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The Story Behind Michael Jordan's Most Famous Dunk

Thirty years ago, Michael Jordan won the Slam Dunk Contest with a jam that became the stuff of legend. Here, Walter Iooss Jr., the photographer who took the iconic picture, shares the surprising story behind the image.

Michael Jordan portraitWalter Iooss Jr./NBAE/Getty ImagesYoung Mr. JordanSince the very first slam dunk (reported to be in 1944), countless basketballs have been windmilled, tomahawked, and otherwise jammed though playground, gymnasium, and arena hoops. But the single most famous dunk in history? That honor belongs to Michael Jordan, who won the NBA's Slam Dunk contest in February 1988 with a move so breathtaking that 30 years later, posters depicting it still adorn bedroom walls the world over. The photographer who captured the image, immortalizing the moment we think of when we think of "The Dunk," was Walter Iooss, Jr. Iooss spoke to Foto about his decades-long relationship with MJ; the picture’s place in sports history; and how, exactly, he got that legendary shot.

Michael Jordan PortraitWalter Iooss Jr./NBAE/Getty ImagesThe 'Blue Dunk'Iooss (pronounced "Yose") first photographed Jordan in 1987, when the future Hall of Famer was 24 and had five MVP awards, six rings, and three retirements still ahead of him. “I first shot Michael at a basketball camp he was running in Lisle, Illinois. This is when we took the 'Blue Dunk.' (Pictured) After that, I started to follow him for Sports Illustrated and to work with him on Nike and Gatorade. He was such a likable guy, and a trust factor built up between us.”

1987 NBA Slam Dunk ContestWalter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesAbove The RimJordan won the Slam Dunk contest in ’87 and entered the ’88 competition as the marginal favorite ― marginal because he was facing high-flying stars like Dominique "the Human Highlight Film" Wilkins, Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, and the crowd-pleasing Spud Webb (all 5' 7" of him). Says Iooss: “The previous year, I’d lit the contest theatrically and had taken one strong picture. But I learned that no matter how great the dunk, if you don’t see the player’s face, there’s no picture.” For Iooss, that was the key, right there, to preparing for what would become one of his most celebrated photos. Pictured: Jordan, flying high, at the '87 Slam Dunk contest in Seattle.

1987 NBA Slam Dunk ContestWalter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesNothing But BackShooting the slam dunk competition is more difficult than it might appear because you can’t predict the direction from which a player will approach the hoop. Iooss remembers one dunk from ’87 (pictured) where Jordan spun just before the slam, leaving the photographer with a dramatic, though not ideal, picture of MJ's back. “But this time," Iooss recalls, "we knew each other a little better.”

1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesA Secret Plan“It’s three hours before the game ― I had already set up my strobes ― and I walk into the arena,” Iooss remembers. “There’s Michael in the stands. I said, ‘How you doing?’ And he said, ‘I got a little cold.’ Then I asked either the smartest or dumbest question ever: ‘Can you tell me which way you’re going to go?’ And I explain that if I don’t know which way he’s going, I won’t know where his face is going to be. He looks at me for a second then says, ‘Sure.’ I say, ‘How’re you gonna do that?’ He says, ‘I’ll put my finger on my knee and I’ll point left or right.’ Michael’s always up for a challenge.” (Pictured: Jordan at the '88 Slam Dunk Contest)

Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan, 1988 NBA Slam Dunk ContestWalter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesHomecourt AdvantageThe ’88 contest was held in Chicago and the hometown crowd was going positively crazy for Jordan. In the end, Wilkins and Jordan advanced to the finals. Going into the last round, the judges would have to score MJ's final dunk at least a 49 out of 50 to put him over the top for the win. The pressure was on.

Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan, 1988 NBA Slam Dunk ContestWalter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesOne Shot“It takes three or four seconds for the strobes to recycle,” says Iooss, “so when they go off, that’s it. It’s over: You get one shot. It’s the decisive moment at its best.” (Pictured: #23 at the '88 Slam Dunk contest.)

MichaeljordandunkWalter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesTaking FlightAs Iooss remembers it, “Michael's getting ready to for his final turn and I’m stationed directly under the basket, in the same position I’d been in for the previous dunk. Our eyes meet. Michael gestures, ‘Move a little to the right.’ He runs the length of the court and takes off from the free-throw line. And that’s the picture.” The dunk ― pure Air Jordan ― earned a 50 from the judges.

Michael Jordan Turns 50Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesThe Making of a LegendThis all happened in the pre-digital days, so Iooss unloaded the film from his Hasselblad camera and sent it to the Sports Illustrated editors back in New York, not knowing if he'd gotten the shot. “Back then,” he says, “you really didn’t know [if you got it] until you saw it in the next magazine.”

Chicago Bulls Michael JordanWalter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesLooking BackDid Iooss and Michael ever talk about the secret finger signals in the years after the '88 contest? “I did ask him once. ‘You remember what we did?’ And Michael said, ‘You think I’m stupid?’ He was always so aware of the camera. You can’t take a bad picture of the guy.” (Pictured: A classic Walter Iooss portrait of Jordan from 1995.)

Chicago Bulls Michael JordanWalter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesA Place in HistoryIooss, of course, went on to take many other iconic photos of Jordan, including this 1998 portrait when MJ was 35. But the thrilling dunk contest from a decade earlier is considered a pivotal moment in advancing the mass appeal of the NBA ― and Iooss’ picture was, without a doubt, the photo of the day.

San Francisco 49ers Dwight Clark, 1982 NFC ChampionshipWalter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesAnother Winner“You know what it means for a photographer to take one picture that people remember? It’s hard to put it into words,” says Iooss, who’s been shooting for SI for over 50 years. "For me, it’s Michael's dunk and ‘The Catch' (Dwight Clark’s leaping, game-winning grab of a Joe Montana pass in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, pictured). It’s nice to have captured one of the decisive moments in sports history and with one of my favorites athletes.”

Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Sports Illustrated Photographer Walter Iooss Jr.Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesTeamworkWalter Iooss and Michael Jordan in 1990.