3 juin 2021
Honored by a prestigious Curt Gowdy Media Award bestowed by the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018, Andrew Bernstein has established himself as a legendary NBA photographer for nearly 40 years. From star player Michael Jordan to the “King” LeBron James, the artist has captured the NBA athletes’ highlights through iconic shots. Two years after his collaboration in the book The Mamba Mentality: How I Play with the late Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bernstein opens up about his experience in one of the most broadcasted championship’s sulfurous world.
How did your career as a sports photographer start ? It looks like a work of passion, can you tell me more about it ?
I was given a camera by my father when I was 14. I took to photography immediately and began shooting many different subjects in high school, then in college. Sports photography combined my two passions of a love for sports and the creativity of photography.
You are a legendary NBA photographer with your own vision, your own style, you caught the best moments and actions of champions like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James. What is the most important thing to catch in photos with these champions?
I am very fortunate that my career started when interest in the NBA was taking off with the “Showtime” Lakers, then the Michael Jordan era, Shaq and Kobe, now LeBron, Durant and Curry, etc. My experience over 40 years has taught me to be very focused and not distracted during games so I can capture the amazing athletic feats these players do.
In 2018, you were awarded with the Curt Gowdy Award by the basketball hall of fame. This is huge! How did you feel about it?
That was a big honor for me. I was very grateful to everyone who helped and encouraged me as a young photographer and gave me opportunities to contribute my creative mark to the history of the league. I also reflected on the hard work, sacrifices and dedication I had in myself to achieve this amazing honor.
You did a stunning portrait of Michael Jordan crying while he was holding the NBA trophy with his father around in 1991. What memory do you keep of this moment?
That is probably my most well known image. It happened so quickly after the Chicago Bulls defeated the LA Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals. There was a chaotic celebration going on in the Bulls tiny visitors locker room. I had to jump upon a table in the middle of the room to be able to shoot. Jordan had taken the trophy from the live TV presentation and everyone was looking for him to do an interview. A sixth sense told me to look to my left and there he was, about 4 feet from me, in a locker with the trophy and his father next to him. MJ was very emotional. That photo has taken on legendary significance, because as we now know, it was the first of his six NBA championships.
"Kobe and I bonded from the very first day I took his rookie head shot on Lakers media day in 1996. I saw in him at 18 some of the similar traits I had at his age starting out as a young sports photographer: very driven, self confident, talented and impatient to make his mark. We enjoyed an incredible 20 years relationship as photographer and subject as well as friends and collaborators."
Being so close to players and sharing their intimacy, this must create a deep trust link between you and them, how do you make this happen?
I learned very early in my career that to get close to the players, coaches, trainers and everyone around the game I needed to conduct myself with integrity and professionalism at all times. Pat Riley and Magic Johnson taught me that early and I earned their trust, as well as the rest of the Lakers organization and the NBA as whole. I also think I have an engaging personality and treat everyone with respect, enjoy conversation and truly care about the people I am around and work with.
You have so many pictures showing the beginning of the basketball lifestyle, we can see the transformation of this sport in that world. I have in my memories the picture of Magic Johnson and his long coat and also the iconic picture of Madonna and Dennis Rodman. All this shows the bling bling part of this sport, did you get the feeling of how and when fashion met this sport and do you think this made a big step in the NBA's transformation?
The NBA was the first league to have a crossover from sports to fashion, music and culture. My good friend Jeff Hamilton helped to lead the way with his iconic leather jackets back in the early 1990’s that Magic, Michael Jordan and others wore. That continues with the sneaker culture taking off through MJ and others. Today, we see NBA and WNBA players leading the way in fashion, entertainment and social media.
NBA became a true pop culture religion, do you think this was the goal of David Stern?
I’m not sure if David Stern consciously decided that the NBA was going to lead the way in pop culture and fashion, but I would say that Michael Jordan was the catalyst to making that happen. His long shorts, Air Jordan shoes, his impeccable suits all helped get things started. Allen Iverson then took fashion and culture to another level. Let’s not forget some of the legends of the past that led the way in their time: Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Wilt Chamberlain, and others.
"There are four pillars of the ‘Mamba Mentality’: Obsession, Curiosity, Relentlessness and Strength. Kobe lived each of those every day and his legacy carries on through all of us."
You took Kobe Bryant’s first picture with the Lakers when he was 18, then the collaboration of your book The Mamba mentality: how I play. Can you tell us more about this relationship between you and Kobe Bryant?
Kobe and I bonded from the very first day I took his rookie head shot on Lakers media day in 1996. I saw in him at 18 some of the similar traits I had at his age starting out as a young sports photographer: very driven, self confident, talented and impatient to make his mark. We enjoyed an incredible 20 years relationship as photographer and subject as well as friends and collaborators.
Kobe was exigent apparently and knew the direction he wanted to share with his pictures, how was it to work with him?
