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Like Mike is a contemporary fairytale about a kid (played by teenage rapper Lil Bow Wow) who realises his dream of becoming a basketball star. But, says Max Levant, you don’t have to be a basketball fan to ‘get’ what the movie’s about.

Some ideas are so good they beat the game - or that's what Like Mike’s producer Peter Heller reckons. Come to think of it, that's pretty much what the film is about, too. “You often hear the term ‘development hell’ in Hollywood, about a project that ends up taking forever to get made,” says Heller, whose credits include the Snoop Dogg movie Bones and Brown Sugar, which featured Taye Diggs and Queen Latifah. “But this movie has been just the opposite.”

In fact, it took only 14 months from the day Heller and co-writer Michael Elliot took the script to Fox until Like Mike opened in North America on the 4th of July weekend 2002. In between, Heller, fellow producer Barry Josephson and director John Schultz (Drive Me Crazy) had a number of difficult things to do. They had to find a 14-year-old kid who could play great basketball; they had to recruit a number of major basketball players to be run rings round on the court by the aforesaid 14-year-old kid; and they had to figure out how to do some of the special effects which the film needed without making it look too much like a fantasy.

Mind you, Like Mike does have an element of fantasy about it: it’s the story of what happens when Calvin Cambridge’s dreams come true. Calvin is an orphan who lives in the Chesterfield Group Home, which is ruled with a rod of iron by the wicked Stan Bittleman (Crispin Glover), and from which Calvin stands less and less chance of being adopted as every ‘prospective parents’ day’ goes by. Everyone wants the cute five-year-olds, not him and his equally superannuated pals, Murph and Reg. As usual, the three of them drift back out to the backyard long before the ‘day’ is officially over to shoot some hoops - something Calvin is not particularly good at, despite his dreams of one day playing in the NBA.

A few days later, however, a box of clothing is delivered to the Chesterfield Home, and Sister Theresa (Anne Meara), Calvin’s only real adult ally in the institution, gives him an old pair of basketball sneakers with the initials ‘MJ’ on them.

Now, for readers outside the US, those initials may not immediately ring a bell. But for Calvin, they can mean only one thing. “He said they belonged to a famous basketball player when he was a kid,” recalls Sister Theresa later. “You know… the tall, bald one.” Anyway, the Nikes - or maybe it’s his belief in them - transform Calvin’s game.

Sister Theresa’s well-intentioned ignorance of one of America’s favourite sports is one of the keys to how Like Mike works: you don’t need to know much about basketball - or even the career of the real-life ‘MJ’ - to get what happens. But you do have to care about Calvin, so Heller and Josephson were determined to find a teenage actor who would be enough of a name to get audiences into the movie, and have enough acting chops to carry it. That didn’t leave a lot of leeway, which is why they decided to cast Lil Bow Wow, who figures in the Guinness Book of Records as “the youngest solo rapper ever to hit No. 1”. What they didn’t know was that the singer - whose 2001 ‘Scream Tour’ sold out across North America and whose debut album, ‘Beware of Dog’, sold over two million copies - had (like Calvin) always wanted to play in the NBA.

"My first dream, besides rapping, was playing basketball.. I wasn't really interested in the whole movie thing."

“My first dream, besides rapping, was playing basketball, maybe in the NBA,” says the singer, adding (rather worryingly for the producers of Like Mike): “I wasn’t really interested in the whole movie thing.”

That was then. The first thing director Schultz did was fly to Ohio to see Lil Bow Wow (Bow to his friends). “Bow was pretty much attached, but I went to see him anyway,” says Schultz, “and quickly agreed he was the only guy for the role. We played basketball, and I realised very quickly that he could play. That relieved me. Most importantly, he’s proved to be a terrific actor as well.”

Bow remembers the director’s visit slightly differently. “John flew to see me in Columbus,” he recalls. “We talked, played basketball, and got to know each other. I let him win a couple of one-on-one games, just to make sure I got the part. But John knows he can’t take me!” And, judging by the reaction of former pro basketball player Reggie Theus who advised on the film’s on-court action, Bow’s confidence is not misplaced.

“He handles the ball better than any 14-year-old I’ve ever seen,” says Theus. “He has to do some incredible things in this movie and he wanted to make sure that everything he did was right and true to form. I had to keep reminding myself that I was dealing with a 14-year-old kid. But after just a few minutes with him you understand why he’s been so successful in everything he’s done.”

Filming began on Like Mike just after New Year 2002 in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, with the NBA partnering in the production and a number of real-life stars taking part in the on-screen games. The NBA’s participation also meant that the crew was able to film scenes during real basketball games. “To allow us to shoot during their All-Star break, one of the biggest media events of the year, was unbelievable,” says Heller.

“Every single player we worked with had a great attitude,” adds Schultz. “They all quickly ‘got’ the idea of the movie and were more than willing to be ‘schooled’ by Calvin Cambridge: they knew exactly how to poke fun at themselves.”

"Dreaming helps build a little confidence and establishes hope for kids"

Some of them also found echoes of the movie’s main theme in their own lives. “Dreaming helps build a little confidence and establishes hope for kids,” insists Allen Mourning of the Miami Heat.

“I had recently watched a 60 Minutes piece on how difficult it is for teenage orphans to get adopted,” recalls producer Barry Josephson, “and I thought to myself: There’s a need to tell this story. But most of all, it’s a wonderful fairytale with an edge – a real, contemporary fairytale.”

Published January 16, 2003

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