Before he was the architect of the dark and brooding DC Extended Universe, director Zack Snyder got his start behind the camera in a much lighter arena – the basketball court. In 1990, a young and fresh-faced Zack Snyder stepped behind the lens to direct Playground, a documentary following NBA icon Michael Jordan’s work on the court.
Far from the world of caped crusaders and Kryptonian villains, Playground showed a more uplifting and hopeful side of Snyder’s filmmaking. Though his later works would be defined by their unique visual style and bombastic action, Playground proves Snyder always had a talent for capturing the human side of any story.
In 1990, Michael Jordan stood atop the NBA pantheon, about to win his first championship with the Bulls and in the midst of cementing his legacy as one of basketball’s all-time greats. Still young and bursting with athleticism, Jordan took time to give back by mentoring youth through basketball camps and programs. This is the Michael Jordan that a young Zach Snyder filmed in Playground – not the sports legend, but the compassionate role model.
“He’s so natural,” Snyder remarks, impressed by Jordan’s ease and authenticity as an actor. Playground isn’t just your average sports documentary showing highlights of Jordan’s early career – no, this Snyderrific feature has some scripted elements in it, with Jordan helping a young basketball coach to believe in himself again.
While not every athlete is cut for acting gigs, Jordan immediately left his mark in the world of entertainment due to how fluently he behaved in front of the cameras. Where other sports icons would have stuttered or mumbled their lines, Jordan delivered his’ with ease and unmatched naturality – just the sort of talent that Snyder appreciated most from the athlete.
This was years before Jordan would share the screen with Bugs Bunny in the Warner Bros. smash Space Jam. In Playground, there are no animated hijinks – just Jordan as his charming self, conveying heart and humour. Snyder recognized and amplified Jordan’s talent, foreshadowing the superstar’s future Hollywood success.
More than anything, Playground serves as a momentous occasion for the careers of both Snyder and Jordan. While Jordan was already on his way to becoming one of the most renowned sports superstars, Snyder’s role directing one of the most popular athletes in the world undoubtedly helped get him acquainted with the ins and outs of the entertainment industry.
Playground may have been the only time an upstart filmmaker like Zack Snyder could “coach” a legend like Michael Jordan. But it’s clear the experience made a lasting impression. In Jordan, Snyder found a subject whose talent and work ethic matched his own tireless ambition. And in Snyder’s admiring direction, Jordan discovered a collaborator who could draw out his natural charisma for cinema.
Though Playground feels worlds away, Snyder’s penchant for myth-making was already emerging. While we never got a gritty Snyder-helmed Space Jam, Playground proves greatness recognizes greatness. Even at the start, Snyder saw the humanity behind Jordan’s royalty, just as Jordan saw the potential in his eager young “coach.”
What do you think about Michael Jordan seeing Zack Snyder as his coach?
Born in Venezuela – and still living there – Tito Pernalete loves all things geeky and sci-fi. He studied Social Communications in college: an odd career choice for a confessed introvert. Though he has experience as a director of photography for some short films, Tito has been a writer for most of his adult life, with a particular interest in movies/TV and tech in general. When he's not playing Elden Ring or binge-watching a horror movie marathon, you can find him planning his dream trip to Japan. His favourite film is RoboCop, but he also has a soft spot for cheesy 80s horror flicks and anything made by Wes Anderson.