Bernstein: A Bridge Between Magic, Kobe and LeBron

By Kevin Ding - Senior Writer

It was such a meet-cute moment that it’s only right their relationship continues to this day…a movie-perfect, Hall of Fame happy ending validating their longtime mutual respect.

The first meeting between Andy Bernstein and Kobe Bryant was that deeply telling—a diamond-crusted needle in life’s huge haystack of throwaway handshakes and hellos—as Bryant quietly revealed his dedication and ambition on his very first day of professional basketball.

It was Media Day, the prelude to training camp and when teams first gather for the season with an avalanche of meet-and-greet duties. It was Bryant’s rookie season, newly age 18, when he presumably should’ve been frazzled and frantic just being at work. Bernstein approached to introduce himself before taking Bryant’s very first official picture, his individual mug shot.

“Hi, Kobe. I’m Andy Bernstein, Lakers team photographer.”

Bernstein extended his hand…and the initial handshake did not end at the usual time.

Looking at him and holding on to let the connection linger, Bryant said: “Oh, I know who you are.”

“You do? How do you know who I am?” Bernstein asked. “We’ve never met.”

“I had your posters in my room when I was growing up.”

My relationships have really been the result of a lot of trust and a lot of mutual respect.

Andy Bernstein

The attention to detail and level of caring astounded Bernstein. Yet that was how maniacally Bryant was already studying everything about Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

“The photo credit on a poster is buried on the bottom right in like the most minus-point type you could possibly put on something,” Bernstein said. “The fact that this guy was reading the photo credit was beyond comprehension. Seriously. That meant a lot. And it immediately told me there was a lot of respect here from him to me, which I thought was crazy because I never really had that before in the initial meeting—especially with such a young guy.”

As Bryant’s career secured his place alongside the greats, Bernstein continued his own greatness as the means to pull the public as close to Bryant as possible.

To do that for the greatest athletes and capture their humanity has been Bernstein’s dream come true, requiring him to fight through his own adversity and be a trail blazer in his field. He came to the prestigious ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena and discovered plenty of skeptics there who “did not in any way, shape, or form encourage my sports photography passion.”

Just like a determined underdog athlete must, Bernstein persevered. He established himself long before Bryant came along, in part because of his work and then friendship with Johnson. In fact, Johnson went so far as to say on Bernstein’s Legends of Sport podcast: “When the NBA was struggling a little bit, we were both able to help the league grow, along with this guy named Larry Bird.”

These words from Johnson about Bernstein were even stronger: “I would do anything for my friend over here.”

Andy's famous shot of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird

Andy's famous shot of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird

Now Bernstein is entering his 37th year covering the NBA while based in Los Angeles. Bryant has also trusted Bernstein to be his partner in their forthcoming book, The Mamba Mentality: How I Play, to be released Oct. 23 with all the tactical secrets Bryant once kept in the vault but now wants to teach the next generation.

First, though, is this monumental week in Bernstein’s life. He will be honored Thursday by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with the Curt Gowdy Media Award for his contributions to the sport.

You could even say that Bernstein has beaten Bryant to the Hall of Fame…because Bernstein has said just that to Bryant, actually. The two are that close. Bernstein couldn’t resist rubbing Bryant’s nose in it, ribbing the recent Academy Award winner for best short animated film with that fact as Bernstein prepared for his big week.

“Dude has to get humbled somehow,” Bernstein said, laughing.

As much as Bernstein’s instincts, work ethic and technical skills of photojournalism built this legendary career, so did his people skills.

“Some of these relationships have turned into personal relationships over the years. It’s an incredible element to my career,” Bernstein said. “Otherwise, I think it’d be kind of like punching a time clock at a factory. Going in, shooting the game, leaving, and having nothing else peripherally to take home at the end of the night.

“My relationships have really been the result of a lot of trust and a lot of mutual respect. Somebody like Kobe and I can have this relationship for 20 years—and produce a book together. He has given me such incredible access over the years. You know that he doesn’t let people in very easily.

“I really have to think at the end of the day, ‘Why did that happen?’ There had to be something in me that he was comfortable with, he trusted. Otherwise, he wouldn’t give me the time of day. The same thing goes for Magic.”

How amazing is it that this average Andy, in serving the public as a conduit between the superstars and their fans, himself became a common thread between Magic and Kobe and now LeBron James, who respects Bernstein enough that he’ll stop the NBA Finals pregame layup line to say hello to Bernstein on the baseline?

The story of Bernstein’s initial meeting with James is another one of Bernstein’s reputation preceding him—and unique verification for just how much James has always revered Bryant.

It was the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, quite cool but by now customary for Bernstein in his work.

What Bernstein calls the greatest experience of his career was being embedded with the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” with Johnson, Jordan, Bird and so many other notables—including Bernstein’s father, Len. He had given Andy the boy that manual, clunky Canon TL camera and Kodachrome film, and he was thrilled to tag along with Andy the man for an unforgettable father-son adventure in Monaco and Barcelona and the Dream Team, with Len actually getting to spend time with Jordan.

