Editor’s note: The 30 for 30 Short Posterized tells the story of the iconic poster of Tracy McGrady dunking over Shawn Bradley. That got us to thinking … what else did we have on our walls?
Michael Jordan, “Wings,” 1986
By the mid-1980s, the 18th-century English writer, poet, and graphic artist William Blake was so insanely popular that a scuffling little shoe company named Nike decided to use a quote of his to punch up a poster of a then-unknown athlete named Michael Jordan. The rest is, as they say, history.
OK, for real, though — there was a time, a simpler time, when 16-bit video game consoles ruled and the Internet was a plot device in WarGames, when owning this poster made you a freaking boss. There are many other fantastic MJ posters — the various in-flight tongue-flapping game action shots, the trans-free-throw-line flight Jump Man dunk. But “Wings” is the best of them all. Six feet wide, rendered in crisp black-and-white, MJ’s eyes staring back at you with an expression of implacable blankness, and that line by William Blake:
“No bird soars too high,
If he soars with his own wings.”
What does that quote mean? Let’s be real: At 11, I didn’t know, and to think about it too deeply now might make me feel feelings. As one of our great warrior-poets once said, nobody knows what it means, but it’s provocative. There’s some irony to the most iconic poster of Michael Jordan — a player whose internationally celebrated career is littered with images of himself, rampant in Bulls red, skywalking across space, victorious over all obstacles including gravity and 7-footers — being in black-and-white and showing him doing nothing but staring right at you. Millions have sat on the edge of their beds and stared right back.
Dale Ellis, “The Silent Assassin”
No retrospective of sports posters can hope to be taken seriously without including the work of the Costacos brothers, whose original mix of pop-culture references and athlete brand-building made for some of the most striking posters of the ’80s and ’90s. Like this decidedly unnerving poster of former Seattle SuperSonics sniper Dale Ellis that is supposed to depict the small forward as a hit man in the midst of casing a target but comes off rather like Ellis is a To Catch a Predator–esque Peeping Tom. Trigger warning indeed.
Dee Brown, “No-Look Dunk,” 1991
Dee Brown, currently an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings, was a young Celtics combo guard when he won the 1991 NBA slam dunk contest with what has to be the most perfectly executed sneaker brand synergy of all time. In 1989, Reebok introduced the Reebok Pump, a sneaker with air bladders fed by the eponymous pump located on the front of the sneaker’s tongue, that wearers could, you know, pump to their own personal taste. The slogan for the shoe also doubled as a thinly veiled shot at Nike: “Pump up and air out.” As he took the court before his first dunk, Brown memorably paused for a moment at the sideline to pump up his sneakers, and would end up winning with the dunk depicted in the poster above.
Charles Barkley, “Godzilla vs. Barkley” 1992
“Godzilla vs. Barkley” is one of the most memorable Nike basketball commercials ever. Produced by Wieden+Kennedy with special effects from Industrial Light & Magic, the commercial features a kaiju-size Sir Charles swaggering up to a goggles-clad Godzilla, elbowing the beast in its scaly esophagus, and two-hand dunking on a hoop made out of the first O in “Tokyo.” The commercial was originally supposed to air only in Japan, but as its general awesomeness could not be contained by arbitrary constructs like international borders, Nike decided to also air the spot in the States, debuting it during the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. In addition to the poster, the commercial spot also inspired a one-shot comic book published by Dark Horse.
John Starks, “The Dunk,” 1993
Late in Game 2 of the 1993 Eastern Conference finals against Chicago, an undrafted toll booth operator turned NBA shooting guard named John Starks got free on a Patrick Ewing pick, drove to the baseline, elevated, and threw down a dunk that still reverberates in New York City. If you squint hard enough at the poster, you can see the high-water mark of the Ewing era. Up 2-0 against the vaunted Bulls, a universe of momentum seeming to swing all at once toward New York. Yes, the Knicks had taken Chicago to a Game 7 the year before, but this dunk was the moment it actually seemed possible they could beat the MJ Bulls.
