Worth a thousand words: NBA photographer Andrew Bernstein details his best shots

NBA.com Global on Sep 04, 2018 06:13 AM
NBA photographer Andrew Bernstein details his best shots
OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 12: Kevin Durant #35 and Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors celebrate after winning the 2017 NBA Finals on June 12, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Andrew Bernstein knew he wanted to be a sports photographer or maybe a documentary filmmaker. Trouble was, he recalled recently, his school at the time – the University of Massachusetts Amherst – offered courses in neither photography nor film. Not exactly a well-planned start to his chosen career.

So Bernstein transferred to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. And once the native of Brooklyn stepped off the plane into 85-degree sunshine, he was hooked. Thus began a professional path that has taken him around the world, yet kept him Los Angeles-centric as the NBA’s senior photographer.

A part-time job as an assistant to Sports Illustrated shooters helped Bernstein score his first NBA gig as a photographer the 1983 All-Star Game at L.A.’s famous Forum. He’d eventually serve as team photographer for the city’s Dodgers, Lakers, Clippers and Kings, but it was in his work for the NBA that Bernstein made his greatest mark.

In 1986, Bernstein helped create NBA Photos as the league’s in-house licensing agency, for which he served as senior director until 2011. He chronicled Team USA through its 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympic championships, and has worked 36 NBA Finals and All-Star Games. Next month, his hardcover collaboration with Kobe Bryant -- “The Mamba Mentality: How I Play” -- will hit bookshelves everywhere.

This week as part of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, the 60-year-old photographer will be honored as a recipient of the 2018 Curt Gowdy Media Award. To shed light on his craft and share some behind-the-scenes tales, Bernstein -- prior to heading to Springfield, Mass. -- talked with NBA.com about some of his favorite and most famous images.

Come fly with him ...

Details: Michael Jordan soars with several Lakers in futile pursuit at the 1988 Hall of Fame preseason game between Chicago and Los Angeles at the Springfield Civic Center.

Bernstein: “It was one of those crazy moments -- in those days, I could only do one remote camera. Now I can do almost an infinite number because it’s all done by radio. But back then, you had to hard-wire into the strobe [lighting] system for the big flashes, and you could only fire one. I chose the one shooting through the glass, behind the backboard. A lot of things could have gone wrong. His hand could have been in his face. He could have been out of the frame instead of just on the edge. I could only take one shot every four seconds [with the strobe] -- it’s not like I could lean on the motor drive and then pick one frame out of 10. … But it became known as “Come Fly with Me.” It did kind of define him at the time as being able to fly.”

Back story: Bernstein added: “If you have a microscope, you can actually see me on the other side of the court, sitting there with a little trigger button. Then there’s the trivia question of all time -- who’s the other guy? That No. 3 happens to be [University of Virginia star and NBA role player] Jeff Lamp.”

MJ: Champion, finally

Details: Michael Jordan and his father, James, in the visitors’ dressing room at the Forum, after Game 5 of the 1991 Finals. Bulls 108, Lakers 101.

Bernstein: “The network would do the trophy presentation in the winning team’s locker room, and the visitors’ side at the Forum was about the size of a closet. There seemed to be a thousand people in there, and all hell was breaking loose. I got up on top of a table in the middle of the room for a vantage point. When they came back live from a commercial, they wanted to have Michael on -- but they couldn’t find Michael. Some sixth sense said, ‘Look to your left,’ and there he was, in the locker, hugging that trophy, crying his eyes out with his dad next to him. I always felt, if he’d had to play that whole season for free to get to the mountain top, he would have. I knew this was a special moment. I banged a couple of frames really quick.”

Back story: After James Jordan was murdered in 1993, Bernstein got a phone call from Michael’s office saying he “would love it if I made a print and sent it to him,” Bernstein said. “Which I did. I was very close with my dad and Michael Jordan knew him -- my dad was with me through the entire Dream Team experience [in 1992]. And I knew his dad. So it was a poignant moment in my career to have him request that photo. If I had to pick one photo to put on my tombstone, this would probably be it.”

