In fact, most episodes of ProStars revolved around Jordan, Gretzky, and Jackson rescuing a helpless kid from some sort of mad scientist, alien, or robot. “[ProStars] is always going to be a positive message, like staying in school, staying away from drugs and the other things that are bothering our youth today,” Jordan said to the LA Times in 1991.

    Executive producer and DIC Entertainment president Andy Hayward described the show as such: “The ProStars go into their sports laboratory where they have all kinds of incredible sports gadgets... that combined with skills, physical prowess and their humanity they go out on a mission to help the kid in trouble."

    The rare deviations from this formula would be somehow more ridiculous than the standard plots. The episode entitled "Brazil Nuts" features the ProStars traveling to Brazil to save the rainforest from strip mining by a villain named "Captain Nemo Ipanema." In an episode set in the Scottish Highlands, Bo Jackson (who had a reputation for being something of an athletic polymath thanks to his dual careers in baseball and football) uses his otherwise hidden talent for jousting to help save the day. In the episode "Gargantus and the Highway of Doom," the ProStars have to rescue an Australian village from a Mad Max-esque motorcycle gang.

    Perhaps the strangest storyline involves recurring villain Clockwork Delaronge (a stereotypical evil genius wearing a pinstriped baseball jersey and a shock of bright orange hair) stealing the Stanley Cup trophy. After saving actual human lives and the global ecosystem, ProStars's penultimate episode is about saving a trophy.

  • None Of The Athletes Provided Voices For Their Characters

    Video: YouTube

    Michael Jordan might have lent his name and likeness to ProStars, but he didn't lend his voice. Neither did Bo Jackson or Wayne Gretzky. Jordan, Jackson, and Gretzky's respective teams were not involved in the making of the series, either, so you never see cartoon Air Jordan wearing a Bulls jersey.

    The official rationale for not having the real players voicing their characters is that their schedules were too busy to fit in the rigorous recording schedule that's typical for professional voice actors. That meant DIC Entertainment was forced to cast soundalikes. In the show, Jordan was portrayed by actor Dorian Harewood, who might be best known for playing the role of Eightball in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Gretzky was played by voice actor Townsend Coleman, who also provided the voices for Michaelangelo in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon and The Tick. Bo Jackson was played by journeyman voice actor Dave Fennoy, who portrayed Lee Everett in the Walking Dead video game by Telltale Games. Real sports figures did participate in the show, though. NBC's NBA announcing team of Marv Albert and Mike Fratello voiced themselves in episode 9, "Rustler's Rodeo," which involves the ProStars helping someone win a rodeo so they can buy back their family's ranch.

  • Photo: NBC

    Each Episode Featured A Live Action Segment With The Real Athletes Answering Fan Questions

    ProStars episodes typically began and ended with brief cameo appearances from Wayne Gretzky and Bo Jackson - a bit of stiff banter at the top and then a recurring segment called "Questions" at the end. In the Questions segment, children would ask questions to the ProStars, like, "How did you get into the big leagues?"

    Befitting his status as the biggest name of the three ProStars, Jordan didn't participate in these shoots. Instead, he recorded some short snippets and bumpers from a basketball court while Gretzky and Jackson cranked out these segments in custom-made ProStars letterman jackets.