Meet Andrew D. Bernstein, the NBA's Senior Photographer, and a man who's been turning basketball players into icons since the NBA was on tape-delay. (Photo via ©Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images).
Meet Andy Bernstein, pro basketball's most legendary photographer, and a man who's been turning basketball players into icons since the NBA was on tape-delay.
"When I was 14 my dad bought me a camera, and we took a trip out west." This is Andrew D. Bernstein talking about why he became a photographer. "I ended up taking better pictures than he did. And it kinda hooked me on the whole concept of being creative and taking pictures."
"Andy is the best photographer because he can capture you and he knows you better than anyone I've worked with. He gets to know you as a man and not just a basketball player. That's why he has some of the best photographs of anybody."
This is Magic Johnson talking. He's Magic Johnson.
Some background: There are plenty of perks that come with working in sportswriting, but one of the less obvious gifts has nothing to do with going to games or meeting cool people. If anything, it's just a great excuse to procrastinate. Having unlimited access to Getty Images every day means that we can enjoy thousands and thousands of phenomenal sports photos every single day.
It's so much better than YouTube. With old highlights, you can remember games or plays, but that's it. The video IS the memory. With photos, you get a snapshot, then create your memories around it. It's not certain plays that get us hooked; it's those memories that come with 'em and stick with us for years to come. Photos bring all those back.
For instance, you can watch highlights of Vince Carter's dunk contest in 2000 and remember his reverse 360. But when you see a photo, you remember how it felt like more like he pulled off a 720, through his legs and maybe caused an earthquake and/or a Kenny Smith heart attack. Highlights let us know exactly what happened; photos let us remember it however we want.
So yeah, on slows days in sports, it's easy to get lost in the NBA archives. Some days that means looking back on Penny Hardaway in the Eastern Conference Finals, remembering the Magic dynasty that never quite made it. Or around the All-Star Game, you look back a few decades, and find George Gervin and Magic Johnson. Or maybe Magic Johnson and Larry Bird giggling over the Larry O'Brien trophy. Or Allen Iverson commandeering a golf cart, stopping to say "what up" to young Kobe Bryant. Or maybe it's Kevin Garnett saying "what up" to Ted Danson.
When Jazz owner Larry Miller passed, we searched the archives and found this, and suddenly losing Larry Miller hurt more than we ever expected. Come dunk contest time, we remember the first dunk contest, where David Stern looks not a day past 27 years old. Come draft time, it's time to go find Jalen Rose's suit. Moments I was too young to remember come alive with all this, and photos enhance the mystique better than grainy video ever could.
Like this one, with Michael Jordan throwing his body into three Pistons.
That's three years' of playoff failures for Jordan's Bulls against the Pistons' Bad Boys, right there in that photo. And that photo was taken by Andy Bernstein. So were all the others taken above.
He's a man who has been with the NBA from the days of tape-delay until today, when the pro basketball is its own global economy, with tentacles from Brooklyn to L.A. to China. Bernstein's one of the only men who's been there the whole way. Last week, we talked to him to hear his story.
After his dad's camera planted the seed, the hobby flowered into an obsession around high school. "I went to a really big high school in Brooklyn, New York," Bernstein says. "We had newspaper and yearbook, and I was the photo editor of those. Then I went to the University of Massachusetts, and we had a very prestigious college newspaper there, and I ended up working there pretty much full time."
"UMass didn't really have any classes of photography, and I was just learning kinda trial-by-error. So I transferred my junior to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, which is probably the top ... like, the Harvard of art photography and commercial art schools."
"While I was there I started assisting some Sports Illustrated photographers," he says, explaining how the sports focus came about. "I learned all the ropes from them. I learned a lot of the technique and a few business things in school, but everything else I learned on the street, so to speak."
There's a mix of talent and opportunity here. For a young photographer, you couldn't ask for better training. Not just from the "Harvard of commercial photography," but from the Sports Illustrated photographers, who at that time were some of the only people practicing "strobe photography," a shooting style that Bernstein learned then, and would later make famous with his NBA work.
Then again, it's not all luck. Bernstein's endless work at UMass helped him win a scholarship to study in Pasadena, and he started shooting at the Forum before he'd even graduated. "I was kind of a hustler," he says, "In a good way. I wanted to make a career in sports photography." To that end, it helped that he was in Los Angeles just as the Showtime Lakers were about to turn the NBA on its head.
"I got my foot in the door at the Forum," he says, "made some great contacts there, and was able to kind of get my foot in the door. And lo and behold the NBA was having their All-Star Game in the Forum in '83, and my friend at the Lakers pointed me to someone at the NBA in New York to meet with, and try to sell myself, and I didn't have to sell much."
