It was Andy Warhol who reminded us that “The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.”
In 1981, during the third annual National Sports Festival in Syracuse, photographer Mike Greenlar snapped an image of a seven-footer from Georgetown named Patrick Ewing—regarded at the time as one of the premiere big men in the country. In an era where the game of basketball revolved around post-play and center dominance, thousands of photos were taken of the likes of Ewing (Georgetown), Stuart Gray (UCLA), and Greg Dreiling (Wichita State).
What photographers weren’t aware of at the time was that another future NBA legend was also there—albeit in the background at times.
Newspaper and magazine press clippings at the time revolved around coverage of the three centers, including a Sports Illustrated piece that was titled “Summit Meeting of the Super 7-Footers” that was published in August of 1981. Standing in their shadow was a college-bound guard named Michael Jordan. Now, a photo from that event nearly 40 years ago is at RMY Auctions.
The young Dean Smith recruit headed to North Carolina wasn’t on the national radar yet. Even though he was considered a good enough prospect to attend the event, photographers were hardly flocking his way with Ewing, Gray and Dreiling present. Few photos of Jordan have surfaced from the National Sports Festival, but Greenlar’s original was discovered and is making its auction debut.
In the photo, Jordan can be seen wearing the number eight and donning a pair of Converse sneakers. At the time, Jordan admittedly had no interest in Nike as they were viewed by the market as a “track shoe.” He’s either observing, or debating a double team—but either way isn’t likely to catch Ewing who appears to be on his way to the rim.
Ewing is also sporting Converse sneakers in the photograph, as the shoe company sponsored some of the biggest stars in the game (Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving). This was something Jordan addressed in The Last Dance, saying that “Converse had big players and told me, ‘We cannot envision you being put ahead of them.’”
The back of the photo features a handwritten note by Greenlar that reads “Pat Ewing” and also features Greenlar’s personal stamp.
While the image has remained the same, Greenlar had no idea what the individuals within it would become. As many iconic photographs and works of art, this piece continues to get better with time.