THE LAST SHOT

Go Behind the Lens with NBA and Magic Photographer Fernando Medina

Written by Dan Savage

Photography by Fernando Medina

by Dan Savage

There’s no piece of film that’s captivated an audience during the pandemic quite like The Last Dance.

With the series winding to its conclusion this weekend, the final two episodes will undoubtably feature Michael Jordan’s final shot as a member of the Chicago Bulls and the championship celebration that ensued as a result of his game-winning bucket.

While the moment was historic for M.J., it was also life-changing for someone sitting baseline behind a camera lens. Magic team photographer Fernando Medina was on hand working for the NBA and captured the moment so perfectly that his picture of the game-winner was ranked number one in Sports Illustrated’s 100 Greatest Sports Photos of All Time.

Medina’s underdog story is fit for a Disney movie. As a Cuban refugee with no formal photography training, Medina’s journey is one built on the American dream. When he was 3 years old, Medina and members of his family escaped to the U.S. after Fidel Castro had taken over and his parents identified that communist Cuba was no place to raise a family or run a business. His parents were successful entrepreneurs in Cuba. His father, Rosendo, owned a cardboard business and his mother, Diolanda, made wedding photo albums with embedded music boxes working for, ironically, photographers.

Medina followed in his family’s footsteps of entrepreneurship, opening up an audio-visual company with friends shortly after high school. Through connections he made along the way, Medina got the opportunity to be part of the inaugural Orlando Magic photography team in 1989 working for Tony Smith, not as a photographer, but delivering slide photos.

Medina would learn on the job from and alongside legends in the business, including Barry Gossage, Andrew D. Bernstein, Nathaniel Butler and Walter Iooss. By the time he was named official team photographer in 1996, Medina had forged relationships and a skillset that not only granted him the opportunity to shoot Magic games for a living, but also awarded him the chance to travel to photograph The Finals, All-Star Games and other NBA contests for the league and Getty Images.

Along the journey, Medina has made his mark. His work has been published worldwide by Sports Illustrated, ESPN, SLAM, Hoops, Beckett, Bravo Sport, Dunkshoot, and Forbes, on numerous websites and in hard cover books, as well as in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Sporting News, and NBA.com. Although he’s never entered any of his photos in competition, he’s had two pictures selected as NBA Photo of the Year by Getty Images along with being recognized by SI.

With the Last Dance coming to a close, we decided to sit down with Medina to discuss his memorable shots of Jordan, and some of his favorite photos from Magic history:

THE LAST DANCE

“Every time you would go shoot Jordan, it was a zoo. Ahmad Rashad was usually around, you couldn’t separate him from Jordan. It was like he made his career covering Jordan. You always had to be ready for whatever Jordan was going to do. You knew he was a tremendous player, you knew he could dunk, you knew he could do everything, you knew he could play defense, you just had to be ready to shoot. I was honored to be there and go out and do this. I just wanted to do the best job every time I went out there and shot.”

“You knew Jordan was probably going to take the shot. I mean, who else? It would be foolish for anyone else to take it. We’re there and we’re ready. The play starts and all I’m thinking is I have to make sure my camera is square, I have to make sure the horizon is level, I have to make sure I get that shot clock in the picture and I have to make sure I get Jordan in the picture. That’s what I was thinking of the entire time. When they were at the opposite end of the floor, I pre-focused on someone near the foul line, so I knew that if they were closer to me, it would be a three-point shot and the focus would be fine, and if it was past that it would be fine too. The focus would be good for everything. This was back in manual focus. There wasn’t autofocus back then … I just followed and the shot happens and it goes off. I knew it went off, but it’s not digital, you can’t look at it, you have no clue.”

“In the picture, see if you can find it, there’s a little boy wearing a black Bulls jersey and he’s got his hands up in the air. He knows that shot is going in. There’s no doubt in his mind that the Bulls just won. All the people’s expressions are what makes that picture. That and a little serendipity on the clock, because with 6.6 seconds left on the clock … It’s his sixth championship, in his sixth try, he’s six-foot-six, it was in June. All these sixes, which is crazy about this picture. It really adds to it too.”

“So they come down to our end and I have the same mindset still going. From my end, I can’t really see the clock anymore, but I want a wide shot in case Utah hits a buzzer beater. I had to be ready for that one too. And thank God I thought about that, because that allowed me to get the shot of Michael Jordan jumping in the air when the buzzer goes off. As good as the other shot is, I think that’s an even better shot, because the hardest kind of pictures to capture are the emotional pictures. They have to be in the right position, you have to have a clear line of sight and you really want to see their face, in this one we didn’t, but still, I think that Jordan jumping in the air as the buzzer goes off is a much better picture and a much harder one to get.”

