Ali was my idol growing up in the 1960s. He gave me the confidence to be who I am. And to fight, something I had to do a lot of as a kid.
I met him after the Oscars show in 1997 the night the film When We Were Kings won an Academy Award. My mom and I stood across the street from Mortons in a large crowd. Before getting into his limo, Ali crossed the street to the crowd. He wasn’t in good shape even then. When he got to us I embraced him and told him he was my biggest hero as a youth. I then asked him to shake hands with my mom. She stuck out her hand and he brushed it aside and stooped down and gave her a warm hug. We both were in tears. Much love to Ali. He will live forever.
I had a video camera that night. I recorded Ali and George Foreman from across the street in West Hollywood. I had taken my mother to a spot near an Oscar after-party just to give her a thrill. I had no idea that Ali would be there.
When Ali came across the street I continued to record him but when he got close I just let the camera drop. I only have audio of our encounter on tape somewhere. I call him ‘champ.’ I remember my mother is sobbing. She tells Ali, We always loved you.
A decade later I was in Phoenix, AZ. photographing a WNBA playoff game. It was an exciting night anyway. One of those unfortunately rare magic evenings in the WNBA. Incredible playoff atmosphere. I’m on the baseline. Suddenly there’s a roar from the crowd in the U.S. Airways Arena. Muhammad Ali and his wife are in the building. They are on the big screen. I look up and I’m just taken away. An already incredible evening has just gone through the roof.
I look around to see where he is. Where is this person who has meant so much to me in my life? How lucky I am to have crossed paths with him yet again. I look up to my wife (then girlfriend) in the stands. She points behind me. I turn completely around on the floor and there he was, sitting no more than six feet behind me. All I could do at that moment was raise my camera.
There are probably a lot of different types of photography that any one photographer might not like.
For me personally, one type of photography that would have definitely been included on my short list of what I don’t like is baseline basketball photography of the type that is seen in major newspapers and sports magazines all over the country. I don’t want to get into knocking anyone’s work. But the images that I’d always seen were to me incredibly boring and I thought more than once that if I had to do that job, night in and night out, I would rather not be a photographer at all.
So when the opportunity came up for me to shoot women’s basketball as a baseline photographer, I jumped on it. Of course! That’s me. A proven hypocrite once more.
First, I loved women’s basketball at the time of the offer. And I still do love it but probably nothing like those early days before I was involved with the hard work of content creation around the sport and not just sitting around ruminating about it. And, of course, I love photography.
Beyond the technical challenges, which I instinctively went at with the idea of using the fastest and best Nikon lenses, there was a complete blank drawn in my mind about what exactly I should be shooting at these basketball games. And yes, even now it sounds like an easy question to answer. You shoot the action, dummy.
Turns out though, that’s about as much of an answer as it would be to tell an out of shape photographer to go out on the floor and just play winning basketball with and against these great talented athletes on the court.
Just do it! Right?
Oh sure, it’s JUST that easy.
An added problem is that I wanted to be really good at this and immediately. I put a ton of pressure on myself right from the start. That pressure and the distractions of trying to take good photographs completely took me away from what was happening in terms of the actual basketball games for years.
Who were the great players? How good was the team? What defense is that? All of that was instantly of no interest to me whatsoever. All I wanted to do and all I could think about was being good at what I was there to do.
I knew, KNEW, that the pictures I took would live maybe for a very long time on the internet with MY name attached to them. That was very scary for me. So for years into the endeavor it was completely normal for me not to even know the score of a game I was sitting four feet away from.
All I could think about was that I had to keep looking for and shooting great shots or I would end up with people seeing subpar work with my name on it and those people thinking, meh, this guy isn’t very good. lol.
So I had this friend who was an editor at the New York Times and I asked her what the heck was I supposed to shoot at the first contest I was credentialed to attend, an NCAA women’s game at Pepperdine University between the Pepperdine Waves and one of the always powerful teams from Gonzaga.
My friend sent me a bunch of sports images. And she asked me a question. What do all these pictures have in common?
I looked at the shots and I have to admit, I immediately got it. They were each and every one taken at the most extreme instant of competition. Two players diving for a ball or jumping for a rebound. Arms and bodies absolutely extended to the extreme range of what the human anatomy will allow..
Okay. I had something to shoot for. Thank you, Miss New York Times.
But that wasn’t enough. So I had to ask myself, what do I like to photograph?
What is it that I watch or look for when I’m watching sports? What matters to ME? What do I find interesting about sports?
Well that was kind of an easy answer to come up with as well. I like communication, both demonstrative and out front for all the world to see, but also subtle and psychological. Silent communication. Involuntary tells that flash across people’s faces. Things that might not even be there but are there for me, things that I think I see and that I think have meaning. Things that I can point a camera at and photograph as proof or evidence that they are there.
Okay. Now I had something to go on.
So I showed up at Pepperdine in Malibu. I was nervous. I thought a) they wouldn’t let me in the front door, and b) security and everyone in the place would be watching me for one false un-Sports Illustrated-like move so that they could expel me from their midst and get on with their big-time college basketball game.
It’s an unusual arena. The court is open on one end where the lobby actually is and the small concession stand etc. You walk past all of that to either immediately grab a seat on the near baseline or to walk around to the far baseline. I figured the further I could get myself into the place the harder it would be to get me out of there so I began to walk around the court to get to the other side.
As I said, I came to this a) hating baseline basketball photography anyway and wanting to do something different, and b) somehow holding in my mind the desire to photograph the things that I see and are interested in in both basketball and life and that is communication of thought either from one person to another or contained in the faces of those I photograph.
