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David Aldridge

Andrew Bernstein has been a NBA photographer for over 20 years and says the Dream Team was his favorite assignment.
Andrew Bernstein has been a NBA photographer for over 20 years and says the Dream Team was his favorite assignment.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Through my lens: The life of NBA photographer


Posted Sep 6 2010 2:27PM

Good Labor Day Monday, which brings another guest columnist for The Morning Tip. (I will be back on Sept. 20, promise.) Chances are if you've pored through a book on pro basketball, or thumbed through a magazine with an NBA player or coach featured, you've seen the work of Andrew D. Bernstein, today's guest columnist.

Bernstein, the Senior Director of NBA Photos, is as much a part of the pro basketball scene as any player, coach or star fan. During the last two decades, he's taken some of the most iconic pictures of the era (this is my all-time favorite photo of his, showing two of the game's all-time greats doing some of the least flashy, least fun, but most important work a player can do on a court -- putting a body on someone in anticipation of a rebound,) been in the locker rooms of every championship team since 1983. He was named senior official photographer of the league in 1986 and has been instrumental in the development and use of new flash systems that have revolutionized indoor sports action photography. Bernstein, 52, earned a BFA from the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., in 1981, when he developed a taste for sports photography. Soon after, his work began appearing in magazines all over the world, from Sports Illustrated to The Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Time, Newsweek and other publications. He is the official photographer for the Lakers, Clippers and Sparks. His company, Bernstein Associates, Inc., has served as team photographer for the Dodgers and Kings, and he is the Director of Photography for the Staples Center and Nokia Theater within LA Live, the sports and entertainment complex in Los Angeles. He has been involved in numerous high-profile ad campaigns with star athletes, and several books featuring his work, including three books on the Lakers' most recent back-to-back championship teams.

His photographs have been showcased in solo shows in the L.A. area, as well as in a 20-year retrospective during the 2004 NBA All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles. In June and July 2007 he had a retrospective showing of his 27 years of NBA Finals photography at The Perfect Exposure Gallery in Los Angeles. That show is now on permanent exhibit at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Bernstein is just one of four photographers whose work has been selected for permanent exhibit in the media wing of the Hall. (Andy's favorite shot, titled "Michael Jordan: Come Fly With Me," is on display in that exhibit.)

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Bernstein was inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in January, 2001. He's currently a volunteer photography instructor and mentor at Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), a youth center benefitting inner city children and teens. He was named HOLA's Volunteer of the Year in 2005. He is also an active contributor to Autism Speaks, the national autism awareness organization.

Every time I see Andy on a court he's got at least two cameras around his neck, and a smile on his face. He's been kind enough to share some of his adventures over the years with some of the game's greats, and preview some of his upcoming projects today. I hope you enjoy it.

GLOBETROTTER: THE LIFE OF AN NBA PHOTOGRAPHER

I've been everywhere, man.
Crossed the deserts bare, man.
I've breathed the mountain air, man.
Of travel I've had my share, man.
I've been everywhere.

I've been to: Barcelona, Beijing, Chicago, Indianapolis, Perugia, Rome, Treviso, Honolulu, London, Milwaukee, Munich, Toronto, Atlanta, New York, Springfield, San Diego, Seattle, Oklahoma City, Shanghai, Sydney...

As I watch the U.S. Men's Senior National Team on their road to gold at the FIBA World Championships in Istanbul, I am reminded about the countless road trips, late night plane flights, impossible to number hotel rooms, (fumbled) wake-up calls, cities and arenas I have visited in my 28 year NBA career as an official NBA staff photographer.

Whoever said my job was "glamorous" wasn't with me when I schlepped heavy cases as I raced through the airports of Shanghai, Dallas, Paris, Oklahoma City, Sydney, Minneapolis, Honolulu, Munich, Portland, Toronto and seemingly wherever else the NBA has reached throughout the world.

And guess what? I wouldn't trade any single experience or my career for anything.

Covering the world's greatest athletes is my passion. Sitting courtside, or in the "trenches," my job is to capture in one frame these amazing athletes as they fly through the air with balletic grace en route to the basket and dunk over my head, or block a shot or celebrate a championship. Maybe that's the "glamorous" part of my job, I don't know. All I know is I love it.

Working on a Dream

The NBA has 30 teams, and the WNBA has 10. All have a local team photographer. I am one of three NBA staff photographers. I am based in Los Angeles. My cohorts, Nat Butler and Jesse Garrabrant, are based out of the New Jersey home office of NBA Photos, a division of NBA Entertainment.

Since I am based in L.A., I serve as the local team photographer for the Lakers, Clippers and Sparks. I have a game night crew of three or four depending on the photographic needs of the NBA and team. Covering games is just part of our local coverage -- we also cover community and sponsor events, NBAE shoots, and anything else that comes up throughout the year. I am also responsible for helping manage the team photographers for the other Western Conference teams and participate in the overall management of the NBA Photos department.

It has been an amazing ride as NBA Photos has grown to be the benchmark sports league photo department around the world from its humble origins as a four-drawer filing cabinet in my one bedroom apartment almost 30 years ago.

Millions of photos currently reside in the archives of NBA Photos and our partner Getty Images. I have no idea how many are mine, but I know it's safe to say they could fill dozens of those four drawer filing cabinets.

