The Greatest Sports Photo of All Time

This photo is the greatest sports photo of all time — at least according to Sports Illustrated. The magazine has published a gallery containing 100 of the greatest images (from an American’s perspective), and the #1 image is the above shot of Michael Jordan hitting the game-winning shot to help the Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz and win the 1998 NBA Finals in 6 games.

John Schuhmann over at the NBA’s Hang Time Blog published an interesting interview with Fernando Medina, the photographer behind the iconic photo:

The image was photographed on slide film, so unlike the digital cameras of today, I had no way of seeing the photo until it had been developed by a film lab […] I knew the camera had triggered, but, I had no way of knowing if the flash strobes had fired

[…] I headed to the local film lab that NBA Photos was using to develop the game film that evening. That was the first time I saw the image. No one had found it yet in the dozens of bags of slides from that night. Knowing how I had marked the specific film bag, I found it, opened the box of slides and it was the second image I pulled from the box. I held it up to the light and looked at it for a moment, handed it to Amati, and never saw it again until it was published in ESPN Magazine. That was the first time I was able to actually “see” and truly appreciate the photo.

The television broadcast footage of Jordan hitting the shot has become an iconic clip in sports history as well:

The Shot of the Shot Is No. 1 [Hang Time Blog]

Thanks for sending in the tip, Ivan!

Image credit: Photograph by Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

  • Curtis Farmer

    They’re kidding right? No way this is the greatest sports photograph ever. Ali standing over Liston after knocking him out in ’65 is one of the most iconic and famous sports photographs ever. This isn’t even close. Besides, we all know Jordan pushed off Russell. :)

  • Ivan

    I am actually having trouble seeing anything in that photo. To me, it looks more like greatly magnified color noise than anything else.

  • MrRocking

    The Ali/Liston image is the one I was expecting and a photo i’d have on a wall. This… not so much.

  • ThePope2012

    sorry but what do americans find so great on the image?

    if i had to chose there comes the ali vs. liston photo to my mind.

  • ThePope2012

    had not read your reply… but that was what i thought immediately after reading the headline.

  • Andy Lapham

    Best sporting moment maybe (if I was American) but great photo? No. This is only interesting because of the moment not the photograph. Technically, creatively, aesthetically – it’s poor.

    Ali v Liston, Bob Beamon 68 Olympics. They’re great photos.

  •!/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    jeez, people are missing the point – it’s not necessarily about the photograph as a photograph; as a compilation of technical elements – it’s about a moment in history and an image that represents it in a particular way. Personally I love the busy-ness of the crowd with the seemingly empty foreground – but that’s NOT what is important here. It’s an iconic moment in sports history and for those who know it is instantly recognisable and therefore makes an excellent case for an image that may be the greatest in sports history – sure not everyone will know but that’s the same with any subject that has a like/dislike audience. not every person will identify with every sport on the planet – and sure there are plenty of more “technically” better photographs. But when it comes down to “greatest” images in a particular field the best are not often the technically best, but the image that captures the atmosphere and memory of the time and this is one great photograph. Of course, this is my opinion – you’re welcome to disagree.

  • michaelp42

    Best photo? Meh….

  • Belleeee

    It hurts my eyes. :(

  • Mansgame

    This picture is too wide, too busy, and really we’re talking about the Utah Jazz which automatically make any picture not important.

  • Jon

    Fire the editor and judges. It may be an important sports moment but it is a crappy photo.

  • ProtoWhalePig

    Predictably American dominance. Still, it’s an American magazine so I suppose it’s all good. I certainly don’t agree with their choices, though.

  • ProtoWhalePig

    Score another for Ali-Liston. This isn’t even close.

  • ProtoWhalePig

    Iconic? Pfffft. It’s the NBA. Nobody gives a crap about that.

  •!/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    as I said – not every person will identify with every sport on the planet.

  • Toomas Kadarpik

    Yes you are right it is photojournalism, even nature photography is sometimes really bad from arts point of view but it can be still valuable. Yes the image lack depth and my first impression was that spectators are falling to the basketball court but then I understood correctly that it is journalism.

  • Bart

    The thing is, we’re discussing the greatest PHOTO in sports history, not the greatest MOMENT in sports history. As a photo, the Ali vs Liston photo has qualities that are appreciated by photographers and non photographers alike. You don’t have to be into boxing to see what’s going on or to appreciate the image. It speaks for itself.

    This photo on the other hand… without knowing the background story it’s messy. Obviously it’s an important game, but you don’t know who’s who, or why this particular shot is so important, until someone tells you. As a photo on itself it’s too messy, the angle is too wide, the story is too weak.

    And if we’re talking about photos of the greatest MOMENT in sports history, this one does not even come close to the top 10.

  • ThePope2012

    what is so important which NBA teams win? except for the fans…. i still don´t get it.

    a new world record is something special. i would get THAT.

    but next year another them wins the NBA finals.. and another guy makes the wining score. it just blah… nothing EPIC in this picture or sports event.. at least not for me.

  • brandon

    I was a big fan of jordan V1. Before he took a break, then came back and was just doing a jordan impersonation. sure, he pushed the defender, but not nearly as much as he did in a later almost identical play. as for the photo, it’s very nice, but not as good as the others mentioned.