"They actually hadn't even thought about having a photographer covering the game," he tells me, a good clue as to how clueless the league's marketing was back then. "So they hired me. And in '83, there was just a game. There was no [All-Star] Weekend. The 'weekend' started in '84, in Denver."
He wasn't really a diehard NBA fan at this point. He talks again about growing up in Brooklyn, "I was a basketball fan, but I was like 4 feet 9 inches. I was the little guy. We used to play hoops in the schoolyard, and in my driveway and stuff, but I really wasn't an NBA fan at all.
"I was a huge, huge hockey fan. We were a big hockey family. I went to every Rangers game from when I was nine years old until I went to college, and I think I'd gone to maybe two Knicks games that whole time. I was most excited when I got in with the people at the Forum because I got to work with the Kings. That was my real feather in the cap."
But it was covering that All-Star Game that helped his career take off.
"So I covered the game, it was my first gig, and I've been working with them in some capacity or another ever since. In 1986 I founded NBA photos, which is huge now." That same year, the NBA created a new title for him, making him the first-ever Official Photographer of the NBA.
"I actually started before David Stern became commissioner," he says. "Larry O'Brien was still commissioner when I started. Things have changed. It's a gigantic business now, where before it was more like a family business, to be honest with you."
"But that's all good stuff," he makes sure to add. "For them to go from tape-delayed on CBS during the Finals to what they are now -- with the ratings and the TV contracts -- it's just incredible. To go to Europe or China, or wherever we go, and see how the NBA has exploded all over the world, not just in our country, but all over the world."
Suddenly there's a billion people here watching every player, buying every poster and living and breathing every big game.
"The first taste of that was in '88. We had the first McDonalds Open it was called, a preseason tournament where we took the Celtics to Madrid. I think we played like a Yugoslovian team at the time. Maybe one or two others. But arriving in Madrid, and pulling up at the arena in the pouring rain, and seeing people lined up AROUND THE BLOCK. Not just twenty people, but hundreds, maybe thousands of people lined up in the rain, basically every kid wearing a Larry Bird jersey. That just completely blew everything up," he laughs. "That was crazy."
We talk about his earliest memories in the NBA.
"The '84 Finals, the Boston Garden for the first time. Lakers-Celtics. And sitting on the floor, the legendary parquet floor, and it's about 95 degrees in the building. And they didn't start those games until about 9 o'clock at night. People are just .. they are definitely toasted at that point. The parquet floor literally moved. It was so loud in the building. One panel would move next to you. It was like an earthquake. I'll never forget it. I'll never forget Pat Riley being Pat, and wanting to be so professional, he absolutely refused to take his suit jacket off and it was drenched. Sweat was dripping down the side of it by the time the first timeout came in the first quarter."
Yes, those Lakers.
"Just being around those guys," he says with a chuckle. "With Magic and Kareem and Worthy. And Cooper and Byron and Coach Riley. I had to pinch myself a couple times, like, 'what the hell am I doing in here?'"
"I've been lucky to be around the game in all the key moments," he says. "I've covered every championship, covered every NBA championship since 1983. Every All-Star Game, all the USA Basketball, four Olympic Games ... it's been a good run. What can I say, ya know?"
I ask whether he understands what his work means for generations of younger fans, and he tells a story. "When I met Kobe Bryant, about 17 years ago -- or 16 years ago? -- he was 17 years old, and it was Lakers media day. And you know he's this young kid, and we have to do these shoots and stuff on media day, and I walk up and introduce myself, and he goes, 'Oh I know you! Your name is on all those posters I had in my room growing up.'"
Like this one, which was one of the first "through-the-backboard" shots, and turned into the cover shot for Michael Jordan's Come Fly With Me movie.
No child sports fan of the '90s, Kobe Bryant or otherwise, could grow up without Come Fly With Me sitting somewhere in his bedroom. And now we're talking about the Bulls.
"I covered the Bulls for all six championships. I was with Phil Jackson for all 11 of his championships. So when they put a photographer in the locker room with Phil, Bulls or Lakers, it was me. To be there from Michael Jordan's first championship -- you've probably seen the picture of Michael crying in the locker room holding the trophy with his dad. That's a picture that I know means a lot to him. He asked me to send him a copy of that after his dad passed away. [And then] to the sixth one, and everything in between, with everything he went through, and quitting and coming back, baseball, his dad's murder. All that stuff. That was a great ride."
But for Bernstein, talking about those Bulls or Lakers teams means talking about Phil Jackson. They collaborated on a book together a few years ago, and remain close today. And whether it's Jackson or Kobe Bryant, you get the sense that Bernstein's gotten where he is not just because of talent and opportunity, but because they genuinely trust him.
"Phil is a different kind of guy," Bernstein says. "He's unlike any person I've ever met in this business, and really, unlike any friend that I have outside of work. He's just an amazingly interesting guy, and he's got a philosophy of life that I've tried to embrace, and I'm just so fortunate that my work brought me to a friendship with him."
