Lakers Photographer Bernstein Reflects on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

This Friday, November 16th, Staples Center Star Plaza will finally unveil a well deserved statue of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all time leading scorer.

I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with L.A. Lakers veteran photographer Andrew D. Bernstein who has not only captured hundreds of legendary Skyhook photos, but also Kareem’s favorite, the 1985 Sports Illustrated cover.

“I was told by his publicist…that the cover that I shot was his favorite picture…that was in ’85 when they won the Finals for the first time against Boston in Boston Garden. It was my first Sports Illustrated cover. It was an unbelievable thrill…I would say that’s probably my favorite series out of 31 series’ that I’ve covered. To be the first team of any team to win an NBA championship in Boston Garden…especially with the Lakers history against the Boston Celtics, it was pretty monumental…”

After defeating the Celtics in the NBA Finals for the first time in Laker history, Andy was about to embark on another experience that had never been done before.

“We stayed in Boston, had a party that night in the hotel, and then the next day en route back to LA, we stopped in Washington and met with President Reagan, which…we’ve never done that. It’s been months and months later when the team was back east. We’ve never done that the day after.”

And, it was that same day Andy got the call that his photo of Kareem would make the cover of Sports Illustrated. When I asked Andy the first thought that came to his mind when hearing the name Kareem, he joked,

“How much time has gone by to be quite honest with you.”

October of 2012 marked Andy’s 31st year of photographing the NBA. Of Kareem’s six NBA championships, Bernstein was able to capture three of them.

“I came in at the end of the Kareem, Dr. J era and then lived through the entire showtime era and Jordan era and now, I guess it’s probably four cause the Shaq era is over. Next generation has been LeBron and Durant and those guys.”

But, shooting Kareem, was his first moment at the start of photographically documenting an NBA icon, and he’ll never forget it.

“For me, shooting Kareem was such a wonderful experience because he was so graceful. And, to be able to depict that signature Skyhook shot in a single photograph was really a challenge.”

Despite it being a challenge, Bernstein laughed as he thought about how difficult it was to shoot Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. As Andy told me, between Jordan’s “tongue sticking out” and Magic’s unpredictability, Kareem was really a piece of cake!

“He’s actually one of the easiest because he really only had one shot and that was the Skyhook. And, the Skyhook was very methodical, and you knew the whole setup of it.”

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Aside from Bernstein’s close personal relationships with many iconic athletes (Magic, Pat Riley, Byron Scott, to name a few), there was still a sense of awe in Bernstein’s voice, as I asked him about his relationship with Kareem.

“Kareem by nature is a private guy, not easy to get close to. Very respectful. I’m happy to say that even as late as this past Sunday he still says ‘hi’ to me, knows my name and realizes that I’ve been around all this time.”

Between the hundreds of thousands of photographs Andy’s captured, and the countless iconic moments in the history of professional sports, there’s still an admiration in Andy’s voice as he speaks about The Captain. It’s as if he goes back to that young photographer just waiting for the call that his photo made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

“That was my goal, always, as a young photographer: to have the cover of Sports Illustrated.”


ABOUT ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN: Since 1983, Andrew D. Bernstein has photographed and developed a unique personal rapport with the world’s leading professional athletes. Bernstein was involved in the creation of NBA Photos in 1986, which is recognized as the worldwide leader in licensing of NBA photography, and in the creation of the position of Official NBA Photographer in 1986 that he held until 2011. Bernstein’s work frequently appears in Sports Illustrated, ESPN, The Sporting News, Time, Newsweek and more. He has covered every NBA Finals since 1982, as well as the 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008 and 2012 U.S. Olympic basketball teams. Bernstein’s other recent projects include advertising campaigns featuring top athletes for Nike, Reebok, Adidas, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Icy Hot.

Andrew D. Bernstein Photography Website
Andrew D. Bernstein Facebook Page

Video: Kareem Opens Up About Cancer Struggles

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