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Photographing Michael Jordan During Bulls’ Last Dance

“You can’t take a bad picture of him,” veteran photographer Walter Iooss Jr. says.
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By 1998, Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. had grown accustomed to being around Michael Jordan, the biggest star on the world’s most famous professional sports team. Jordan, who at that point was pursuing his sixth and final NBA title with the Bulls, was also comfortable with the photographer—and everyone else who tagged along.

“He was so used to everyone staring at him all the time,” says Iooss, who had been given his first SI assignment at age 17. “He knew what was going on at all times.”

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Despite the Bulls’ being akin to the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, Iooss still found ways to document Jordan in more private settings. For a multipage spread in the May 11, 1998, issue of SI, Iooss captured Jordan in his personal office chatting with Joe Montana; Montana’s wife, Jennifer; and their son Nicholas. Another image shows Jordan in an elevator alongside Dennis Rodman and a member of Jordan’s security detail. The cover of the issue, which has the tagline “Chicago Confidential,” is of Jordan playing cards with various teammates on the team plane.

You can’t take a bad picture of him,” Iooss says.

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Iooss is arguably the foremost photographic chronicler of Jordan’s career. In 1987, Iooss, using a Canon camera that took 14 frames per second, captured Jordan dunking in midair over a blue parking lot background. “That might be my favorite picture,” Iooss says. “It combines the things I like to do the best, conceptual pictures and action, with great athletes. ... The Blue Dunk is one of a kind.”

The NBA star famously repositioned Iooss before his final attempt in the 1988 slam dunk contest to ensure that the photographer captured his facial expressions. And in ’93, Jordan, Iooss and journalist Mark Vancil all collaborated on Rare Air, a New York Times best seller. “I described it to him as like a family album,” Iooss says. 

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Throughout the Bulls’ Last Dance season, Iooss remembers fighting through mobs of fans that constantly surrounded Jordan and his teammates. The forthcoming end of Chicago’s dynasty, though, helped elevate the importance of photographs taken that season. “It made everything special,” Iooss says.

Iooss once asked Jordan whether he remembered any of the pictures they had done together.

“What? Do you think I’m f------ dumb?” Jordan replied wryly.

The Bulls star knew what was going on at all times.

“He didn’t miss a beat,” Iooss says. “Don’t screw around with him.”

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Full Frame is Sports Illustrated's exclusive newsletter for subscribers. Coming to your inbox weekly, it highlights the stories and personalities behind some of SI's historic photography.

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