Denver's Pepsi Center will provide the latest backdrop for the masterpiece of a season the Los Angeles Lakers are putting together so far in search of a three-peat.
Lakers photographer Andrew Bernstein could offer an informed opinion of what the Lakers will do on defense to thwart Carmelo Anthony. But his true expertise -- a keen eye through a lens -- will pick up how the curtains divide the entrance to the visitors locker room to create a backstage to a theater-like setting for the Lakers players as they make their way onto the court.
In his new book, "Journey to the Ring: Behind the Scenes with the 2010 NBA Champion Lakers," Bernstein pairs with Lakers head coach Phil Jackson to chronicle last season from the first day of training camp all the way to the champagne showers in the locker room after Game 7 against the Boston Celtics. Bernstein snapped the photographs; Jackson provided the context and analysis by writing the captions.
Before a recent Lakers game, Bernstein -- now a senior director of NBA Photos after 28 seasons covering the league -- sat down to explain the vision of the images and the book.
Bernstein chose to present the book in black and white.
"I wanted to honestly get back to my roots of where I started in photography, which was black and white," he said. "I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker when I went to college at Art Center [College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.] and that kind of took a few detours. I got into a class with a guy named Jim Caccavo who became my mentor. … He was a Vietnam combat photographer who had been through everything and he really taught us in the class about really the basics of photography being in black and white."
He said the technology of digital cameras made the decision easier. "With a touch of a button you can go from color to black and white," Bernstein said. "It's an amazing thing."
But ultimately the decision was rooted in art. He muted the purple and gold, the Laker Girls, the Showtime that shines on the surface of what the Lakers present, but doesn't define what the team represents. "To take all of that out of the equation," Bernstein said, "then you get really to the nitty-gritty of what the photograph is trying to say without the color involved."
The 216-page, hardcover, coffee-table style publication was originally intended to be a behind-the-scenes look at Jackson's final season but morphed into a team-oriented book as the 2009-10 season unfolded. Even though the focus shifted from himself to the team, Jackson kept his commitment to the project, providing the captions as a coach much in the same way he did as a player for the book "Take It All" that collected shots taken by New York Knicks photographer George Kalinsky during the Knicks' 1970 championship run.
"That was a huge hook … I knew it was the 40th anniversary of that book and that championship," Bernstein said. "I knew that Phil is all about sort of full-circle stuff, so this is kind of a full circle of 40 years later he's doing a similar experience with his other team photographer."
There's a story behind every photograph selected on every page.
The first shot inside the book was intended to be the cover image. It's a bird's-eye look at Bryant from the Staples Center rafters as he stands at center court and casts a long shadow over the Lakers logo painted on the hardwood.
What you couldn't possibly know at first glance was that the photo is only possible because it was taken on one of the three Sundays last season when the arena hosted a double-header (that's why Bryant's in a white jersey). On days when there's a Lakers game plus a Kings or Clippers game, the scoreboard hanging above the court doesn't have the customary Lakers-themed scrim beneath it because there isn't time to add it or remove it in between games.
With the scoreboard essentially an uncapped cylinder on those occasions, Bernstein decided to set up a camera on the arena's catwalk up in the rafters above it. Capturing Bryant his entire career, he knew Kobe likes to dawdle around midcourt when a teammate is shooting free throws. He waited for the chance and "banged a few shots," turning off seven of the eight banks of strobe lights positioned on the scoreboard so that light was hitting Bryant from only one direction, thus creating the shadow.
When Bernstein showed Bryant the final product, with his shadow taking the shape of a long rectangular torso with a round circle for his head on top, Bryant said, "Looks just like the championship trophy."
Shows you Bryant's mindset. And shows you Bryant isn't the only one doing serious work during Lakers games.
Bernstein described his mission for the book.
"Really what I wanted to do is show fans stuff that they don't normally see," he said. "Fans never get to see inside the training facility, ever. That's really the inner sanctum and then there's the inner-inner sanctum which is the training room inside."
And so you see Kobe from the rafters; the team huddling in the bowels of the arena right before jogging out for warm-ups; Phil carving a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner; Ron Artest playing football on the beach; seven Lakers players crowding into the same elevator car at a hotel in Portland; Sasha Vujacic checking his cell phone; Shannon Brown working out in the hotel gym in Toronto; Lamar Odom relaxing by the pool of the house he shares with wife Khloe Kardashian in Tarzana, Calif.; Pau Gasol reading a book quietly on the team plane.
"The word 'journey' on the cover wasn't a light decision," Bernstein said. "It really is a journey from the end of September to the end of June, everything that's involved -- the heartache, the good moments, the bad moments, all the travelling, the late nights -- it's all in the book and that's what I was trying to show."
The shot that made the book for me happened in the visitors locker room at the TD Garden in Boston after Game 3 of the Finals. Derek Fisher had just scored 11 points in the fourth quarter to help the Lakers to a crucial road win and a 2-1 lead in the series and he was weeping when he came into the locker room, overwhelmed by the moment.
"It was one of those crazy, amazing moments to be present for," Bernstein said. "I went in the locker room and waited for them to come in and Fish … he just lost it. He was so emotional and it had been a roller-coaster season for him, too. The guys were super supportive and I think it just shows he's in a safe place in the locker room, away from the glare of the media. … He was able to let himself go and it shows the true passion of the game."
The photos from the Finals really run the gamut of emotions.
After Game 7, Bernstein clicked a giddy Jackson heading back from the court to the locker room after a job well done. The unbridled happiness on his face is only surpassed by the unusual action taking place.
"Something very, very rare that you'll ever see Phil do is actually high-fiving somebody," Bernstein said. "He just doesn't really interact with fans physically. He loves to wave or whatever, but he's actually high-fiving. It's a very joyous picture."
Bernstein sprinted ahead of Jackson to the coaches' locker room to take the next photo that appears in the book.
"I wanted to get a picture of him by himself walking into the locker room because most of the guys had already gone in and were whooping it up," Bernstein said. "You could hear all the screams and everything of the guys popping the champagne and he very quietly, meticulously took off his jacket, hung it up in his locker and proceeded to head down the hall into the craziness."
(Another interesting part about that photo of Jackson is the DVD menu that you see on the flat screen TV mounted on the wall. In bold letters describing the state of the DVD in the machine is a single word: "Complete.")
The next handful of pages take you into the locker room. You hear the screams, feel the champagne rain and share the smiles.
It's like being there after you hear what the experience was like for Bernstein.
"I'm just beyond soaked," he said. "I don't wrap my cameras in plastic because it's harder to work that way and you get fog in the lens and it's hot in there and I just hope that the cameras survive."
The book ends with a portrait series titled "Cast of Characters."
"We did it alphabetically so nobody gets top billing and then with Phil at the end. Kind of like a Cub Scout troop, he's the troop leader," Bernstein said. "People have really taken to [the portraits] as kind of like a bonus to the book. It's kind of like you get an album and a couple of bonus tracks."
I asked Bernstein what the book would have been called had the Lakers not come back from 13 points down to the Celtics and not completed their journey to the ring.
"I don't know, 'Almost There,' or 'Second Best'?" Bernstein offered.
With his images, no matter what the outcome of that game, there would be nothing second best about the book.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.