(Whether the latter is really there or not is for me kind of not up for debate. If I see it, I think I can photograph it. If it’s still there then I think I have photographed it. As the cliche goes, your mileage may vary.)
Anyway. But certainly player-to-player communication was what I was most looking for in shooting women’s basketball. Not the standard action shots but something different.
Well, as I was walking around to the baseline where I’d chosen to make my stand against security and school officials should they get wind of my lack of baseline gravitas I SAW a shot. Just like that. Before I could even get to my spot. I saw my whole purpose for being there come into a frame in my mind right from the sideline.
So I lifted my camera and snapped the following shot. That’s my first ever photograph of a women’s or anyone else’s basketball game.
I’d barely broken stride and I looked at that picture as I continued to walk to my spot. I probably thought something like, thank you and good night, ladies and gentlemen. I don’t remember. But there it is. 24 for the home team is calling for the ball and 22 is thinking about accommodating her in the face of a daunting Gonzaga defense. There is a micro basketball story captured in one image.
I would have to admit that in the many subsequent years of taking pictures at women’s games, mostly WNBA games, I don’t think I ever did anything that I could call ‘better’ than what I did on that first night. Technically maybe. But the truth is the more I shot and the better the images may have gotten technically, the farther away I got from what I’d initially set out to do in shooting women’s basketball. So there’s that.
Anyway. Here are a few shots from that night. All I can recover in these modern days of not having an optical drive on my Macs. 😉
Almost as soon as this year’s NBA playoffs opening rounds began something seemed to be in the air. Two top seeds were upset at home. Another higher seed, the Los Angeles Clippers, also lost its opener at home at the Staples Center. Now we’re more than halfway through the eight first-round match-ups and in just two of those playoff series, the Memphis Grizzlies vs Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets vs the Portland Trailblazers, in just eight games total, there have been an astounding SIX overtime contests.
The eighth-seed Dallas Mavericks are up in their series against the class of the league, the number-one-seed San Antonio Spurs, on an unlikely last-second three-point bomb from deep in the corner by the Mav’s Vince Carter. Four of the series are now tied up 2-2 including the match-up between the team many felt was the league’s best for a good portion of the season, the Indiana Pacers, and the only team to come into the playoffs with a losing record, the Atlanta Hawks.
Even before this past weekend’s game the verdict was in and it was unanimous. In the 68-year history of the world’s premier professional basketball league no one has ever seen anything like it. No playoff opening round has ever been this exciting or competitive or dramatic.
This was shaping up to be the National Basketball Association’s finest hour.
But going into the playoffs one series was touted as being the one everyone most wanted to see. The budding, extremely physical and emotionally charged cross-state rivalry between L.A.’s Clippers and the San Francisco Bay area’s Golden State Warriors, two of the most exciting young franchises the NBA has seen in years.
It was into this context that the taped conversations between Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling and his one-time mistress V. Stiviano came to light this past Saturday morning.
Regardless of the fact that everyone already knew what a piece of shit this man has always been, these audio tapes, graphically demonstrating him verbally intimidating a women of color into altering her Instagram history and attempting to get her to alter as well her associations with other African Americans, changed everything.
All we can hope for now is that the league will act tomorrow with a devastatingly clear and deeply satisfying response to the disgusting information that has come to the surface and continues to shock as more is revealed.
Anyone who thumps on his copy of the NBA bylaws or any other contractural legalities at this time and asserts what the league can’t do is on the wrong side of history and is standing up and voicing an opinion dangerously on the wrong side of the matter of racial progress and justice in the United States.
What the NBA can do is suspend Sterling indefinitely. But what’s important is that they do the most they can legally do now. Immediately. Almost everything else, what they can and will do later with or about Sterling or the Clippers ownership, is a far-off in-the-distant-future consideration.
The heat on the controversy is so intense right now because of the laser focus on the playoffs and the Clippers presence in the playoffs and the reactions from everyone, past greats, current superstars, and including that of the President of the United States.
Not to mention the reality, not a mere perception, that the story breaking and the league not acting swiftly or strongly enough on Saturday has broken the focus and momentum, if not the spirit of the Clippers — Lob City being maybe the greatest show in professional athletics right now — and is therefore effecting the outcome of the NBA playoffs.
We are Clippers fans.
Let me tell you all a story from this morning. I’ve been with a certain girl for 39 years. She is as wide-eyed and pure of heart as she was the day she was born, and certainly as she was the day she arrived in LA. She is a Clippers fan. We’ve been Clippers fans for about the last 20 years or so. But she loves the Clippers more even than I do.
When she talks about the Clippers it’s like a child talking about astronauts or firemen.
So she comes into the bedroom after her shower this morning and says, in that childlike voice, ‘I don’t think the Clippers will ever be the same again.’
It hurt to hear that. And to know it could very well be true.
This isn’t a product that we can just choose not to purchase or support. This is our team. There is love and there is heartbreak right now in our world that is off the charts. We realize that our beloved Clippers are really a lesser consideration to the greater issue and injustice of the moment. We’re resigned to that. And I think our minds are right in terms of our priorities.
But the NBA owners and their commissioner, representatives of the owner’s world we all must live in, can fix many many things right now with swift and decisive action punishing this member of their own club, serving racial and social justice while at the same time letting us Clippers fans get back to loving and supporting our team’s playoff run.
And we will support them. Fine young black men who we admire and, as a Clippers fans, love, their hopes and dreams and all their hard work cannot become just so much collateral damage because of what was said by their white owner.