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Monday, April 19, 2010
Q and A with Andrew Bernstein, NBA senior photographer

By Dave McMenamin

We had the pleasure of collaborating with Andy to create a great gallery of images. It includes a look back at last year's title run with commentary from the players who experienced it, plus Kobe Bryant reflecting on his career and players who have influenced him, and finally Bernstein's words about his favorite pictures: Lakers in photos »

AP Photo
The man at work. Andrew Bernstein has a face, but it's usually behind one of those fancy cameras.



When you see a photo of a Lakers player dressed in his purple and gold on the court in a newspaper, magazine or on a Web site, odds are it came from the lens of the camera of one man: Andy Bernstein. Bernstein is the Lakers official team photographer and has been with the franchise for nearly three decades. He is also a senior photographer for the NBA and has chronicled everything from a regular season game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves in March, to all six of Michael Jordan’s championships with the Bulls.

Bernstein chatted with ESPN.com/LosAngeles looking back at the pictures that have illustrated his career.

10 Questions with Andy Bernstein …

Q: You’ve been in L.A. for Showtime and Lake Show and now, this yet-to-be labeled era of the Lakers, can you talk about how your role has changed through the years as the team changed?

Bernstein: It’s interesting. First of all, I’m just as excited today to go to a game, be it a regular-season game, playoff game, Finals, All-Star game, international, whatever, I’m just as excited today as I was 28 years ago when I started. That sounds kind of cliché, but it’s definitely true. I love going to games. I love being there, in the action, down on the floor. The technology has changed dramatically and radically over the 30 years I’ve been shooting. We’ve gone from manual-focus, manual-exposure cameras to highly-automated digital, auto-everything cameras and equipment. I went from using maybe two cameras at a game, sometimes three maximum to a minimum now of 10 or 11 cameras per game that I use myself.

In the old days, everything had to be wired with wire going from the camera to the strobe system to the one remote camera that we would use. You had to use actual physical wire to do that. Now everything is done by radio and I can trigger multiple cameras -- we’ve done up to 30 some odd cameras as part of a remote system. I can trigger them on one burst of strobe.

The technology has evolved to such an amazing level that we can now maximize the number of photos we can get and especially the premier photos; the epic photos -- the dunks and blocked shots and the moments -- more than we could do in the past or even dreamed of doing in the past. That’s the biggest change.

Q: You have one of the best seats in sports, but also one of the most precarious, considering these athletes are often times falling off the court out of control. Do you have any horror stories or funny stories of a ball, or a player, or both colliding with you?

Bernstein: Oh yeah. There are a number of times I’ve gotten nailed. Every night is an adventure down there on the baseline. You have to be very alert. Our number one priority is to protect the players. If we get hurt or a piece of equipment gets broken, that’s really secondary to a player getting injured because we happen to be sitting there on the baseline. You have to be very conscious of protecting the equipment so the player doesn’t get hurt, kind of rolling up in a ball and hoping that he either goes over you or lands on you in a way that you don’t get hurt.

But the priority is that the player doesn’t get hurt.

But, there are a few stories. Shaq and I got to be very good friends very early in his career in Orlando when he decided to fall right on top of me. The difference between him and I is pretty amazing in terms of weight and size. In Orlando, the way the court is configured, as a photographer there’s really nowhere to go. You can’t ‘bail out,’ so to speak, because there’s advertising signage right behind you. And the player really has nowhere to go either, except right on top of you. He and I got up close and personal there in his rookie year. That was probably the second-worst hit I ever got. The worst hit I ever got was from Shaq during what I believe was a conference finals game. I don’t remember the year, but I’m thinking it was his first year in L.A. which was 1999-2000.

Shaq tends to be a little flamboyant in his actions. You’ve seen him fly into the crowd and kind of milk it a little bit. But he was definitely out of control on this play and he just kept going and I saw him coming an instant before he hit me, but he landed flat, right on top of me. I mean, I kind of call it his beached-whale impression because he literally laid me out and was flat, with the full force of his body right on top of mine.

Of course it’s on national TV, so I think he’s trying to get a little bit of airtime and I literally could not breathe with him on top of me and I’m wheezing, you know, and he looks down at me, we’re almost face-to-face at this point and he goes, ‘Oh man, is that you?’ And I say, ‘Yes, could you please get up because I can’t breathe.’ So, we’ve had some laughs about that one, but luckily I haven’t really gotten hurt to the extent of being injured or breaking anything, I’ve had some bumps and bruises. But almost every night, there’s one or two times it’s a close call down there.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
For Bernstein, there's nothing like shooting 24.



Q: Let’s talk about the subjects you’ve had, not in terms of personality, but in terms of photographic subjects. Who’s been your favorite Laker to shoot, both currently and all-time?