NBA staff photographers also cover the NBA and WNBA All-Star Games, Playoffs and Finals, the Draft, all international tournaments and preseason games, and full coverage of USA Basketball's men's and women's teams. This includes training camp, exhibition games and tournaments such as the Tournament of the Americas, World Championships and Olympic Games.

Born In The U.S.A.

Speaking of the Olympics, I'm often asked what my favorite NBA memory is (this is the second most asked question after, "What is your favorite photo that you have shot in your career?"-- more on that later).

The transcendent experience for me, hands down, was covering the Dream Team for seven weeks during their gold medal run at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

The memories came flooding back to me as I watched the members of that team enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last month in Springfield, Mass. It was the first time they were all reunited as a group since that '92 experience with the glaring exception of their beloved head coach, the late Chuck Daly.

Yes, they all looked older -- don't we all? -- but there they were: Magic, Michael, Larry, Patrick, the Mailman, Pip, Mullin, Stockton, Clyde the Glide, The Admiral, Laettner and Sir Charles, along with the assistant coaches, Lenny Wilkens and P.J. Carlesimo.

Two pictures, one team -- always and forever 'The Dream Team.'
Two pictures, one team -- always and forever 'The Dream Team.'
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Cracking jokes and sharing stories...it was an incredible night. The coolest part was that I able to recreate the team photo I shot in the basement of the old Portland Coliseum at the 1992 Tournament of the Americas but this time on the stage of Springfield's Symphony Hall. I had all of 30 seconds to do it during a commercial break, but it worked out perfectly.

My Lucky Day

My favorite photo that I've taken? It is the one of Michael Jordan from the Bulls' 1991 NBA Finals victory celebration.

Michael Jordan and his father after the Bulls 1991 Finals victory.
Michael Jordan and his father after the Bulls 1991 Finals victory.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

I was in midst of a chaotic championship locker room celebration scene at the Great Western Forum. The Bulls had just won their first NBA title, beating the Lakers in five games. The room appeared to be the size of a closet and was overflowing with media, family members, and champagne. As the official NBA photographer, I was shooting the championship trophy presentation standing on a folding bridge table, trying to get any picture that I could.

Suddenly, I'm thinking, "Where's Michael?" I looked around and couldn't find him. It turned out he was directly behind me, holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy, crying while his dad was consoling him. I saw this and it appeared almost incongruous, because you're used to athletes going crazy, celebrating in the locker room. There isn't much feeling behind it, just pure excitement. This, however, was an actual moment you could feel.

So, I took the picture and because I was shooting from above, I was able to frame it so that it looked like he and his dad were alone despite the locker room hysteria. A few seconds after I took the photo, the media converged on Michael and the moment was gone.

This is a very important picture to Michael because of what it represents professionally and personally. He has told me that he considers this picture timeless and historic because of his father's presence. Those words mean a lot to me because I shared a close relationship with my father that I valued greatly.

Further On (Up the Road)

As I prepare for another NBA season there is still a lot of work to be accomplished  the WNBA Finals are coming up at the end of this week, media days and training camps open for the Lakers and Clippers at the end of this month. I will be traveling with the Lakers to London and Barcelona as they participate in the 2010 Europe Live games in those cities in early October. Then there are about a dozen pre-season games until the season finally opens on October 26 with Lakers ring night and it's the start of my 29th season marathon.

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I am also excited about the release of my upcoming book collaboration with Phil Jackson that documents the Lakers 2009-10 championship season called "Journey to the Ring." It's a behind-the-scenes, all-access, black and white look at the team from training camp in September through the championship parade in June and everything in between.

Phil was very involved in the project, from helping select the photos to actually writing the captions and offering unique and personal reflections. I have covered all 11 of his NBA championships as a coach, and he is a great friend and supporter of my work and terrific partner to work with on this type of project. I feel like I have earned his trust over so many years as a "fly on the wall" in his team's locker rooms, buses, plane trips and practices.

That brings me to another frequently asked question when people see my behind-the-scenes pictures: "How were you able to get those kind of photos?" My answer is I have established trusting relationships with many NBA players, coaches, trainers, public relations directors and security people during my tenure with the NBA. I have learned when and how to get the shots I need without distraction. Sure, I've had Pat Riley yell at me to get out of his team huddle and Phil give me his famous look when he sees me too often in the training room, but I think it's safe to say that I am a professional at all times. My best friends work within the NBA family from players , coaches and front office personnel to my fellow photographers and league employees and members of the media. As I said before, I love my job!

Glory Days

I have taken thousands of photos over the course of my career and asking me to select a favorite is a daunting and nearly impossible task. Yes, I selected the Michael photo but it's difficult. It's equivalent of asking which four of my children are my favorite or the greatest Bruce Springsteen song or concert experience. Impossible. All are memorable in their own right.

But enough about me, what about you? I will let you decide which is my most memorable photo from the ones I have personally selected for this photo galley, drop me an email at adb.nbaphotos@gmail.com. Have fun! I hope they bring back some great NBA memories as they always do for me.

And the great thing about working at the NBA, the next great photo and experience is always right around the corner.

"Been driving five hundred miles, got five hundred to go, yeah .. I got rock and roll music on the radio ... I'm just around the corner to the light of day."

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