The True Story Behind One of Michael Jordan's Most Iconic Photos

John Michael Wozniak, one of Michael Jordan's personal security guards, talks about that iconic Ferrari moment in 1992.

Photography By Evan Jenkins

May 5, 1992. Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals. Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls had split the past four games with the New York Knicks. Jordan would go on to score 37 points that evening and eventually lead his team over the Portland Trail Blazers to capture his second Larry O’Brien Trophy. But as he was getting ready to enter Chicago Stadium on that night in May, a photo was captured by Sports Illustrated that would help build Jordan’s legacy as a superstar off the court.

Jordan — wearing a white shirt and tie, black sunglasses, grey trousers, loafers, and holding his suit jacket — had arrived outside of Chicago Stadium in his black Ferrari 512 TR. His North Carolina license plate read “M Air J,” and he was surrounded by five guards wearing bright yellow jackets with “security” emblazoned on the back. Jordan would soon establish himself as the best basketball player ever, and this moment would give the public a peek into the over-the-top lifestyle of His Airness.

The security guard on the left of the photo with salt-and-pepper hair is John Michael Wozniak, who was working for the Chicago Police Department in the Narcotics division at the time. He’s now a 66-year-old security guard who has remained close to the Jordan family.

Complex had the chance to talk to Wozniak about this photograph and his time working with Jordan. Jordan Brand is releasing a collection on MJ’s career that includes gold Air Jordan VIs, silver Air Jordan 1 Lows, and replicas of the jackets worn by Wozniak and his crew. The collection will be released this Saturday, October 22. But first, get acquainted with the true story behind the gear and the iconic photo that inspired it.

Image via Getty

How did you begin doing security for Michael Jordan?
I was a Chicago police officer. I joined the Chicago Police Department in 1970. When this picture was taken, me and everyone else in this photo were working part-time at [Chicago] Stadium as security officers. That’s how I got the opportunity to work with Michael and his entire family. Two other police officers had befriended Michael, and he wanted them to provide security for him when he’d have anything to do outside of being a Chicago Bulls superstar. These gentleman approached me. I had worked with them in organized crime department in the narcotics division, and they introduced me to Michael, and Michael said yes. We would receive Michael’s schedule and see what our officer schedules looked like, and we’d accompany him to various events. I traveled with Michael to every major city in the U.S., but I also went along with his family on vacations, to events, even all the way to Paris. All over the world. A tremendous bond was formed, and we took it seriously. I have a special relationship with Michael that I share to this day.

Do you remember what was going on in that now-famous photo?
Michael had just entered the old stadium on Madison Street in Chicago. That was just his normal arrival. It was a playoff game, but that was just the security that would always be in wait for Michael upon his arrival at the stadium.

What was the craziest experience you had doing security for Michael Jordan?
Anytime we anticipated Michael’s arrival, we always had an approximate time of when he’d arrive. All the security was in place to anticipate his arrival. Everyone was lying in wait. Michael’s dominance and his championship career had evolved so quickly. He was a rockstar. We knew when and where he’d be, and we prepared ourselves for it. When Michael retired for the first time, he went to play baseball, and then he came back. We were located downtown in the office we had in the Omni Building in Chicago. People realized his car was downtown off of Michigan Avenue, and gathered as such that we had to have the contractor of the Omni Building take us underground. We crossed the street and were able to get Michael out.

People were in such admiration for what he had done for the city. He gave them a winning attitude. People just wanted to touch him. At times it was hectic, but there was never any real harm towards him. When he had [Michael Jordan’s Restaurant] on LaSalle Street in Chicago, he had a room on the second floor in the back, and the place was jammed. As soon as Michael was visible, everyone stood up and cheered him. Sometimes I felt a little chill and happiness for him because of how much he had changed the city. When I had first joined the Chicago Police Department, I was assigned to the Monroe Street 12th Police District. During that time, you really couldn’t walk down Madison Street. When Michael Jordan came to Chicago and brought this winning attitude and charm, the next thing you know, banks, restaurants, and condominiums started opening up.

Photo by David Cabrera

What was your reaction when you found out Jordan Brand was making a security jacket based on the one you wore?
I had a smile on my face, because it brought back days of old. I had gone with Michael Jordan to the stadium for the 10th anniversary of their first championship, and I had the same jacket with me, and Michael signed it for me. He laughed and smiled. That was nice. People had been telling me, “Hey, your picture with Michael exiting his vehicle has taken over the Internet.” It was from a Sports Illustrated article. I saw the article at first and thought, “Wow, this is pretty cool.”

We never sought fame being around Michael Jordan. I was at an opening of a movie with Michael Jordan here in Chicago, it wasn’t Space Jam, and Bo Jackson was there. I was in the movie with Michael for a couple of minutes, and he said to me, “That’s your claim to fame, that’s all you’re gonna get.” And everyone laughed at it, because we experienced the superstar Michael Jordan, but there were also times when everyone let their guard down and laughed at a joke. We went with Michael to a tattoo place in Chicago. He said, “Put them on,” and we all ended up getting [the Jumpman logo] tattooed on our arms.

Do you own a lot of Air Jordan sneakers?
No. [Laughs]. I have pictures and things like that. Michael signed a picture of himself and gave it to me, the photo where he’s wearing all six championship rings on his fingers.

Do you still keep in contact with Michael Jordan?
I can call Michael anytime. I just spoke to him the other day. I was concerned about the conditions in Florida and what they were going to encounter with the hurricanes, and he said, “Don’t worry, Johnny, I built this house to withstand anything.”

I still handle security for his property here in Highland Park. He still has a residence here where the famous “23” gate is located. I’m there virtually all night long. They come there at 3 a.m. to just take a picture of the gate.

There was a young man who graduated from a school in Chicago’s South Side. After school he attempted to play basketball, and he didn’t make the team. But he was such an admirer of Michael that he joined the Marine Corps and was killed in the Middle East. Michael sent him a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Jeffrey [Jordan] played basketball at Loyola [Academy] and they played against Brother Rice [High School], where the man had attended school. Because he was such an admirer of Michael, his pallbearers all had Michael Jordan’s shoes on. The local newspapers spoke of this young man’s admiration for Michael. It was something to behold.

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