‘Mamba’ coiled to strike

Details: Shot from a camera suspended in the rafters at the Forum, a Hasselblad 120mm with a 350mm lens. “A heavy rig,” Bernstein called it, anchored with multiple clamps and safety cables on the catwalk, aimed straight down.

Bernstein: “I love the composition of this photo and how everything just came together. The Forum had that beautiful Laker-gold ‘key.’ This was young Kobe, his first or second year, and he was a dunk machine back then. Look how he’s cocked back like that and flying thorugh the air, the basket right there. All the elements came together. When I saw this the next morning -- I had to take the film to the lab after the game, drop it off, then go back in the morning after sweating it out all night, hoping that I’d see something like this -- I was like, ‘Wow!’ All the preparation, hours and hours, setting the equipment up, and it all paid off.”

Back story: It’s not common to see the top of a player’s head and the bottom of his sneakers in the same shot. Bernstein knew he had to share it and, thanks to the large-format film, he knew he could share it big. “As soon as I saw this,” he said, “I immediately made a giant print for Kobe -- I mean, like 50 [inches] by 70. Huge. I framed it and drove it to his house. He was living with his parents in Pacific Palisades at the time. I hope he still has it. I had given players like Magic [Johnson] and whomever 8x10s, but I never had framed something I was super-proud of.”

Old Kobe ‘dunking’ again

Details: Kobe Bryant, deep in his career, before a game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in January 2010.

Bernstein: “During a long East Coast trip, the Lakers had played the night before in Cleveland and were at the Garden less than 24 hours later. Kobe was banged up that year. This was an hour and a half to game time, and he was literally willing himself to play that night. Both ankles are in ice. He’s got the finger in a little cup of ice. During my pregame routine, walking from the locker room to the training room, I just saw him there. Other guys were coming and going, but he was in this meditative state. I took one frame -- God forbid the click of the camera disturb or distract him. Phil [Jackson] called this ‘The Thinker,’ like Rodin’s sculpture.”

Back story: A skilled photographer learns how quickly how to be unobtrusive, a “fly on the wall.” Said Bernstein: “You have to, to get behind-the-scenes intimate photos of players away from the bright lights, and what goes on in the bowels of the arena or during travel. In 2009-10, Phil and I collaborated on a book called ‘Journey to the Ring,’ which took the Lakers from media day to whenever their season would end. They ended up winning it all that year, which was unbelievable for the project. The photos were in black-and-white, which was a conscious decision Phil and I made.”

Photographer, shoot thyself

Details: Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bernstein before the 2016 NBA All-Star Game, Western Conference locker room at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.

Bernstein: “This was his last All-Star Game and it was a true Kobe love-fest. I spent the entire weekend just with him, followed him everywhere he went. I mean, I didn’t cover it like I normally do for the NBA, and NBA Photos was very generous for letting me cover it through him. It was a beautiful weekend. He took it all in and was very appreciative. His humility came out -- a lot of people don’t think Kobe is humble, but I think he was. And he was very grateful, that he had an impact on all these All-Stars who were grateful to him.”

Back story: The locker room was closed to the media, but as the league’s guy, Bernstein always has special access. “A couple of people were coming over to get photos with him -- Gregg Popovich, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and a couple others,” the photographer said. “And I just jumped in myself. Very, very rarely -- I mean, four times in our 20 years together -- did I jump in the picture with him. But I couldn’t resist.”

Shadowing the superstars

Details: Another overhead shot at the Forum, this time during the 1991 Finals, with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan fighting for what eventually will be a rebound.

Bernstein: “With this angle, it’s always a crap shoot what you’re going to get. The rim could be blocking a guy’s face. Somebody could be too far under the basket. The focus point is so critical -- you have to be right on where it’s focused. As for the shadows, if you can imagine lights in each corner of the court, way up high. It just depended on where the players were placed. If one of them is blocking the light on one side, you get a shadow off to the other side. It’s always dramatic with the strobe. But just to get these two icons in the same frame was difficult.”