"That led to a friendship between Phil and I that transcended the game. It never could have happened if I hadn't had a relationship with him other than just 'the guy with the camera.'"
This, I think, is where you see the difference that Magic was talking about at the beginning. Bernstein's never just the guy with the camera, and especially as photographers have gotten more invasive over the past few decades, straddling those boundaries is easier said than done.
"What I've prided myself the most through the years is establishing a relationship of mutual respect. And that started with Magic. We kicked it off really strongly from the beginning. He was always liked working with me because I was always prepared, and I wouldn't waste his time, and that was a big thing with him. A lot of my work ethic comes from my dad, but a lot of my work ethic comes from Magic."
"That guy never, ever ever ever, mailed it in," he explains. "They could be up by 40 in Sacramento, and he's still playing like it's Game 6, you know? And he would always come to work on time and ready to play and in shape. And that's how I look at it."
This gets him talking about superstars, in general.
"Say what you will about Shaq not taking it seriously, but that guy took it seriously when he needed to. It's a killer instinct, it's take no prisoners. There's a lot of pride involved, there's ego involved. I don't know where these guys get it from."
"I try to instill that in my kids," he says. "Somebody's paying you to do something, then you show up and do it at the level that they are expecting it, and then go the next level. I look at every game like it could be my last game. You know Jordan had a great quote, and I'll paraphrase it, but he said, 'I play every game for that one fan at the top of the stands who's never seen me play.' Because it might be that one person's opportunity to see him that he'll never forget. So he wanted people to see him, and remember the great Michael Jordan, not the mediocre Michael Jordan."
"I'm the fly on the wall. Phil lets me in the to shoot a team meeting, I gotta literally be like a fly on the wall. Not say a word, and I also need to know when to get out. I know all the coaches, so there's a lot familiarity. So if the NBA sticks me with the Spurs, they have a more closed locker room situation where they really don't welcome people in as much as other teams do, but they're comfortable with me."
I ask about the teams he's had most fun covering, and he takes it in a different direction.
"I've been in locker rooms where they haven't been having fun. I've unfortunately been around the Clippers since they moved in 1984. And there were A LOT of down years."
Andy Bernstein's been shooting the NBA for more than 30 years. He's shot every All-Star Game since 1983, every NBA Finals over the same span, and he's outlasted entire generations of superstars that changed the way we look at basketball. But there's no better testament to his longevity than this: he's stuck around long enough for the Clippers to stop being depressing.
"I just came off a road trip with the Clippers," he says. "It was fantastic. The camaraderie. They do everything together as a team. I don't think I've ever really seen that. Where the whole team goes out to dinner, the whole team goes to the movies. And being a fly on the wall is super fun."
Of course, after 30 years of road trips, you wonder about the toll this lifestyle takes on a human being. Bernstein says he's had back problems that almost forced him to retire.
"All those years sitting on the floor wasn't good," he says.
And there's also the toll it takes on family life.
"That's been the hardest piece of the puzzle, he says. "I used to travel about 18-20 days a month. And then do games at home. I've been divorced twice, so this is my third shot. And I have three teenage children, and we have a little one that's three-and-a-half. It's part of the business, it really is. Thank God I don't have to play a game every night. I don't know how these guys do it."
Luckily, one of the perks that comes with being a living legend in your field is flexibility. Bernstein works more at home than ever before, and save for a few days of traveling each month and the occasional trip to, say, China, he's able to live as close to normal as ever. Not that he regrets some of the travels he's had in the past.
I ask about his greatest thrill traveling with the NBA, and the answer's easy.
"Heads and shoulders above everything else was the '92 Dream Team. I always say if I could have retired after that experience ... it would have been great. Just being around all that greatness, and being trusted enough to just be with those guys, in the training room, on the bus, and hanging out. It was monumental."
"The practices themselves," he adds. "The games were anti-climatic. They were over in five minutes. So they challenged themselves. And these were super competitive guys, whether they were playing golf, playing poker or playing basketball. The whole vibe was amazing. They're picking teams, Bird and Magic are captains, or Magic and Jordan, and they're choosing between Barkley and David Robinson, Chris Mullin and Scottie." He starts laughing again. "It was unbelievable."
On the flipside, I ask about his worst experience working in the NBA. On the front, he says the most memorable experience actually came with baseball.
"I was the Dodgers team photographer from '84 to '95," he says. "Daryl Strawberry was on the team with the Dodgers at the time, and I knew him, and I was shooting some batting practice, and Daryl was chatting with Barry Bonds. And I go over near the cage, and start snapping a couple shots, because it was a nice moment, and Barry turns with the bat and literally takes a swing [at me]." There's more laughter. "I knew he wasn't gonna hit me because I was more than bat length away from him, and Daryl, to his credit, said, 'Hold on a second man, he's cool, he's cool.'"