Bernstein was embedded again with the so-called “Redeem Team” trying to come back from Team USA settled for the 2004 bronze medal. The ’08 team featured Bryant as the U.S. team captain, even though a 23-year-old James had already just led the NBA in scoring.

“I could tell he’s kind of giving me the eyeball from the other side of the gym or the room,” Bernstein said of James. “I’m in the locker room, doing what I do, very respectful of him because I don’t really know him that well. But I could tell that he could see I have this rapport with Kobe.”

LeBron James at USA Basketball Camp

LeBron James at USA Basketball Camp

Then Bernstein was assigned to shoot photos at a shoe event, and there James’ trusted advisor Maverick Carter began to introduce Bernstein to James.

James interrupted Carter.

“Yeah, I know who he is. He’s Kobe’s guy.”

With that, Bernstein was good to go.

“Ever since then, it’s been great,” Bernstein said of James. “He’s been super friendly.”

Same as he did with Johnson and Bryant, however, Bernstein has been determined to earn his place with James. That means Bernstein, working for the team and the league, understands that part of doing the best job he can is being the most respectful and least intrusive he can.

“That’s one of the reasons why I get access to where I get access to, quite frankly,” Bernstein said.

Case in point: There Bernstein was at the end of the 1989 NBA Finals, having already photographed the victorious Detroit Pistons in the visiting locker room at the Forum.

“I knew I had to get in the Lakers’ locker room after all the hoopla in the Pistons’ locker room to get some dejection picture of some kind,” Bernstein recalled.

He was savvy enough to bypass the crowded public hallway and cut through the shower area that actually connected the two locker rooms.

“As I’m walking through the shower, I look to my right and there’s Magic—and Coop [Michael Cooper] fully in uniform—just broken down, just totally emotional,” Bernstein said. “Coop was sitting on the floor with the water running; Magic was standing next to him.

I’m in the locker room, doing what I do, very respectful of [James] because I don’t really know him that well. But I could tell that he could see I have this rapport with Kobe.

Andy Bernstein

“Now, a lot of guys probably would’ve taken that picture. A, I knew I wasn’t really supposed to be in there. And B, this was a moment that is an incredibly private moment. Nobody’s business.

“I never even thought about picking the camera up. If I had, I would’ve just felt badly that I took it, you know? It was just a private moment I was really infringing on.”

Contrast that with perhaps Bernstein’s most famous photo: Jordan emotional and crying as he clutched the NBA championship trophy in the visiting locker room of the Forum in 1991, with Jordan’s father right next to him.

“Private moment, but it was in the middle of this giant, chaotic scene,” said Bernstein, who stood on a table to get the shot before the crowd swallowed Jordan up. “I was doing my job to take that picture.”

The power in that image was how it humanized Jordan, this fierce, cutthroat competitor everyone knew so well.

A few years later—after the murder of Jordan’s father, James—came the reminder of how Bernstein’s work is all about the human element in life. All while unable to forget how gracious Michael had been toward Bernstein’s father the previous Olympic summer, Bernstein received a call from Jordan’s representative:

Would you mind sending a print of that photo for Michael to hang in his office? He’d like it to remember that moment with his father.

Bernstein, 60, recently reconnected with Karl Malone via social media and has been making Malone’s days by sending over old photos from a legendary career that didn’t have the benefit of this easy-access digital age.

Bernstein met broadcaster Dick Vitale the other day, heard from Vitale the regret of not having any photos of his Naismith Hall of Fame moment, then grinned as Vitale’s wife practically fell over herself to type her email address into Bernstein’s phone after hearing his offer to share some of the photos he had shot of Vitale.

It’s practically a super power, this ability of Bernstein’s to take elusive experiences and transform them into tangible memories. He does it for all sorts of people, whether the courtside celebrity or the random referee.

“It means a lot to me to make somebody happy through my pictures,” Bernstein said. “There’s no better way to describe it.”

There’s that human touch again to everything that has gone into Bernstein’s career.

He has served his photo subjects so well, and in so doing he has served all of us in the gallery just as well.

By stubbornly pushing through Pat Riley’s intimidation to be allowed to take pictures in Riley’s huddles, winning over Phil Jackson to the point of being allowed early entry into every one of Jackson’s championship locker rooms, and innovating to show us the thrill of being so close to these stars and their moments, Bernstein created an audience that today demands its curiosity for inside-stuff photos be satisfied.

Every day of the NBA season now, Lakers new media manager Ty Nowell shoots and shares via social media as many photos of players behind the scenes as fans can handle. The players then share the images anew via their own channels. Bernstein hasn’t just shot photos and published some books. The passion for sports photography he clung to in the face of the early naysayers has helped make the game and the league what it is today.

“I never wanted to be looking through the window,” Bernstein said. “I wanted to be inside.”

It has been his pleasure to be the man behind the man.

It has been ours to be right there with him.

* * *

Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.

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