Kobe was probably the most self confident and focused person I ever met. When we started to work on our book “The Mamba Mentality: How I Play” together, he was very clear and specific on what his mission was in doing the book. He wanted his fans and everyone to hear directly from him, in his words, what made him “tick”. How he prepared mentally and physically and all the basketball wisdom he learned throughout his career. All this needed to be illustrated through my photographs, which was challenging at times, but fun to do together.
What can we say about the “Mamba mentality” philosophy?
There are four pillars of the “Mamba Mentality”: Obsession, Curiosity, Relentlessness and Strength. Kobe lived each of those every day and his legacy carries on through all of us.
Kobe trained his daughter Gigi himself because he wanted to make a champion out of her. What place do women's basketball teams have in the NBA? How did this evolve? In France and Europe unfortunately, female basketball is not so much in the radar of fame…
Kobe was a very proud “Girl Dad”. His daughter Gigi was a terrific athlete from a very early age, and basketball became her passion. How wonderful that she could learn from the best in her own father! Kobe was always a big supporter of women’s basketball, and specifically the WNBA. I remember him coming to games with Vanessa and his two older girls when they were very young. Kobe believed that the “Mamba Mentality” didn’t have a gender. Girls and women could adopt and learn his philosophy just as easily as boys and men. He was very involved and hands on with training some of the biggest stars in women’s basketball. Gigi was definitely on the path to become one of the greatest ever.
"The love the French have for basketball is exciting. I first noticed it when I came with the Lakers in 1991 for the McDonalds Championship in Paris. The fans and media were super knowledgeable and big supporters. I started to notice how the professional leagues in France produced top level talent like Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and many others. The Olympics also showed me how the French teams could compete with the best in the world."
With your podcast "Legends of Sport" you often interview female champions can you tell us more about your media?
I enjoy the podcast format because it allows me to have a long, in depth conversation with my guests. We do a lot of research and try to really understand our guest and their journey to greatness. I’m fortunate that I have established relationships with so many people in and around the world of sports: athletes, coaches, trainers, owners, journalists, photographers, etc. I’m also a big supporter of women’s sports and the roles of women behind-the-scenes in sports. We’ve had some terrific guests over three seasons and many more to come.
You created NBA Photos in 1986, what was the goal behind this?
As the NBA was taking off in the early 1980’s there became a need for a centralized department within the league office that could handle the increased requests for photography, as well build an archive to preserve the visual history of the league.
The whole world is in lockdown now. How was this special moment for you and the players?How far does this affect their performances and the organization of their training?
I was amazed when I got to the NBA bubble in Orlando last August that the quality of play was so high. It was a very unique environment, to be sure, but the players and coaches were committed to the effort needed to be competitive and they were exciting to watch.
"I’m amazed almost daily at what these amazing athletes can do on the court. But also what they continue to do off the court with speaking out and their actions for social justice, mental health issues, equity in pay and many other issues we all face. We are very committed at Legends Of Sport to give light to all of these important social issues."
You have often been coming to Paris since your first time in 1991 with the NBA. InJanuary 2020, you exhibited your pictures of Tony Parker at the Square de laTour Saint Jacques. What do you think about the crazy love of French people for basketball?
The love the French have for basketball is exciting. I first noticed it when I came with the Lakers in 1991 for the McDonalds Championship in Paris. The fans and media were super knowledgeable and big supporters. I started to notice how the professional leagues in France produced top level talent like Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and many others. The Olympics also showed me how the French teams could compete with the best in the world.
What is your best memory of the NBA personally and professionally?
That’s a difficult question to answer as one singular memory… I would say being embedded with the “Dream Team” in 1992 may be my top professional memory if I had to name one. On the personal side, all the relationships I have developed is something I will always be thankful for.
What has the NBA brought to your life since these years, not only on the business part but also on the human one?
I have been fortunate to see most of the world through my job working for the NBA. I’ve met some amazing people along the way. I have developed my craft as a photographer and worked hard to realize my dream.
You saw the evolutions of all the champions of this decade and more, what makes the difference between a NBA top player and others?
We are seeing this new generation of players continue to take our sport to new levels. I’m amazed almost daily at what these amazing athletes can do on the court. But also what they continue to do off the court with speaking out and their actions for social justice, mental health issues, equity in pay and many other issues we all face. We are very committed at Legends Of Sport to give light to all of these important social issues.
Do you play the simulation game NBA 2K20?
What could we wish for NBA players of the next generation?
To continue to respect the game, and honor those who came before them and paved the way. Also to use their platforms to raise awareness and elicit change in all areas of society.
What can we wish for you? We heard of your dream to be published in a Taschen book, is it true?
I love the quality of Taschen, for sure. It would be nice to have a book of my work published by them at some point if they think my work fits into their plans. I have many projects going on right now, mostly focused around growing Legends Of Sport into a worldwide content platform. It’s very exciting to be building a new business at this point in my career. I am working with terrific partners and a small group of very committed people who believe in our mission and goal.