When you think of Michael Jordan, every image seems to evoke moments of greatness. From his intensity on the court to his evolution into a global brand and pop culture icon, the storied visuals of “His Airness” are by now ingrained in our collective memory. That’s why when veteran Chicago sports photographer David Banks finally had the time to look through his archives and organize his photo negatives amid the coronavirus stay-at-home lockdown, he was surprised to find rare images of his that had sat undeveloped for years.
Banks, a diehard sports fan who was born and bred in the Windy City, was just beginning his career shooting for various photo agencies when Jordan arrived in Chicago at the start of his rookie 1984-1985 season. After being chosen third overall by the Chicago Bulls in the 1984 NBA Draft (behind Hakeem Olajuwon, who went to the Houston Rockets, and Sam Bowie, who joined the Portland Trail Blazers), Jordan made his Bulls debut against the Washington Bullets on October 26th, 1984. From that moment forward, Banks focused his lens on Jordan.
“I thought to myself, this is really going to change things for Chicago,” says Banks, who was documenting the Bulls’ rise to dominance, alongside veteran sports photographers like Scott Strazzante and Nuccio Dinuzzo.
“You knew MJ was really special. To see him actually play, it was mind bending. I knew not to take my camera off of him,” he explains. “If you decided to go somewhere else with your camera, it was always a bad decision. I said to myself, ‘Hey stupid, focus on Jordan. Nothing else matters.’”
Banks chronicled the Bulls during a critical moment in the game’s history, capturing the tumult and energy of the game; Jordan in all his anti-gravity intensity; and the community that made Chicago synonymous with Jordan. Strapped with two analogue cameras — a Nikon FM2 and the first autofocus Canon — Banks shot these images on film in an era before digital technology changed the way sports would eventually be photographed.
“The passage of time is often what makes a photograph powerful,” Banks says. “Jordan’s intensity and brilliance made me step up my game. I understood that I wasn’t just dealing with any player. I knew that he was everything. Still, the Bulls weren’t exactly the best team at the time of Jordan’s arrival; it was relatively easy to get access if you were a photographer. If you asked to shoot a Bulls game, it was like, ‘What time do you wanna get? Where do you wanna sit?’ So the early years of shooting Jordan, it was just a few of us. Jordan turned that franchise around. He was remarkable. But nobody knew the degree to which it would change things.”
After fears of infection from Covid-19 shut down the NBA season, basketball finally returned. In our current moment, sports nostalgia seems more intense than ever. Basketball fans are still nerding out on the heels of ESPN’s The Last Dance, making Banks’ newly discovered photographs more significant than ever. These portraits resonate not just for their nostalgic nod to greatness but also capture the mood of Jordan’s role in American popular culture. In this exclusive gallery, Banks shares his unseen Jordan images that call to mind moments of greatness. They feel cinematic and unforgettable due to his legendary feats of basketball flight. Essentially, Jordan doing Jordan things.
Additional reporting by Alec Banks