NBA senior photographer Andy Bernstein discusses photographing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Part 2)

Below is part two of my conversation with NBA senior photographer Andy Bernstein about photographing Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Bernstein: He was a lot more predictable than the other guy on his team who was the prince of unpredictability with Magic Johnson. That made my job easier. I was happy if I came out of the game with a  couple sky hook pictures. He was a tough guy to get expressions out of and never had too much emotion on the court. Magic wore his emotions on his sleeve. That’s what was interesting about him. As a team, they had a lot of different personalities. For Kareem, I was able to be there for his whole career. To be able to be there for when he won championships, broke Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring record and see his retirement, it was all gratifying. I have a nice relationship with Kareem. He’s always been respectful of me and my work.
Bernstein: That was a ceremony the Lakers had at the Forum to celebrate Kareem breaking Wilt’s all-time scoring record. Kareem broke it on the road in Las Vegas against Utah in 1984. Then they had a ceremony and brought Wilt in. There was always a rivalry between Wilt and Kareem going to his Lew Alcinder days. Wilt had a strong personality. For him to come out to the ceremony was a big thing. Wilt didn’t make many public appearances in those days on behalf of the Lakers.

He’s an outspoken guy and when he came out he was very gracious. There’s a goofy expression on Kareem’s face. He was humbled that Wilt came and was part of the ceremony. I never saw them play against each other. That was before my time. But that was the storied rivalry of all time. Here, the picture basically shows a passing of the torch from a past era to the guy who broke his record. A lot of people thought that was unobtainable, but Kareem did it.

Bernstein: This picture was an accident. What I was going for was to take a picture where everyone’s looking up during either a dunk or a block. But I pushed the button too late. I think it was a loose ball. I happened to get this shot, and I thought it was cool. Kareem hated this shot when it ran in Sports Illustrated. They captioned the photo “Hair Apparent” and he was so self conscious about his growing bald spot that he hated this picture. He told me so. I was proud of him and showed it to him, and he said frankly, ‘I don’t like this picture.’ He totally was not joking around. I don’t think he saw the artistic value of it. He was matter of fact. I understand it now. I’m self conscious about my bald spot so I get it. I didn’t get it then. But I still love this picture personally.

 Bernstein: This is one of the first photos I did with NBA Today magazine. This was shot in 1983. Everyone projected the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadephia 76ers would meet in the NBA Finals. These guys played each other in the regular season, and many viewed the game as a preview  to how they’d match up in the Finals. I wanted to do a portrait of the two of them fighting over the trophy.

I had this idea for a cover shot. Most of the time I wasn’t able to do these, but this time I pulled it off. I remember it was the day of the game and both came in for shootaround. The Lakers had just finished their shootaround and Philadelphia was then going to go to their shootaround. I went to Dr. J and told him I wanted to do this for five minutes before shootaround and I was able to make this work. It was one of my early portraits that had simple lighting. When they come in, I had them sit down and have the two look like they have a mentality of two heavy weight boxers. Kareem was a good sport about it. Dr. J was always east to work with and was willing to do anything. Kareem was more complex, but he bought into it. He liked the idea. They have a lot of respect for each other.

Bernstein: This is my favorite skyhook picture. It’s just so graceful. Celtics center Robert Parrish looks so much bigger than Kareem because he’s in the foreground. But Kareem is able to launch it. I love the burst next to the strobe. This is the one I used as my iconic Kareem skyhook picture. It’s the total package. Kareem is in launch mode. It’s before the ball leaves his hands and he’s at the peak of his pose. A lot of times his left arm would get in his face. But I got lucky on this one that it wasn’t. I believe this photo was considered as part of the artist rendering of Kareem’s statue. I’m not going to say the statue was made from this picture. But it was used as a reference.

With Kareem’ skyhooks, you only get one shot. I’m lucky how everything came together and everything is leaping into this shot. My daughter is a ballet dancer and watching Kareem’s skyhooks is similar to watching ballet dancers during their peak jump. I love the symmetry and grace of this photo. A lot of it was being positioned at the right place on the court. A lot of times, one of Kareem’s opponents would get in the way of his skyhook shots. But here, you can see his entire body. It was a predictable shot. Of all the iconic guys I shot in my career, Kareem’s shot was most predictable. You knew the move.

After seeing it a million times, you just wait until his arm is straight and the ball is about to leave his hands. That’s when you shoot. But everything has to come together photographically. It has to work symmetrically and you have to get lucky that no one gets in the way. This happened right in front of me where I’m sitting under the basket.

Bernstein: What I love about this picture is that Bill Bertka is in it. I love Bill Bertka. Also, none of these guys are paying attention to Pay Riley. He’s drawing up a play and these guys look like they’re like, ‘Let’s go and get this over with’ as they’re waiting for him to draw a play. I’m actually standing there. This was before the game. This wasn’t during a timeout. You can see on the very right the Denver players are warming up. Kareem and Magic are getting ready for the pregame huddle and Riley was drawing out the first play before huddling up. It just happened to be Magic and Kareem.

Bernstein: I’m always looking for elements and details that are recognizable the second you see them. It could be anything. With Kareem, it’s his goggles. He’s the first guy to wear goggles from what I remember. It was a signature of his. This a poetic shot and highlights the simplicity of that. You see that, and think it’s Kareem. He had a habit of holding them when he was sitting on the bench. These days, if a player has goggles or a mouth piece, they usually give it to the trainer during a timeout or if they’re sitting on the bench. But I remember Kareem used to always hold them.


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