'Like Mike': No Harm, No Foul

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 5, 2002

FULL disclosure: I don't even follow basketball.

I didn't view Michael Jordan's return to the game as the second coming of Jesus Christ, and I don't care what brand of shoe he wears. I also don't, as a rule, listen to rap music and, until recently, I was only distantly familiar with the work of the newly pubescent, music sensation known as Bow Wow -- or Lil' Bow Wow, as he is officially billed (despite the now 15-year-old performer's recent efforts to drop the modifier).

So, you can imagine how little I was looking forward to a movie starring the aforementioned Mr. Wow as Calvin Cambridge, a 14-year-old orphan whose dreams of playing in the NBA come true when he finds a pair of magical slipper -- er, shoes -- reputed to have once belonged to the legendary Chicago-Bull-turned-Washington-Wizard.

That being said, I liked "Like Mike," a sappy but sweet B-ball Cinderella story that succeeds thanks largely to the outsize charm of its 4-foot-8-inch, corn-rowed protagonist.

Mind you, "Mike" is riddled with cliches, down to the adorable and ethnically diverse cast of orphans (lisping Jonathan Lipnicki of "Jerry Maguire" fame and Brenda Song play Calvin's white and Asian best friends); the crusty but caring nun who oversees their education (Anne Meara); and the heartless conniver who runs the place where they're warehoused (Crispin Glover, doing his best Snidely Whiplash schtick). It's every orphan movie you've ever seen, from "Curly Top" forward, wrapped up in a big, soggy bundle along with every underdog sports flick ever made, including "Air Bud."

And yet I liked it. Its sense of harmless, inoffensive wish fulfillment, along with its celebration of fatherhood -- more than a team jersey, Calvin wants a daddy -- is genuinely touching, if overly familiar and formulaic. And the chemistry is surprisingly unforced between Bow Wow and his professional mentor, Tracey Reynolds, played by Morris Chestnut as the fictional "Los Angeles Knight" who becomes Calvin's roommate and father figure when the teen's newly discovered skill on the court earns him a berth on an NBA team.

On the downside, the film plays at times like a commercial, both for Nike, whose shoes have extensive product placement throughout the movie, and for professional basketball. Produced in association with NBA Entertainment, and featuring a dozen or more cameos by such real-life players as Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, David Robinson and Chris Webber, "Like Mike" will have instant appeal for those sport-smitten youngsters who lap up every league-approved product tie-in. Yet the bald-faced hucksterism of it all still leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Ultimately, though, I was able to forgive and forget. Saccharine though it may be, "Like Mike's" message about finding love and self-esteem is a worthwhile one, and outweighs the crass pitch for footwear and season tickets.

LIKE MIKE (PG, 100 minutes) -- Contains a mild, barely noticeable cussword or two. Area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company