Andrew Bernstein, the man who defined the look of the NBA

From the Lakers-Celtics 80s rivalry to an enduring relationship with Kobe Bryant, the photography of Andrew Bernstein has defined the look of the NBA for over 30 years.

Bernstein’s iconic photographs are featured at NBA Crossover, a free exhibition taking place in central London from September 20-22 displaying the convergence of the NBA and popular culture.

Andrew Bernstein, NBA photographer - credit ADBPhotoINC
Image:Andrew Bernstein, NBA photographer – credit ADBPhotoINC

One look at a selection of his work is all it takes to realise Bernstein has captured and chronicled an array of definitive moments in NBA history, from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s battle for superiority and Michael Jordan taking flight to Bryant’s illustrious career and the rise of the Golden State Warriors.

“Some of the photos I’ve been lucky enough to create have come to define the NBA, the image of the NBA, the look of the NBA,” said Bernstein. “I’ll take that because I’m thrilled to have contributed to that over the years.”

The Lakers played a key role in Bernstein getting his chance to work in the NBA.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson compete for a rebound in the 1987 NBA Finals
Image:Larry Bird and Magic Johnson compete for a rebound in the 1987 NBA Finals

“I wanted to be a sports photographer and my school didn’t promote sports photography but I had two teachers who believed in me, one who introduced me to some Sports Illustrated photographers,” he explained.

“I started assisting them in the field and learned a very specialised technique of lighting arenas with indoor strobes. That got my foot in the door with the Lakers at The Forum in 1983. That was the Showtime era – I was in the right place at the right time. The Lakers-Celtics rivalry was really starting to heat up and I was really fortunate to be on hand when the All-Star Game come to The Forum in 1983. That was my first gig with the NBA. A very auspicious way to start my NBA career.”

One of the key factors in Bernstein’s early career was the level of trust he was able to build with NBA players, coaches and front office staff.

“That’s the absolute perfect word – trust. It’s all about the players trusting in me that I don’t want anything from them other than recording part of their career. For history, for themselves,” he said.

“The trust had to be established very early and I was very lucky to establish a relationship with Magic Johnson when I first started. He liked me, we did a lot of things on the court and off the court together.

“I have to credit [then-Lakers coach] Pat Riley for encouraging me as a young photographer to keep pushing and looking for opportunities to get on the inside of the team. He allowed me to have that access and it gave me a lot of confidence very early.

 

“People got used to seeing me around and they knew my reputation and that I was there to record history. So when I’m at the NBA Finals, or the Olympics, or the All-Star Weekend the players and coaches know I’m there for a reason. I try to be the ultimate professional at all times.

“These guys, their time is very valuable, especially at these huge events. My thing is I like to get in and get out with very little fanfare, a true fly on the wall and produce photos that will live on forever. That is all I care about.”

Bernstein was fortunate to develop a relationship with Bryant that began in 1996. Their relationship ultimately resulted in the pair collaborating to create a book,Mamba Mentality, in which Bernstein’s images accompany Bryant’s detailed explanation of his approach to basketball and the steps he took to prepare and succeed at the game.

Bernstein recalled his first meeting with the young Bryant.

“It was media day in 1996. He was an 18-year-old rookie and he came in with a lot of fanfare. I had never met him. We’re doing media day and he comes to my set, a big white backdrop, and as I would do with any player I hadn’t met before, I introduced myself before I start to shoot him. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I know who you are’, while still shaking my hand.

“I said, ‘Really? I didn’t think we’d met’, and he said, ‘No, we haven’t, but I had all your posters [of the NBA’s top players] in my room growing up. The poise of him at that age in that chaotic environment. You literally need a magnifying glass to see a photo credit on an NBA poster! He had studied every facet of those posters including the credit. It blew me away.

Kobe Bryant elevates for a dunk against the Clippers
Image:Kobe Bryant elevates for a dunk against the Clippers

“I saw in him, in that moment and throughout his career, a guy who was very driven. He always pushed himself further and further, past even what he might think he was capable of. I saw a lot in him that I saw in myself 10 years earlier when I was starting out trying to make it and prove people wrong and follow my dream.

“I think he recognised those qualities in me. Fast forward 20 years when we did the book together, I had been with him his entire career, his first picture as a Laker, his last picture as a Laker and hundreds of thousands in between. We did a book tour together and Kobe, talking about me, told our interviewer, ‘I knew this guy was as obsessed about his work as I was’.

“If you break down the Mamba Mentality, it’s an obsession with what you do, never being happy with what you do and always pushing yourself further. I don’t think we could have collaborated on the book if there wasn’t a spiritual connection between us.

“The level of trust he put in me – I was the only person who ever saw where and how he did his private workouts, how he prepared, how he meditated. At Staples Center, he would go to the LA Kings training room to do his own private workouts with his own trainer. It wasn’t because he was aloof, it was because he needed his own regimen of getting himself ready.”

Andrew Bernstein was showcasing his work at NBA Crossover, a free exhibition taking place from September 20-22, displaying the convergence of the NBA and popular culture.

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