“After the game, I got told ‘you need to go over to the hotel and wait for the Bulls to arrive.’ I wasn’t happy about that. I said ‘what am I going to take pictures of these guys getting off a bus for?’ Somebody took me over to the hotel and I waited there for 45 minutes to an hour, just waiting with fans and then all of a sudden here comes the bus. I believe it was Ron Harper, it was a huge bus, and Harper is sticking up out of the roof with the championship trophy as the bus is pulling up into the circle.”

“I take pictures as they’re getting off the bus and one of the last guys to get off is Andrew Bernstein, I had no idea he was on the bus, and he goes ‘come on, let’s go Fern.’ I just follow him, I have no idea what’s going on, I’m just happy to be here. All of a sudden, I’m on the elevator with Andy, Ron Harper … and we go up and the elevator opens up. I’m just following Andy, and (next thing you know) we’re in a suite at the Marriott, it’s one of those suites where you have a room on each side and a big living room suite in the middle. This one happened to have a baby grand piano in it. All of a sudden, Jordan walks in. I was there with Andy, Walter Iooss, and Bill Smith, the Bulls photographer, and a couple of NBA video film crews. Jordan walks in and he still has his shorts on, a championship shirt – I’m pretty sure he has his jersey on underneath and I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t give anyone the opportunity to even think about stealing that jersey, which happened to Jordan when (he wore No. 12) in Orlando.”

“He comes in laughing, sits down at the piano … there’s a huge bottle of champagne, he drinks some out of it, he’s got a huge cigar, and he starts banging on the keys singing ‘I want to be like Mike.’ It’s probably the most crazy and surreal experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

“We’re in this room, it’s dark, it’s basically black in there. The only lights on are some lamps. He’s doing this at the piano and the video guys take the lamps and use the lamps to light the scene. It’s crazy if you look at the picture. All the light was coming from a couple of lamps. They’re holding the lamps up to light the scene, Michael is playing, we’re all shooting, we’re tossing film to each other so we can keep shooting, it was just surreal. As fast as it started, it seemed like it lasted forever, but it was only like 10 to 15 minutes, and then Michael basically said 'I’m done,’ and that was it.”

HOWARD SLAMS THE SPURS

"The Dwight one, to tell you the truth, was a miracle, because how many times have you’ve seen a guy throw an alley-oop for a dunk (at the buzzer)? We weren’t ready for that. But, on the other hand, that’s (what he did). You kind of knew he could do it, but you’d never seen it done before. My regret, on my shot of that, is that you don’t see Hedo. It’s only wide enough to see Dwight dunking. To be honest with you, there’s two shots of that shot. One Paul Chapman took, Paul’s been with us a long time too, and the one Paul took is better than mine. His is the one where the ball is still up in the air, straight up, and mine is where Dwight is dunking and the ball is in the rim. They’re both great shots."

"If you take those two shots and you want to learn about the Flash Wizard II system, it shows you that with (that system) when you take a picture it takes a little longer than if you were just hitting the camera in your hands, because you have to take into consideration all the other cameras and account for that time that you program the units to actually take the picture. So the difference, if you look at the clock, it’s 0.8 seconds on both pictures, but one the ball is straight up in the air and in the other, the ball is in the rim already. It’s still 0.8 seconds, but that’s the difference when you push that button. If I would have just hit my camera, I would have probably got it just like Paul did, but you have to give it a little bit longer to take into consideration all the cameras to fire correctly. One of the drawbacks of the Flash Wizard II system is you have to anticipate a little more. We’re talking about milliseconds here. But look at those two shots and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about, that even though the time on the clock is exactly the same, you have two different pictures."

KOBE’S DUNK ON DWIGHT

“At first, I saw the picture, it was a great picture, but I hated it. I believe it was Dwight’s rookie year and I was a big Dwight fan, I really liked Dwight a lot. Dwight was a good kid and I felt terrible for him. He got posterized in the worst of possible ways. When you have Kobe (Bryant)’s crotch in your face, it’s not good for you.”

