If you’ve seen a classic NBA picture, the likelihood is that Andrew D. Bernstein took the shot. Whether it’s Michael Jordan crying while hugging his first Championship trophy, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson locking arms in the paint or Kobe soaking his ankles in ice, Bernstein has captured it all.
Speaking to HYPEBEAST at the NBA’s Crossover event in London, Bernstein discussed his early days as a staff photographer at Sports Illustrated, how he forged relationships with Kobe and Magic, and the scene, or lack thereof, at the NBA’s first ever All-Star Game.
HYPEBEAST: What did you learn from your early days as a photographer?
Andrew Bernstein: Learning in school is one thing, but learning the job on the street, at the venue, is invaluable. When I started to work for Sports Illustrated, I learned everything you needed to know about doing a location shooting, carrying lenses around, shipping, film, how to work with athletes, if you’re doing portraits, all kinds of stuff.
And the most valuable thing I learned was how to light an indoor arena with these gigantic strobe lights, which continues to this day.
What kind of access did you have at the first All-Star game?
You’re just winging it. Nobody gave me any kind of direction. They said, “The game starts at 12. Come at 11:30.” There was no fanfare before the game. It was just a game. There was no weekend attached to it — no dinner, no anything. So I kind of just did my thing.
I’d cruise around the locker room. I did this sort of impromptu team photo. It was just me, by the way, that first couple of All-Star Games, there were two or three [photographers] until ‘85. Compare that to today, when we have at least 20 photographers and another 20 support staff; it’s become this gigantic beast of personnel.
How did you become the NBA’s first photographer?
During the ‘82-’83 season, I had become friends, through Sports Illustrated, with the Lakers’ PR director. He was very nice, he took me aside in November [and] I remember him saying, “You know, the NBA is coming in February to do their All-Star game here. And maybe they need a photographer.”
He gave me the name of a gentleman named Porter McKinnon, who was the editor of NBA Today. I wrote to Mr. McKinnon and he wrote me back and said, “Sure, kid, come in, why not? We probably need a photographer. We haven’t even thought of it. You can do it.”
And that was my gig. That was my first foray into the NBA. Then things really kind of mushroom from there; I was in the right place at the right time, the NBA started needing photography on a regular basis by 1986. It came to the point where my little four-drawer filing cabinet in my one room apartment couldn’t really handle all the requests that were coming in. So we shipped the filing cabinet to New York and that became NBA Photos, which started in 1986.
How important is building rapport with players?
Well, it’s all about trust. If the person you’re speaking to or working with trusts you, because they know that you’re a professional and you’re there to do your job, you’re not there to make them look bad, you’re not there to put them in a compromising situation. I had to establish that very early.
I was very lucky that Magic Johnson and I became friends early. He took me under his wing. And then Pat Riley saw that. Pat encouraged me as a young photographer, and he welcomed me and then the organization welcomed me. And that’s how I sort of built my reputation. So, years and years later, when I got to work with Kobe and met him as a young rookie, 18 years old, he knew my reputation by that point. And there was never any doubt that there was trust there. I just didn’t want to screw it up. And I wanted to continue to be worthy of that trust. He let me into the inner sanctum just as Phil Jackson did for all 11 of his Championships.
What was your train of thought when Kobe said he knew your name from the photo credits?
That absolutely blew me away. The fact that an 18-year-old kid would have the presence of mind to look at the photo credit on a poster. I don’t know anyone else who ever saw my [name on] photos. Even my own parents probably never read the photo credit. But he studied every single aspect of those photos.
And years later, he told me that he studied my photos to help his game, to help him understand movement, defense, how to play certain players and how to react. That really just blew me away. As we started to do the book, it became very evident that he knew my pictures better than I did. It felt extremely humbling. But it felt very rewarding too, because it really made me feel like I helped him in some way.
How did the famous MJ picture happen?
That picture in 1991, when Jordan won his first championship, was a very chaotic locker room. I was there standing on a bridge table in the middle of this crazy scene, a tiny locker room, champagne’s flying all over the place, [and] TV was live at the time in the locker room doing the trophy presentation from the commissioner to the Bulls.
They went to commercial and wanted to come back and have Michael Jordan be interviewed solo. Nobody could find him and the producers were going crazy. And I was still standing on this table. Something just said to me, “Look to your left,” I look to my left, and there he was in this locker about three feet away from me, hugging the trophy, crying his eyes out. His dad is there, consoling him. And I clicked two or three frames. And then somebody grabbed him and pulled him into this interview. And that was the end of that. But this is just a true moment in time.
Did you know you had the shot at the time?
I knew that something great had just happened. I was hoping that I recorded it right. The eyes could have been closed, the trophy could have been covering his face, who knows. But you know, when I finally got to see that film later that night, it was very rewarding. And it still lives on today. This first of six championships really speaks to his passion. The fact that his dad is there next to him. There’s a lot of backstory to this photo, so I truly love it.
Andrew D. Bernstein contributed photographs to Kobe Bryant’s latest book titled The Mamba Mentality: How I Play.