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January 30, 2023

Slam Dunk ’88: The Story Behind Michael Jordan’s Iconic Free-Throw Dunk Photo

It’s one of the most famous photos in basketball: an iconic shot of Chicago Bulls’ superstar Michael Jordan appearing to defy gravity during the 1988 Slam Dunk contest in Chicago. The image of Jordan lifting off from the free throw line on his way to a colossal dunk was captured by renowned sports photographer Walter Iooss Jr.

For Walter Iooss, who at that time had a resume including some of the most memorable sports images of heroes such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Montana, Wilt Chamberlain and many more, it was his relationship with Michael dating back to several previous photoshoots that helped him get the perfect shot. He revealed a little backstory about the photo:

“The problem with shooting the NBA slam-dunk contest was that you never knew how the players were going to dunk, especially Jordan. In 1987, he had twirled and dunked with his back to me. But by this time I knew him a little better. As he sat in the stands three hours before the contest, I said, ‘Michael, can you tell me which way you're going to go, so I can move and get your face in the picture?’ He looked at me as if I were crazy, but then said, ‘Sure. Before I go out to dunk I’ll put my index finger on my knee and point which way I’m going.’ I said, ‘You’re going to remember that?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’

“So later, when they announced his name [for his turn to dunk], I looked over to him on the bench and there was his finger pointing left. I got up and moved to the right side of the basket so I could see his face. He went left every time he dunked. On his last two dunks, he ran the length of the court, took off from the foul line and slammed the ball through. On the next-to-last one he landed in my lap. On the last one I set up in the same spot. He looked at me as if to say, ‘Go left a little, give me some room this time.’ And that was it, the picture was made: 1000th of a second frozen in time.”

The result was among the most ubiquitous photos of Jordan.

Walter Iooss Jr., shown alongside Michael Jordan, 1988.

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