NBA photographer looks back on Hall of Fame career as he comes to Cleveland for his 36th NBA Finals

Posted at 4:51 PM, Jun 08, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-08 16:52:07-04

While most of us have watched the Cavs-Warriors showdown in the NBA Finals from the comfort of our living rooms, Andrew Bernstein has had a front-row seat, literally, not only for this matchup, but every NBA Finals showdown dating back to Dr. J and the Sixers vs. Kareem and Magic and the Lakers in 1983.

Bernstein is the official photographer of the NBA and this year marks his 36th NBA Finals, his fourth in a row back in Cleveland. He said he enjoys the familiarity of the unprecedented match-up between these two teams.

"I actually love it, it brings me back to the Bird-Magic era where it was never four years in a row, but we had I think two years in a row a couple of times. The Lakers and Detroit played a couple of times against each other," Bernstein said. "Seeing the same team or teams in the Finals is great because you have a lot of familiarity with the teams, with the personnel, with the cities, with the arenas, the people in the arenas."

Bernstein became the league's official photographer in 1986 and at the same time helped to found NBA Photos which to this day is the most significant entity of licensing NBA photography in the world. He comes to Cleveland with a team of around 25. "I used to do this myself," he said of his first few Finals.

As a young photographer, Bernstein said he was lucky that some Sports Illustrated photographers took him under his wing and he learned the art of sports photography.

"I'm a Brooklyn guy, got a little bit of moxie going, I was able to get my foot in the door at the Forum with the Forum people, the Lakers, the Kings all played there," he said. In 1982 the Lakers people introduced him to some NBA people who hired him to do the 1983 all-star game. Later on that year he shot his first NBA Finals, and he also became the Dodgers, team photographer.

"Back when I started we were using manual cameras, manual focus, manual exposure. It was on film, and you had to have different kinds of film for different places you were shooting. Tungsten film for tungsten lights, daylight film for outdoors or strobe, black and white, high-speed film you know low-speed film whatever. Now with a push of the button, you can do all of that stuff.

"The craft of photography, the actual science of it hasn't changed, I mean the actual needing to know how to compose, how to focus, how to make a photograph and the preparation has not changed at all," he said.

Of course, back then you were hours away from knowing whether the shot you thought you took, you got.

"Now we're in the era of instant gratification because I literally can push the button on the camera I'm shooting to and see immediately what I shot. My cameras are tethered through an ethernet line back to an editor in New Jersey who is getting my photos over a high-speed line, editing them and putting them up on Getty Images almost in real time. It's as close to real-time, live photography as we can do as still photographers."

"Back in the day I'd get a whole bunch of film after the game, I'd have to bring it to a lab, and they'd develop it overnight, or we'd be in a city where we'd actually have to have a lab stay open all night for us. We did that many, many times."

That being said he adds that while "the equipment has changed, my preparation is the same today at this Finals as it was in my first Finals."

Bernstein is being recognized this year for his life's work by the Basketball Hall of Fame as the 2018 Curt Gowdy Award recipient for print media.

"So it's kind of as close to enshrinement sort of as you can get without you know lacing up the shoes and going out on the court. It's an incredible honor. I'm only the second photographer to receive this award, the first photographer who is NBA-centric. So I'm very, very honored but I'm also very hopeful that this opens the floodgates for other photographers, my contemporaries and the people before me who kind of paved the way as still photographers because we need to be recognized as much as the print media does."

Bernstein also just completed work on a book with Lakers great Kobe Bryant called "The Mamba Mentality; How I Play."

"It's literally the peeling back of the curtain of the Mamba," Bernstein said of Bryant's nickname. "The book is basically divided into two halves process and craft. Process talks about everything he did to prepare himself physically, mentally for the game, to recover from injuries, you know that horrific injury he had with the Achilles, how he came back from that.

"And then the craft part is everything basketball oriented, what he learned from the greats watching them as a kid but then being able to play against Michael Jordan, pick his brain on the court and then all the guys he played with and against who made him what he was."

Bryant wrote the book, Bernstein did all the photography. Bryant, of course, is coming off an Academy Award win earlier this year for his animated short film "Dear Basketball."

"Now we've got to get him a Pulitzer," Bernstein said adding he told Bryant he has one up on him, for now.

"I said you know what, you might have won an Oscar, but I'm going in the Hall of Fame before you buddy!"