Shawn Kemp with Jeff Ament, “Slam + Jam”
It may be impossible to find a more quintessentially ’90s NBA poster. I would describe it as the material result of a post-bong hit bro-out conversation between A.C. Slater and Zack Morris while shooting rolled-up socks at a bedroom-door Nerf hoop. So many synergies. Kemp was, of course, the Reign Man, a marvel of athleticism, coordination, and I-can-jump-over-anyone-here swagger, calling Kevin Calabro thunderclaps down from somewhere in the skies above the arena back when Seattle was a basketball town. Jeff Ament was and is the bass player for Pearl Jam, who ruled the ’90s by embodying that era’s signature alt-grunge ethos of doing everything ambitious people do when they want to be famous without ever verbally or by facial expression signaling that they want to be famous. It was like, “Yeah, I’m rocking an arena full of people, but it’s just OK.” Both dudes played a role in defining Seattle as a cultural capital of the 1990s, whether it wanted to be or not. (It did.)
Dream Team Sports Illustrated cover, 1991
No, not technically a poster. There were official Dream Team posters featuring the entire roster, but no one wanted to stare at Christian Laettner unless so dictated by the eternal bonds of Dukie-dom. So, this SI cover, and a picture from the accompanying article of the players holding the Olympic rings, is what went up on most hoop junkies’ walls. The best basketball team ever assembled.
Larry Johnson, Converse “Grandmama”
The original idea for Converse’s Aero (shout-out to React Juice!) sneaker ad campaign was quite a bit different from the Tyler Perry–esque one that actually happened. The initial pitch was to have Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, both Converse athletes, in surgeons’ garb, performing some kind of Mary Shelley–style surgical procedure on a body covered by a sheet. They would then exclaim, “Ah, the perfect basketball player!” and argue over what to name this bioengineered basketballer. Bird would want to name him “Larry,” while Magic wanted to name him “Johnson,” and I think you can see where this is going — thunder crashes, the sheet is torn away, and, hey, what do you know, it’s Larry Johnson. That treatment fell through, and plan B ended up being Grandmama. All the better for Larry’s career; you should never be the third-most famous basketball player in your own shoe commercial.
Karl Malone, “Special Delivery”
OK, a lot to unpack here. First, the torn postman’s shirt. Did this placid-seeming German shepherd attack Karl? And what is this dog wearing? Are those, what, sweatbands around its wrists/ankles? And perhaps a basketball jersey? Why would you dress a dog like this? And isn’t the entire image just a bit off? The darkening early-evening sky framing a vaguely Bates Motel–like Victorian-style house; the solitary light in an upstairs bedroom, where some person sits, oblivious to the towering, raggedly attired mailman roaming the streets outside, vandalizing mailboxes and forcing dogs to dress like basketball players. And wouldn’t it make more sense for the mailbox to read “THE LAKERS”?
Allen Iverson, SLAM Cover, “Soul on Ice” 1998
Another image that technically isn’t a poster, but that adorned bedroom walls from coast to coast nonetheless. It was taken during the NBA lockout of ’98-’99, and the photo session that produced this image was not without its problems — namely: Allen Iverson not showing up for more than seven hours and then having to bounce 45 minutes after arriving. And yet somehow it worked. There is AI, not yet at the apex of his cultural importance, holding an ABA-style basketball; signature braids combed out to a saintly Afro; neck and wrists iced up like a Michigan road in February; ink on display; head cocked with a disinterested cool. It is a contrived concept photo that simultaneously drips with realness. It was just flat-out cool. The reproduced period-correct 1966-67 Wilt Chamberlain jersey that AI wore for the cover helped spark the throwback craze of the early-to-mid-2000s, which elevated the jersey’s manufacturer, a small Philadelphia-area sports apparel company named Mitchell & Ness, from local business to cultural tagline, name-checked in dozens of rap songs.
“Duke’s Young Guns,” 1990
The 1990-91 Duke Blue Devils were the first national championship team of the Mike Krzyzewski era, one of the most famous and reviled college teams ever. This team featured Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, Billy McCaffrey, Thomas Hill, and, of course, Dream Team lucky rabbit’s foot Christian Laettner, whose imperious frat-boy-with-a-jump-shot smirk is the original sin in the religion known as Duke hatred. Here they are, rendered in a gauzy Texarkana sepia tone for that wonderful smoky flavor. Duke University: for when you almost got into Harvard.