Back story: Just as the famous parquet court at Boston Garden looked so iconic on TV and from afar, the Forum was best viewed from a distance. The paint worn off the top of the rim by balls and hands was something few ever saw. “The Forum was a dump,” Bernstein said. “The walls were caked with dirt. Nobody ever cleaned it. They used to feed us under the stands where the rodents were. It was like a Hollywood impostor, and it’s in Inglewood, which is not your glitzy Hollywood location. But they made it look good on TV. It was a tough place to work, I have to tell you.”

Brothers in arms

Details: A fisheye lens captures the moments immediately after Game 5 of 2017 Finals, with Golden State’s Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry front and center.

Bernstein: “I’ve gotten good at getting out and being the first guy in the scrum. When a championship is won, I sharpen my elbows and just go for it. I try to be right next to the TV guy and well, I guess people know me and I make my way to wherever I have to be. This particular time, I knew there had to be a moment in there where Curry and Durant had an interaction. And it was amazing -- they’re almost like one body. It’s Kevin’s first championship and Steph is so happy for him as his teammate. And the pressure that was on the whole team to win this championship. I love this picture. It shows so much about the way I work and how I think about what I need to do in the moment.”

Back story: Bernstein’s camera captured Durant’s mother Wanda to the left, crying and enjoying the moment. But a few seconds earlier, he said, “his mom came up and grabbed him by the front of the jersey. She kept yelling, ‘We did it! We did it!’ That’s a great picture too.”

‘Uncoachable?’ Unforgettable

Details: Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson share a moment after beating the Magic in Game 5 and winning the 2009 NBA championship at Orlando’s Amway Arena.

Bernstein: “If you remember the 2008-09 season, there was a lot of pressure on Kobe. People had been saying that he couldn’t win without Shaq, Phil had actually written that he was ‘uncoachable.’ But there’s such a paternal father-son thing going on in this picture. … I know I’ve got to go to the star player immediately at the buzzer. So I ran out and found Kobe. Phil and he had just come together and they were hugging, which is a nice picture. But I knew the instant after a hug can be just as special. Something told me to wait till after the hug -- because [with the limitation of the strobe lights] I can’t shoot rapidly -- and bing! They broke the hug and Phil’s looking like, ‘Job well done, son.’ And Kobe has this amazing look of relief and sense of accomplishment and exhaustion.”

Back story: Bernstein said this is the only print of his work that his wife, Mariel, allows him to hang in their house. “We have three teenagers [at the time] who basically were the same age, all within a year of each other, and when all hell was breaking loose at our house, we’d stand the kids in front of this photo. My wife would say, ‘Look at that! If those two guys can get along and be respectful, we can do it in this house.’ ”

Forever linked

Details: The Celtics’ Larry Bird and the Lakers’ Magic Johnson fight for rebounding position along the foul lane at Boston Garden in the 1987 Finals.

Bernstein: “This is probably my most well-known image, other than the one of Jordan hugging the trophy. Remember, these guys played different positions. They never really matched up. You’d never see Magic D-ing up Bird like you would with Michael or Isiah Thomas. And you’d never, ever see Bird D-ing Magic. I had to be unbelievably conscious of when they were on the court together, where they were on the court and somehow, if they would end up in my frame. The only times, honestly, I could ever get them in the same frame was the ‘captains’ meeting’ five minutes before tip at center court, shaking hands, and a free-throw situation. When, by the grace of God, they would line up facing me. That’s what this was.

Back story: Just as Bird and Johnson were linked literally, arm in arm, in this photograph, their careers were linked figuratively through the NBA of the 1980s. “It kind of defined the era,” Bernstein said. “These two great guys intertwined, neither of them looking superior to the other. Jostling for position, just like the Celtics and the Lakers did. I love this picture, and I know both of those guys love it. This picture is hanging in the Hall of Fame.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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