  • Victor

    So what they are saying is… Nobody got a decent photo of the “greatest moment” in sports history.

  • Coaltraintripn

    Great moment, yes. Great photograph? – not even close. I thought the headline was poking fun at the photo and was actually an example of how not to shoot a basketball game. I think anyone with a point and shoot camera would have the same shot from the sideline. Players aren’t isolated from the crowds. The action and the moment are lost.

  • PuraPuma


  • bob cooley

    Sorry, I’m missing how this is listed as #1 – I see a grid of photos, and the photo mentioned is no where near the top…

  • ThePope2012

    americans.. no taste….

  • Anthony Burokas

    Whatever team chose this photo picked it on the merit of the even, not the image. The image sucks. It’s a convoluted mess of color and detail, with no depth or sense of place. Unless someone TELLS you what’s going on in the shot, I bet 99% of people viewing it would not immediately be able to figure out what the hell is going on.

    Compare that to the Ali shot, with the angle, clarity and fiery dominance. Holy crap, what a disappointment.

  • OmniMode

    I can’t see how this would even make it into the top 100,000 sports photos of all time.
    I’ve seen pro photographers use photos like this in classes to teach students what an bad sports photo is. The action (including the ball) is lost in visual noise, everything is over illuminated, and there’s no focus or capture of emotion.
    It’s just a cross court shot of someone shooting a basket…in the brightest basketball court in the world.

  • Anthony Cuebas

    Tell em bud, Cricket is far more Iconic. Pfft. LMAO

  • Mark Fogarty

    I read this article the other day… and was astounded at the list. As a Canadian, I immediately checked out where the hockey shots placed… and was simply astounded that the top hockey shot WASN’T Bobby Orr flying through the air after scoring a Stanley Cup winning overtime goal. The GREATEST hockey photo EVER. Ask ANY hockey fan.

    In fact, there were FOUR hockey photos ranked higher, with the top being Wayne Gretzky scoring to become the top goal scorer in NHL history… an great achievement… but nobody has ever seen that boring picture, let alone consider it great. (see what I did there… Great… Gretzky… the Great One. *sigh* hockey fans would’ve gotten it)

    A freakin’ picture of a trout ranked higher than Bobby Orr…Ali/Liston… and 64 other photos. A trout!

    This list was ridiculous.

  • wgs

    It’s absurd to call this the greatest sports photo. To begin with, you have to know too much to appreciate it – the photo does NOT stand alone. Secondly, unlike the video version, this has way too much depth of field and ends up being a confusing mass of colors and shapes – good for Matisse, but not for sports. Finally, I can think of a half-dozen boxing and football photos that are far better, and that stand ON THEIR OWN, requiring no backstory. This isn’t even a very good snapshot. (I’ve done as well shooting college games, and thrown away the results as useless.)

  • wgs

    No, SI no taste. Americans know better. (Is SI published in China…?)

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  • andalau

    So is soccer. So what’s so important about soccer? And that’s celebrated on a global scale.

  • andalau

    Who doesn’t know Michael Jordan?

  • Kris J Boorman

    As a Brit, I only know MJ because of SPACE JAM. And he only played basketball with cartoons.


  • CitizenX

    It is definitely a timely photo but nowhere near the greatest. It is way too busy, the only thing that catches your eye is the timer but that in an of itself isn’t compelling.

    Lousy choice.

  • ehjxgcth

    Exactly. I can think of thousands of better ones. The judges were clearly enamored with Jordan and the Bulls. If you don’t care about the Bulls– as I don’t– the image means nothing to you. I had to read the explanation to understand it. A good photograph doesn’t need a caption.

  • ehjxgcth

    I had to search for the ball after I watched the TV. This is a pretty cruddy choice.

  • ehjxgcth

    Yes, I agree. It’s not just not great, but it’s actually a bad example meant to teach kids what not to do.

  • clicitsapic

    Greatest Sports Photo of all time… who cares!!!

  • wsg

    i don’t get it….

  • Todd McDonald

    This photo is completely forgettable. Greatest sports photo of all time? No. Iconic? No. What the heck were the editors smoking?

  • Phycon

    Definitely Ali/Liston but also remember Steve Smith and John Carlos raising their fists, Black Panther salute during the Mexico Olympics.

  • Manwithacamera

    This is not even a great photo. Just a busy photo.

  • Boise Ed

    Every week, Sports Illustrated has three featured shots, most of which are greater than this one. I think someone had his leg pulled here.

  • happyrobot

    To echo an earlier comment, I don’t think this feature was ranked. They just seem to be 100 iconic photos. Are the folks here at PetaPixel just going on the number in the querystring of the URL? Unless my browser isn’t showing something, I see no ranking for any of the photos.

  • Red and Blue

    no taste!!?well,,,, stop using our designed computers, stop using our designed OS, stop flying our airplanes, stop using your car, since it was built on a Ford assembly line system. stop wearing modern western clothing since it represent our touch. go back to your own cave man life style than tell us your anti american comments.

  • RH

    Best of all time?
    Not by a long shot!
    Hank Aaron hitting #715, horse racing photo flash shots, photos of guys in the tube surfing, sky divers, there are hundreds of shots that would be better than this.