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.
- Photo: NBC
Wayne Gretzky Was The Comic Relief
Saturday morning cartoons are usually pretty irreverent and silly, but even a show like ProStars - which featured athletes shooting lasers at robots - needed a "funny" character. For reasons that are unclear, that character ended up being Los Angeles Kings hockey star Wayne Gretzky. His defining personality trait? Loving to eat.
Brad Kreisberg told VICE that the producers at DIC had likely been given this idea from Gretzky himself during the research phase of the project. It "may have just been one of those things Wayne snuck out to them was, 'Hey, I love to eat,' and they just ran with it."
ProStars Was Not the Only Saturday Morning Cartoon About Real CelebritiesVideo: YouTube
ProStars was part of a mini-trend of children's animated series about cartoon versions of actual people. ProStars's director of live-action segments, Brad Kreisberg, told VICE Sports: "It seems so much weirder right now than when I was in the moment back then, but from the '70s on, if you were a big, huge star, you probably had a cartoon attached to you."
DIC President Andy Hayward told the LA Times, "Many of our shows are built around heroes. Sometimes they are super heroes, sometimes heroes from he world of music. But they are characters that have larger than life credibility to them."
Almost all of these animated series were the brainchildren of DIC Entertainment: John Candy's Camp Candy, New Kids on the Block, and Siegfried & Roy: Masters of the Impossible (based on the titular Vegas magicians). One of the only non-DIC series in this genre was a cartoon based on the real-life hip-hop duo Kid 'n Play, which lasted for four months in 1990 and was produced by Saban Entertainment (owners of the Power Rangers franchise) and Marvel Entertainment. Yes, that Marvel.
Probably the most infamous of these is Hammerman, in which rapper MC Hammer becomes a superhero with the aid of a pair of magical talking shoes. Hammerman, like ProStars, was also produced by DIC Entertainment. It also shared the curious conceit of live-action segments hosted by the real human being behind the animation, but a voice actor performing the character in the cartoon portions.
Actor/director Clark Johnson portrayed MC Hammer in the animated stories. Johnson would go on to direct four episodes of HBO crime drama The Wire, including the pilot and series finale. He also played Baltimore Sun city desk editor Augustus Haynes in Season 5 of The Wire.
- Photo: NBC
'ProStars' Was Cancelled After 13 Episodes
Like most of DIC Entertainment's cheaply produced branded animated series, ProStars was not on long for this world, getting canceled by NBC after a single season of 13 episodes. The final episode, titled "The Final Cut," is a clip show - a bizarre choice for a TV show that had only produced 12 episodes to that point. It's easier to understand when factoring in the obvious cost savings associated with an episode where most of the animation was already completed. The story of the episode is that Mom, the ProStars's dutiful gadget-maker, has boldly claimed that the ProStars are not as good at saving the world as they think. To prove her wrong, they show her clips from previous adventures.
Today, the idea of Saturday morning cartoons is somewhat old-fashioned. Televised children's entertainment doesn't have to be restricted to the weekend and can be accessed anywhere, at any time, thanks to smartphone and tablet technology and streaming sites like YouTube or Disney+. Celebrities don't have to star in cartoons to reach young audiences, who are increasingly drawn to apps like Instagram and TikTok. A show like ProStars might never exist again, and that's probably for the better. Kreisberg said of the show, "I think the concept was just a little stretched on why these three were together."