“Somehow it got picked to be Picture of the Year. Now, I like it a lot more than back then. To tell you the truth, the reason I like it a lot more now is because of my respect for Kobe. Back then, I looked at it more like look at what you’re doing to my kid. Dwight is on my side and you’re making him look bad, but now with history and hindsight, and everything, I like it a lot more now. It’s a great picture and it’s the best action picture I ever took of Kobe and because of my respect for him, I really do like that picture a lot more now.”

THIS IS T-MAC

“I love it because he’s flying through the air, he’s about to dunk. If you look at it, there’s a guy waiting at the scorer’s table and he’s right underneath his feet looking up and you’ve got the strobe light going off in one corner. I think it encompasses what Tracy was all about. His explosiveness, just the way he played, just everything about him. It’s a simple picture, it’s not a game-winning picture, or anything like that, but I think it’s a picture that tells you this is Tracy McGrady, this is what he could do, this is what he was.”

“Tracy is one of the nicest kids that I’ve ever dealt with. He’s one of the most explosive, underrated players that’s ever played … To photograph, he was my favorite Magic player ever, because he could do so many different things … Tracy could do everything. That’s why I enjoyed shooting him.”

A MAGIC MOMENT

“That one I like a lot, because first of all, those are the hardest pictures to get. It’s a miracle that I got that picture. Those don’t happen often and for it to happen where Penny, you could see his face, he’s smiling, he’s happy. It’s just a very difficult picture to get, but I happened to get it at exactly the right moment. That picture was on film, it wasn’t on digital, so that made it even harder.”

“It’s just a millisecond in time, but these two guys liked each other. They got along. It’s a high-five, it’s a great moment in the game, the camaraderie and all that, and just the difficulty of getting a shot like that. Even though they’re just high-tenning, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime picture. It would be a miracle to get that exact same picture again. It just doesn’t happen. To me shooting action is easy. It’s shooting fish in a barrel. It’s going to happen. But that type of shot, there’s so many variables. You could have a referee in the way, you could have players in the way, you could have camera guys and their cable pullers in the way, you could have a ball boy running out in the way. So to be able to get something like that, a clear shot, head to toe is a miracle and I was very fortunate to get it.”

Half Man, Half Amazing


“That one is a pretty amazing picture and (at first) I didn’t even realize it was a good shot, simply because there wasn’t any dunk or anything there. That was an alley-oop (attempt) that was on his fingertips for a fraction of a second. That was a non-play. Nothing happened there, so during the game, I really didn’t think about it. Then, maybe two weeks later, I’m somewhere on the road and (Vice President of NBA Photos) Joe Amati gives me a call and he says ‘have you seen this Vince Carter picture?’ I said ‘what are you talking about? I haven’t seen any Vince Carter picture.’ He says, ‘it’s Vince Carter flying. Fern this is incredible. This is a great shot, it’s incredible.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Joey.’ So he scanned it and I think emailed it to me, and I saw it and thought this is a pretty incredible picture … It ended up being Picture of the Year, but really it’s not a dunk or anything, it’s a non-play where it looks like he’s flying. It’s just a tremendous looking picture, but nothing really happened. And it’s funny, because the year before I think it was also Vince who got Picture of the Year and it was a dunk, I believe, shot by Bill Baptist, the Houston photographer, and it was a dunk after the whistle. So it was a non-play also that ended up being Picture of the Year, and it really wasn’t a play in the game. It’s kind of weird and kind of funny. It also shows you to always be ready, even after the whistle, because you never know what you’re going to get.”

TRIP TO THE 2009 FINALS

“You’re just fortunate to be in there and get that stuff. And you’re hoping you don’t get any champagne or any liquids on you. You’re trying to get them, but not interfere with what’s going on. You don’t want to be part of what’s going on, you just want to capture it. It’s so hard, because there’s so much going on and so many people and you’re getting jostled around, but to get in a locker room after a championship whether it’s the Eastern Conference or it’s the NBA Finals is really an amazing experience. To be in there with those guys, it’s just pure joy. They’re all so happy to be there, so happy to have won.”

FINAL MESSAGE

"This country allowed us to come in and I owe everything I have to it. I don't think of myself as very special, but I think of the life I've led as very special, very fortunate and very blessed because of everything I've been afforded in my life. It's (a testament) of how great this country is and what it's afforded people like me to have that we would have never had. I've been blessed because I've been given opportunity. I'm a very lucky person. The only part I'd like to convey to other people is that if you open yourself, you allow yourself, and you do the best you can, you can get there. Just put yourself in position that if you have an opportunity, you take advantage of it."

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by Dan Savage are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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