Bernstein: Currently, it’s got to be Kobe. To me, he’s a combination of shooting Magic [Johnson] and Michael [Jordan] every night because he’s just so electric and incredible to shoot. You can never take your eye off of him, just like with Magic. Magic, you never knew where he was going or what he was going to do with the ball when he was coming down full blast. Kobe is almost the same way. He is a little bit more predictable now, later in his career, than he was earlier because he used to go the basket a lot more and be a little bit more creative inside the key, but you still have to be so alert with him and it’s a challenge. I welcome it and I love it every night.

Of course, Magic historically was great to shoot every night. Everything from the smile to the no-look pass was a gift, if you could get it photographically. League-wide, Michael was certainly a great subject to shoot. I loved shooting him. I loved being a part of all six of his championships and recording his career from beginning to end. But there have been other great players. Karl Malone, I loved shooting him. I loved shooting guys even like Gary Payton, who had such a great personality, and Kevin Garnett, Dominique Wilkins, guys like that who really lit up the building.

My challenge every night is to not only depict, in a basketball sense, what’s going on but also a little bit of that personality as well. That’s a great challenge and it’s a lot of fun.

Q: Obviously, one way to let the personality shine through is in your portrait shots. You’ve had quite a few memorable ones from Dr. J and Kareem to Magic and Bird, what do you feel about that setting? It seems like there is a lot more pressure on you in that setting, whereas with a game, they are providing you with the action. In a cold studio, you have to get them in that right place. Can you talk about that?

Bernstein: That’s interesting you bring that up. I learned very, very quickly in my career -- and this actually happened before I started working, I was assisting for Sports Illustrated -- and I learned that these guys expect you to be completely prepared when they show up on your set for a portrait shoot, be it a commercial thing, an editorial portrait or something that you’re shooting as part of a documentary story, or whatever.

If we’re talking about a portrait set-up, these guys expect you to be ready with everything locked down, so if you walk in, you’re not goofing around. In the old days we used to do Polaroids and tests and all kinds of stuff. You’re completely ready. They come in. You shoot. They get out.

Part of it I think comes down to professional respect. If they come into my shoot and I’m not ready, it shows that maybe I didn’t take it serious enough in their eyes. So, I would always be completely locked up, ready to go. That was the case for years and years at doing portraits at everything from NBA All-Star weekend to every media that I shoot for the Lakers and Clippers or other teams like the Kings or Sparks or whoever it us.

Then there are team pictures. With team pictures, you can’t be goofing around trying to figure out where your lights go. You get these 14 guys and they want to get in and they want to get out. I respect that. I learned that actually with Magic very early. Magic and I did a couple portrait shoots and one was for Converse, I remember and a couple were for the NBA and he actually said to me, he goes, ‘I love working with you man because you do it so quick and you don’t waste my time.’ Literally, he said that and I was like, ‘OK, I’ll take that for the rest of my career.’

I have a priority list of stuff I have to shoot, I absolutely have to get done the top three or four things, but if I have enough time and the guy is willing, I’ll do a few other things. That’s kind of been my mantra over the years.

Q:  Even you get a photo credit cutline; you’re in a pretty anonymous profession. How many times have you had players actually link your work with who you are?

Bernstein: It happens more often now because I’m old.

Rookies will come in and they’ll recognize my name, maybe they’ve seen it on NBA.com or in a magazine or something. I do remember one specific incident Kobe’s rookie year, where he was 17 and the first time I had ever met him or shot him was on Lakers media day in his rookie year. There was a lot of hoopla and all kinds of stuff with him and he gets to my set and I introduce myself and say, ‘Hey Kobe, I’m Andy Bernstein with the NBA.’ And he looks at me and he goes, ‘Hey man, you’re the guy with all the posters.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I had a bunch of your posters in my room growing up.’ So that was a very cool way to break the ice and he and I have been friends for 14 years now after that.

That made me feel pretty cool. He had my Dr. J and Michael and Dominique posters and that’s what he looked at to inspire him. That made me feel pretty good.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
This is one of the most iconic moments of recent NBA history, and it's a moment thanks to Andy Bernstein.



Q: I know it’s probably like choosing a child, but what’s the defining shot of your career and also, what’s the best shot of yours involving the Lakers that kind of stands out?

Oh boy. My defining shot of my career, probably, if you had to ask me, ‘What one picture?’

It would probably be when Michael Jordan won his first championship and he’s in the locker room hugging the trophy with his dad over his shoulder and Michael is crying his eyes out. I’m pretty glad I took that picture. If there’s one picture from my entire career, that would probably be it. That was such a monumental moment at the time and in retrospect, with his dad passing away and how important that photo was to Michael and his personal and professional legacy, that just meant a lot to me to have the luck to take that picture.

Laker-wise, In all honesty, my No. 1 favorite picture I think was the picture of Phil and Kobe from last year’s Finals, right after they won the Finals. They had just hugged at center court, the moment after the buzzer went off and when they broke the hug they kind of looked at each other with this father-son kind of look. It’s not an action picture by any means, but it’s certainly a moment in time that I was able to record that happened literally in an instant. Having been around these guys for all 10 of Phil’s championships and all four of Kobe’s and knowing the significance of that particular championship, what it meant to both of those guys, as part of their team but also individually, it was just a great moment to be able to capture.

