INSIDE THE JORDAN DOME
The training headquarters that made history on the set of Space Jam.
“When [the team] lost to Orlando – that’s where the whole process started,” says Tim Grover, Michael Jordan’s personal trainer from 1989 until retirement. He is talking about the 1995 conference semifinals loss after Jordan’s one-and-a-half year absence. For his star client, a competitive fire had been lit.
Jordan had accepted his first big screen starring role on the animated film Space Jam, using ‘new’ green screen technology. With a blockbuster film to make and a future championship to prepare for, Jordan and Warner Bros. had to create something unprecedented for the time – a state of the art, on-set training headquarters.
And so rose the Jordan Dome.
“Initially, what they were going to do was just paint some lines on the parking lot and put a couple of hoops up,” recalls Grover. “And I was like, ‘No, no, no. This is Michael Jordan. We’re not playing basketball in a parking lot. Not gonna happen.” Grover took the lead on building the inflatable dome on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, something he equates to the indoor fields NFL teams use today.
Space Jam Director Joe Pytka remembers, “It was a full-sized basketball court with an inflatable dome. And Michael would go up there and everybody in town would come to play basketball there and challenge him. He’d play basketball every night, and he had great players come in. All the LA players could run up there to play.”
The facility was air-conditioned and included locker rooms, showers, a living room and top-notch training equipment. Bruce Talamon, the on-set photographer for Space Jam says “It was like one stop shopping. He didn’t have to leave the studio lot. They could just get him quickly when they needed him for a scene.”
“Back then, it was probably the state-of-the-art training facility,” said Grover, who recalled flying back-and-forth from Chicago to L.A. to get the job done. “And it was put up in less than six weeks.”
But it was the social element that made the Jordan Dome unique. With cast, crew and an assortment of celebrities and athletes coming past to hang out, The Dome became a kind of private club.
“A lot of the players came down to hang out on the set,” says Talamon. “That was the hottest ticket in town. You couldn’t just walk up in there. You either had to be invited or approved. You would have the biggest Hollywood stars who would want to come into the Dome and watch him play. They all wanted to come in and see the real star. And Michael was the real star.”
The Dome provided Jordan with an environment to socialize and train but also retreat from what could be an unfamiliar film set. The result was an immersive and challenging environment for Jordan to prep for a history-making season.
The convenience and amenities of the Jordan Dome were one aspect, but the camaraderie also helped Jordan to excel—mentally and physically. “There was more trash talking in that building than probably the history of any professional sport,” Grover says.
A team dynamic was essential not only for training but for the production as well. Pytka had worked with Jordan previously on the ‘Hare Jordan’ campaign and knew rapport was essential. “It was almost like he was playing a basketball game and I’m the adversary,” Pytka explains. “I’d mess with him a little bit and he’d mess with me. It was never serious.”
Pytka went to lengths to ensure Jordan was as comfortable as possible given the circumstances. “In those days, using athletes in this area was relatively new.” he says. “Being in front of the camera and all those people is always stressful. I created a comedy troupe, about five or six actors that played each character, and I put them in green suits so Michael could act against a character, rather than a couple of dots on the screen. He was acting with real people, rather than going against the script supervisor. The guy that was coaching him and the extras became like a family.”
Few could have expected a giant inflatable bubble on a movie set would lay the foundations for the greatest basketball season of all time. Grover sums up the environment: “It was significant in him getting back to the Michael Jordan that we always knew.” That was the Michael Jordan that would go on to win three more championships.