I won't do negative stories on athletes I know. Get someone else. It would destroy all trust. I want to make athletes look strong and heroic, like comic-book superheroes. Sometimes I'm the opposite of a writer, who tries to humanize them.
My top five athletes of all time? John Unitas, Arnold Palmer, Jim Brown, Michael Jordan, Joe Montana. I love Joe Montana. He's a real guy's guy. I don't know any man who would not like Joe Montana.
Jim Brown would argue he's the best of all time, of course. One time I shot him for SI when ESPN was doing its top 100 North American athletes of the 20th century. They were down to the top 10, and it was all very secretive. Jim came in with his hat on for our shoot. I figured I'd provoke him and see what happened. So my first question was, "Are you in the top 10?" And I could just feel his hair rise.
He said, "Top 10?!"
I said, "You know, I think you're in the top five, Jim."
He said, "Name the other guys ahead of me." And then he starts naming them. "Michael? He played one sport. Ali? One sport. I was the greatest lacrosse player. No doubt the greatest running back." And it's true. Jim beat everyone at everything he ever did. He truly believed he was the greatest athlete of the century—as would Michael, probably, and Ali. But Jim may be right.
As far as photography goes, Jordan and Kevin Garnett are the best I've seen in front of a camera. They never change their posture or their faces. If I put a camera up to you, you're going to worry whether you're in the wrong position or whether you look like s---. They understood the camera, and they knew they looked good.
Jordan was my muse. I was lucky, really lucky to have him. I shot him for SI, and we did two books together, Rare Air and Athlete. He was like Elvis Presley: The camera never changed him. In 1956, Alfred Wertheimer shot a collection of behind-the-scenes Elvis photos, and it was as if a photographer wasn't even there. To me, that was the greatest reportage series about a star on the rise. That's what I went for with Jordan.
An example: Michael during the 1988 All-Star Game dunk contest. We're at Chicago Stadium, and Michael's sitting there 2½ hours before the event. I explain that I shot the contest the year before and learned that if you can't see a player's face, the picture is meaningless. So I say, "Is there any way you could tell me where you're going to take off to dunk?"
I can't even believe I've asked him this question. I'm sure he's thinking, "Is this guy f------ for real?"