Q: Have you ever had players ask you for your photos after a game?

Bernstein: The number one guy who did that was Karl Malone. When he was in Utah, he used to do this dunk where he would come in on a breakaway and put one hand behind his head and dunk with the other. I shot a lot of games in Utah over the years, and Karl and I became really good friends. After the third or fourth time I’m sitting there baseline, he would come over to me at halftime or after the game and ask, ‘You get that one, man?’ So I said, ‘Yeah, I got that one.’ So, we started calling it the ‘Pretty Boy Dunk.’ It seemed like every game I’d get one of those shots and I’d make a print for him and leave it at his locker for him next game.

Q: Has there been any backlash in your career? Has there been any time your lens has been in a huddle and it gets a hand put over it or anything like that?

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Of the many thousands of pictures Bernstein has taken of the Lakers, this one, shot after the Lakers won the title last season, is his favorite.



Bernstein: Another thing I learned pretty early was which coaches were comfortable with that and which weren’t. Pat Riley I consider a great friend, an inspiring guy, I feel very honored to have been part of his Showtime Era. He embraced me during that time when I was a young kid trying to make a mark, and encouraged me to be a part of that. But I learned immediately you don’t go with a camera into his huddle. Ever.

Another guy, a very innocuous guy, but the trainer for the Detroit Pistons, Mike Abdenour, a great guy, wonderful guy, a guy you’ll go out to dinner with and talk about your families and stuff, if you go anywhere near his huddle with a camera? Don’t even think about Chuck Daly, you got to get through Mike first. It just wouldn’t happen.

You can still see it today. He stands there kind of like a centaur at the edge of the huddle. We all know-- the TV guys, me, audio-- we all know to forget about it.

Phil’s been great. You obviously you got to pick your moments. You’re not going to want to just go into a huddle or approach the team at any time, you’re going to want to see what’s going on in the game. But Phil and I have a great relationship. He understands what I have to do and he also understands I’m not going to get in the way of what he’s doing. Obviously, the last thing I want to do is be distracting or be in the way.

Q: How many photos do you take every game?

Bernstein: Personally somewhere around 1,000 pictures a game. That’s a rough estimate. That’s a regular season Lakers game or Clippers game or whatever game I go to: 1,000 photos. Now, when we go to an All-Star game, that gets ratcheted up to probably about 2,500 and when we get to a Finals game, probably, without exaggeration, about 3,000 photos a game.

It’s constantly being vigilant and being concentrated and not missing anything because, let’s face it, TV is there covering it with 20 cameras at the same game that we’re at.

I have a very strong professional work ethic that I got from my dad and don’t remember ever really going to a game and mailing it in. I never saw Magic do that. I remember going to games during Showtime when they’d be blowing teams out by 30 or 40 points in the second quarter, and he’d still be playing like it was the third game of the NBA Finals. That meant a lot to me. Kobe is the same way. I respect what they do and I think at this level, it would be a disservice to mail it in, honestly.

They’re inspiring to me.

I’ll tell you a funny story. I just was on that long road trip with the Lakers, that eight-game trip (Jan. 21-Feb. 1). I did the first four games of that trip because we went to Washington to meet President Obama. I remember, we had a game in Toronto that they lost- that they shouldn’t have lost. We get on the plane in Toronto after the game and it had to be at least 2:30 in the morning when we actually got to New York. The next morning, I saw Kobe’s security guy, a friend of mine and said, ‘How’s it going?’ He goes, ‘Oh, well, I didn’t get much sleep last night.’ I say, ‘Why not?’ He goes, ‘Well, as soon as we got in, Kobe wanted to go to the gym and work out.’ I said, ‘Wow, that’s crazy.’ He goes, ‘Want to know something even crazier? When we got there, Artest was already there.’

When you see these guys doing that, it’s inspiring in my world as well. I totally respect that.

I’m grateful every day that I have this job and I’m able to be around literally the world’s greatest athletes and to be able to record for history what they do. That’s really the bottom line.

Q: You’re around the team every day and I don’t want to put you totally on the spot, but what’s your take as an observer of where they’re at this season with the playoffs around the corner?

Bernstein: Kobe said something really interesting last week when they were in a funk. He said that although they had won the championship last year, really only he and Fish are veterans of having to defend a championship. So, that’s a whole different mindset, I think.

I saw this with the Bulls, I saw this with the Showtime Lakers when they won back-to-back, too. I think that ratchets up the adrenaline of the guys that have been there before and know what it takes to defend, because the guys that haven’t done that, maybe they’re happy with their one championship.  But the other guys really know what it means to win that second or third or whatever in a row. I think that’s what they’re going through right now, and I think Phil is the master of getting these guys motivated and focused when the chips are on the table.

When it’s money time and winning time, they’re going to ratchet it up and I wouldn’t want to be anybody playing the Lakers in a seven-game series.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him at twitter.com/mcten.