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John Schuhmann

Bernstein's 30 moments in time on display at the Hall

By John Schuhmann,
Posted Sep 9 2009 8:05AM

These days, the NBA awards the Larry O'Brien Trophy to its champion on the court, even if they win on the road. But in 1991, when Michael Jordan and the Bulls won their first title, the trophy presentation took place in the tiny visitors' locker room at The Great Western Forum.

The room was packed with players, coaches, team staff, family and media. The NBC cameras were focused on the small podium where Commissioner David Stern presented the trophy to Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and where Bob Costas conducted interviews amid the bedlam of a championship celebration.

Costas interviewed coach Phil Jackson and then yelled out for Jordan, the Finals MVP, but couldn't find him in the crowd. So he instead spoke with John Paxson and Scottie Pippen, who were nearby. After that, Costas announced, "Somebody go get Michael and we'll talk to Horace Grant."

Veteran NBA photographer Andrew Bernstein has captured many of the iconic images of the NBA Finals. Click here to view some of his best images of the last 30 years.
NBA Photos

At that point, NBA photographer Andy Bernstein was in the middle of the room, standing atop a folding table, shooting the party. Instinctively, he turned to his left and saw Jordan, sitting in front of a locker, embracing the trophy with tears in his eyes and his father James at his side.

"I just spun around quickly and banged two frames off," Bernstein says now, "and then everybody saw that he was there, and that was the end of that."

One of those two frames turned into a truly iconic photo, one which captures the moment of Jordan's first championship perfectly and reveals how much that trophy meant to the greatest player in history. When James Jordan was tragically killed two years later, the photo took on greater significance, and to this day, it's one that means a lot to his son.

As basketball fans, we often get chills when we watch video of the greatest moments in NBA history. And sometimes, a single frame like Bernstein's photo of Jordan, can elicit a similar emotional response.

"It was just a moment where I happened to be at the right place at the right time," Bernstein says. "Some instinct told me to turn and shoot that way instead of the other way."

The Jordan shot is one of 30 Finals photos, spanning Bernstein's 27 years with the NBA, now on display at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. From 1983 to 2009, every championship team is represented in the collection. Dr. J, Magic, Bird, the Bad Boys, Duncan, Shaq, Kobe and D-Wade are all captured at their finest hour.

Bernstein's Photo Gallery
Click below to view 30 years of Andrew Bernstein's best photos of the NBA Finals. Read Full Article

The exhibit originally ran at The Perfect Exposure Gallery in Los Angeles, opening between Games 1 and 2 of this year's Finals. After the Lakers won, Bernstein added a new photo, Phil Jackson congratulating Kobe Bryant on the floor of Amway Arena, to the exhibit. Last month, it moved to Springfield, where it will stand for the 2009-10 season.

The 51-year old Bernstein has been based in L.A. since he assisted Sports Illustrated photographers as a student at the Arts Center College of Design in Pasadena, so he has chronicled Bryant's career every step of the way, starting with Bryant's first training camp in '96. In fact, he'd been in Bryant's life well before that. When Bernstein introduced himself to the rookie on the occasion of his first media day, Bryant replied, "You're Andy Bernstein? Man, I have all your posters in my room!"

The two have had a strong relationship since, and if Bryant finishes his career with the Lakers, Bernstein says "I would feel like it was a full book of work that I produced on this guy." But of course, the book would be missing one page.

On Jan. 22, 2006, Staples Center was hosting a typical Sunday NBA doubleheader. In the afternoon, the Clippers were playing the Warriors, and at night, the Lakers were taking on the Raptors. This was the one season that the Clippers were decent, and since Bernstein wasn't able to cover both games, he chose the matinee.

Unfortunately for Bernstein, that was the night that Bryant happened to score 81 points. On his way home from visiting family, Bernstein passed Staples as he listened to the third quarter of the history-making performance on the radio. He felt odd about not being there, but kept on driving and caught the end of the game on TV. Photographer Noah Graham was the beneficiary of Bernstein's bad luck, and before the next home game, Bryant asked Bernstein where he had been.

"I'm just waiting for the 101-point game," Bernstein replied.

In his 27 years with the league, Bernstein hasn't missed much else, even though he has also been the L.A. Kings' photographer for the last 30 years and chronicled the Dodgers from 1984-95 as well.

He loves the challenge of his job. "As photographers, we have to produce in a single photo something that the fans are used to seeing, and make it exciting and something they'll want to keep looking at," he says. "It's just a moment in time, and then it's gone.

"When you get to something like an All-Star Game, the Playoffs, The Finals, or the Olympics, it also has to tell a story of what transpired during that particular game, play or event."

The Hall of Fame exhibit tells many stories, and for Bernstein, it's appropriate that this career accomplishment comes less than 30 miles from where his basketball photography career got started. Before he transferred to the Arts Center College of Design, he was a student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and his first published photo was of UMass player Alex Eldridge in 1975.

"It's kind of a cool, full-circle experience for me," Bernstein says. "The Hall is a great place to go and I'm just thrilled that they wanted this exhibit there. It really means a lot to me."

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