During his 30-plus years of shooting NBA basketball that included capturing Kobe Bryant for the entirety of his 20-year career, photographer Andrew Bernstein has long established a routine every time he meets a new member of the Los Angeles Lakers for their photo shoot at media day.
Normally, Bernstein says he introduces himself to the player, and usually just expects a standard greeting in return. As always, and even as a teenage rookie, Bryant was different.
“He’s shaking my hand and he doesn’t let go of my hand and he goes, ‘Oh, I know who you are,’” Bernstein recalled. “I’m like, ‘What? How? Have we met before?’ And he’s like, ‘No, no, I had all your posters in my room growing up. You know, Jordan, Bird, Dominique and those guys.'”
The gesture instantly impressed Bernstein, and made him realize that Bryant, from day one, would have a different attention to detail than most.
“Here is a guy who read the minus whatever point type on the posters in his room, which just impressed me to no end. So right then he had me,” Bernstein said.
Bryant is set to have both his No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys retired by the Lakers, and Bernstein shot him throughout his time wearing both sets of digits. All the way back from when the NBA still used to film to it’s transformation to digital, an opportunity Bernstein called incredibly special and gave him a unique lens into Bryant’s career.
Just as the nature with which he shot Bryant and the rest of the NBA evolved, so did Bryant, who Bernstein counts as one of three players, along with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, he couldn’t take his camera off of.
In Bernstein’s estimation, Bryant was “kind of a combination” of Jordan and Johnson, and in the former’s case that was certainly no accident. Bernstein remembers watching the way Bryant shadowed Jordan all over the court, picking his brain during stoppages and completely locking in on learning everything he could from the player he most visibly modeled his game after.
“As a young player, he was so observant of everything Michael did. I mean everything,” Bernstein repeated for emphasis. “If you see video, you can see Kobe just staring at him constantly. … I think Michael respected that because here was a guy that was just as dedicated to his game as he was.”
The other major relationship of Bryant’s that Bernstein shot was his much picked-apart dynamic with Shaquille O’Neal. The two are mostly remembered for bickering back-and-forth through the media while dominating the rest of the NBA to the tune of three championships. Then came a messy divorce in 2004, but Bernstein doesn’t recall it that way.
The veteran photog took some of the pictures that defined the happier side of their partnership. From iconic snaps of Bryant receiving a piggy-back ride from O’Neal during the 2000 NBA Finals, to photos of the two standing together, all smiles as they remained perched atop the NBA world, championship trophies aloft.
“Things got blown out of proportion I think. People looking for stories,” Bernstein said. “Honestly, I think it does a disservice to both of them to dwell or even talk about or resurrect that whole kind of rift that they had.”
That rift eventually led to the two splitting up, but Bernstein and Bryant continued on with the Lakers. Bernstein shot Bryant through regular season and Finals MVP Awards, two more titles, his transformation into a respected veteran and NBA icon, as well as his Achilles tear, eventual decline, and the crescendo of the his 60-point finale.
Bernstein captured countless unforgettable moments, but the photo that stands out most to him over Bryant’s entire career was one that illuminated the process that made it all possible: A black and white photo of Bryant before a game against the New York Knicks on the second night of a back-to-back in a full meditative state with his legs drenched in an ice bucket and a gigantic brace on his finger.
The photo is a portrait of the drive that defined Bryant’s career. His unwillingness to let small things like the limitations of the human body keep him from going out and performing, even while nursing multiple injuries that would’ve required most players to sit out, especially when they got into town at 4 a.m. that morning.
Bryant wasn’t most NBA players.
“That was the true essence of this guy. He was different. He was just so prepared and so mentally ready for every single game,” Bernstein said. “He wasn’t going to let his body take him down, it wasn’t going to happen.”
It’s a drive Bernstein says he shares in the way he prepares to shoot every game exactly the same way, researching the dynamics between the various participants so he knows which interactions could become special. The preparation allowed himself and Bryant to share an “unsaid mutual understanding and respect for each other’s work and work ethic.”
But while Bryant respected Bernstein’s work, he never asked for photographs of himself during his entire 20-year career. Instead, later on in his career he began asking Bernstein for photos he knew the latter had taken of players like Johnson and Larry Bird to use as “muses” for motivation or studying.
They were requests Bernstein said he was happy to grant given the “special connection” he and Bryant shared as photographer and muse.
That connection will have Bernstein and Bryant together yet again, during the jersey retirement ceremony. The night at Staples Center should be as electric as only Bryant could make it one last time.
“I’ll just remember the excitement of every game I shot that he played in,” Bernstein said. “Everyone came to see Kobe.”
And because of the work and preparation of men like Bernstein, even those that didn’t can catch a glimpse.