And, yes, this has been your regularly scheduled reminder that Barry Bonds treated everyone like crap throughout his time in the major leagues. But that's a whole 'nother story. As for basketball, we talk about what the future looks like. How much has the internet changed his job description?
"359 degrees. Everything's immediate now. We're doing what's called live coverage. Part of our workflow every game is that we need to have photos uploaded to Getty by the first timeout of the first quarter."
He gives an example.
"This Sunday of course we have Lakers-Miami, a day game. It's a key matchup, the marquee game, I think it's the only game going on at that time. So we have to be very on top of our game. Stuff has to be uploaded. And I have to have my guy come get the memory card, immediately captioned, he sends it back to the NBA office in New Jersey, and then that's uploaded from there to Getty."
It's harder than it looks, too.
"I get one shot every four seconds. I'm shooting with strobe, and the strobes you can only shoot once every four seconds, otherwise you blow 'em up. So you really have to be tuned in, and know the game, know the players and have like a sixth sense of what's gonna happen. Like divine intervention," Bernstein says. He's laughing again. "And you miss a lot! I'll go to get a great shot of Blake Griffin, and he'll have his arm in his face. But that's a huge element to what I do. When you're getting one shot at it, you better get it. It all has to come together."
The whole process hits overdrive at big games.
"At the All-Star Game, it was literally, 3-4 minutes. Because they were being transmitted directly from the arena to Getty. It was pretty close to as it happened."
As you can imagine, the process used to look pretty different.
"I'd come in, we'd do the game on film, I'd drop the film off on the way home at the lab, go back in the morning and edit the film. I'd stick it in a FedEx box, and they would get it the next day. From there, it would have to be catalogued and put in files, and you would call and say, 'Hey I'm doing a story on Magic or whatever,' and you would go in and look at the file folder which would have all the slides in it, and that's how stuff was done."
Now it's 3-4 minutes, and reporters are searching through his work.
There have been other changes, too. Bernstein's been one of the pioneers in something called the "Flash II Wizard system", which allows photographers to have remote cameras all over the court. For a regular season Lakers game, this means he'll have around seven cameras working around the court at once. For an All-Star Game or a playoff game, a staff of three guys will be managing around 25 cameras.
"I'll be using probably seven remote cameras," he says, "and then three cameras in front of me. So it's a lot to manage. And my guy, Johnny, who's my tech, is just amazing. He can literally do seven things at once. I watch him, and it's just amazing."
And with the help of the best tech in the business and remote cameras all over the court, he and his partner, Noah Graham, will shoot around 3,000 pictures on an average night. As the games get bigger, so does that number, all being uploaded almost instantaneously.
It's a whole different world from the 1983 All-Star Game, but even with the added pressure and responsibility, it's hard to argue the work's done anything but get worlds better.
Here's a snapshot from Sunday.
"I came in at the end of the Kareem, Dr. J era," Bernstein says when I ask about today's game and where it's headed. "We didn't think anything would top that. That went right into the Showtime Era, which went right into Jordan. Then Shaq and Kobe. And now we're in the LeBron, sorta Durant era, and who knows what's gonna come after that? You never thought there'd be another Kobe Bryant? Well, look what Durant's doing. The kid is what, 23? How many championships is HE gonna win?"
See, that's part of what makes someone like Bernstein so important to the NBA. We don't argue about Durant's place in today's game. We ask how great he could be. We think about what's already happened, and in the same breath, we fantasize about what's next.
Measuring today against yesterday and wondering about tomorrow -- so much of the NBA's appeal is wrapped in history and myth and icons that've changed the game as we know it. And so much of that history and myth springs from photos like Bernstein's -- the snapshots that turn basketball players into icons, living on the bedroom walls and desktop backgrounds of people who live and breathe basketball. When you step back at look at the past 30 years, if the acid test for NBA legends comes down to whether they changed the way we experience basketball, Andy Bernstein measures up with the best of 'em.
Toward the end of our interview, I ask how much longer he'll be around, and he went back to the kid who recognized him 16 years ago.
"Kobe and I were talking about that the other day," he said. "On the back of the warmup, they have stars, there's one for every All-Star Game that the guy's been in. So Kobe's jacket was covered in stars. So I said to him, 'How many more of those can fit on the jacket?'"
And Kobe says, "At least two or three, I hope."
"And I say, 'Well, when that jacket's full, it's time to go.'
"But hopefully it'll be a lot longer. We'll see. I still love the game. I still love coming to the games each night. It's not really a job, per se. I love NBA basketball, I really do."
Right. If you're keeping track at home, the Brooklyn kid who ignored the NBA in the '60s and '70s has become the man who lives the league daily. And as he's gotten hooked, so have the rest of us.