The NBA's longest-serving photographer, Andrew D. Bernstein, talks about his favorite shots from 36 years of NBA Finals — and hoops legend Grant Hill weighs in.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Published June 7, 2018
Published 2 months ago
It's safe to say that no photographer has covered more NBA Finals games than Andrew D. Bernstein. Bernstein's been shooting for 36 years (his first Finals: Sixers vs. Lakers in '83), and he's been the official photographer for both the Lakers and Clippers. Over the years, he's photographed — and become friends with – countless NBA legends, from Magic Johnson to Kobe Bryant to Grant Hill. Hill, of course, played for the Pistons and Magic, and is now a host of "NBA Inside Stuff." Both Bernstein and Hill, who are being honored by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in September, recently spoke exclusively with FOTO about some of their favorite photos from the NBA Finals.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesLAKERS VS. CELTICS, 1987Grant Hill: This is why I fell in love with basketball, watching these two teams, the Lakers and the Celtics, battle it out. So thank you to these two guys for giving me that. For me, this photo embodies that entire era in a single picture. It’s symbolic: Magic and Bird are connected here, and you can feel their competitive nature, their rivalry, and that sense of them doing whatever it takes to win.
Andy Bernstein: It was always a challenge to get Magic and Bird in one frame, always frustrating. They never guarded each other, so the only times it was possible was at the captain’s meeting five minutes before the game and during free throws. Luckily, this time they lined up facing me. What I like about the moment is that neither player is winning the battle — their bodies are intertwined, and both are equally committed. I love the Finals banner in the background as a little added element. It's one of my all-time favorite NBA Finals photos.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesWARRIORS VS. CAVS, 2015Grant Hill: This is the beginning of a great Finals rivalry between the Warriors and Cavaliers. The Warriors and Steph Curry had captured the hearts of the world that season but it was also LeBron James’ first year back in Cleveland. The energy inside Oracle Arena was incredible and this photo makes you feel like you're in the middle of the action. It's a really different angle.
Andy Bernstein: Back in the day, we were able to position a camera on the floor right in front of ourselves or an assistant. Eventually, for safety reasons, the NBA prohibited that. But I always loved that angle so I thought it would be cool to put a camera inside the stanchion pad right under the basket. That placement would protect the players, but it would also provide an incredibly dramatic perspective and perfect symmetry. You know what, it’s the only angle we can do as still photographers that TV can’t replicate.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesLAKERS VS. BULLS, 1991Grant Hill: I won a championship in college, at Duke, so I can relate to MJ’s emotion. Here’s the greatest player on Earth showing, in a very real moment, just how much he cared about winning that first championship.
Andy Bernstein: When the Bulls defeated the Lakers at the Forum in 1991, there was pandemonium in the visitors' locker room. I jumped on a folding table in the middle of the room to shoot the trophy presentation, as champagne flew all around while the network was frantically looking for Michael to do a live interview. Something told me to look to my left, and there he was — sitting by himself, with just the trophy and his dad by his side. I was able to squeeze off a couple of shots and that was it. He was swallowed up by the crowd. This photo was important to Michael for many reasons, as it is to me.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesWARRIORS VS. CAVS, 2017Grant Hill: You can feel the emotion here as KD lets it out. He’s not known for being too emotional on the court, so this is almost an out-of-body experience. In this moment, you can feel the Warriors' thrill of victory, the Cavs' agony of defeat — and the energy from the crowd.
Andy Bernstein: This is the moment right after KD hit the shot to seal the game and his first championship. My job is to get the photo, not to get caught up in the emotion and the thunderous eruption of the crowd. I framed this as a loose horizontal for a reason: I wanted to show the entire scene. But there’s a huge element of luck here, too, in that not only is KD facing me, but also that no one is blocking my view.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesLAKERS VS. BULLS, 1991Grant Hill: Iconic. This photo shows the passing of the torch from Magic’s dominance in the ‘80s to MJ’s in the ‘90s. It’s an angle of these two icons I hadn't seen before.
Andy Bernstein: One of my special remote camera locations is from the arena's catwalk. To be able to get a photo like this, at the Finals, of the two biggest stars? Thrilling.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesROCKETS VS. MAGIC, 1995Grant Hill: This moment reminds me of the teacher and the grasshopper: It was Shaq’s rebound and maybe his championship, but Hakeem went and got it. A great shot of two of the game's best.
Andy Bernstein: Right, a young Shaq and a veteran Olajuwon. Shaq talks about how he was in awe of Hakeem during this series and didn’t go at him as hard as he should have. You can kind of see that in this photo as Hakeem is grabbing the ball away in mid air.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesLAKERS VS. SIXERS, 2001Andy Bernstein: I love the “fly-on-the-wall” part of my job, and being almost invisible as I document some very intimate moments. My job depends on establishing trust with the players, coaches, and staff over a long period of time, and I take that very seriously and never for granted. I’ve learned when to shoot and when not to. When I took this picture, I knew it was very special and would help tell the story of the Lakers' win for a long time to come.
Grant Hill: You can feel Kobe’s sense of accomplishment mixed with the exhaustion — everything it took to win that trophy. I was around Andy a lot over the years while he shot behind the scenes with me in the NBA and on the USA Olympic team. Having him around is part of the experience. He gets authentic moments like this because of the trust he’s earned.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesLAKERS VS. SIXERS, 2001Grant Hill: It’s scary how great Kobe and Shaq were. I mean, total dominance. This photo shows Kobe’s showmanship, caught in mid-air passing to Shaq. We all know what came a split-second later: a thunderous Shaq dunk.
Andy Bernstein: Yeah, it was so cool to catch a photo like this, especially of these two icons. This is an example of the floor remote camera we were once able to use. This camera was placed right next to the bottom of the basket stanchion, wrapped in protective foam. You can see the basket is a little askew from this position. I love this perspective.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesCAVS VS. HEAT, 2012Grant Hill: I don’t think I’ve seen this angle before in a photo ...
Andy Bernstein: We started clamping a remote still camera next to the robotic camera that TV puts right above the 24-second clock. It’s a tricky set up because we need to stay out of the TV shot while we obviously still want to get a good shot ourselves. But everything seems to come together in this photo: LeBron looks like a super hero rising above the rest. The colors really pop. I timed it pretty well and got lucky with the composition.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesWARRIORS VS. CAVS, 2015Grant Hill: You captured the incredible emotion and excitement — the pure joy — that comes from winning that first championship.
Andy Bernstein: One of my jobs is to be the first photographer in the locker room as the winning team enters and starts celebrating like crazy. I don’t use any protective covering for myself or my equipment; I just go for it and deal with drying everything off later. I also try to stash an extra camera, lens, and flash somewhere in the locker room or training room because, inevitably, my flash burns out or camera shorts out with all the champagne flying around. I’m completely drenched almost immediately, but it's worth it if I can get a shot like this. The Warriors won this title on the road in Cleveland and completely trashed the visitors' locker room.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesHEAT VS. SPURS, 2013Grant Hill: I love this crazy perspective and the really strange body angles.
Andy Bernstein: This is one of my favorite photos just because it’s so different and a curious angle. I'm not really sure why it looks like both players are falling backwards together, but the fact that it’s LeBron and Duncan is a bonus.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesBULLS VS. LAKERS, 1991Grant Hill: This play — where MJ changed hands mid-air — was the single biggest highlight of that series for me. It was an “Oh My God” moment.
Andy Bernstein: To capture in one still image something that video can capture with motion is always a challenge. For this, I had one of my usual remote cameras clamped on the basket stanchion, about midway up the pad. When I pushed the button from my position on the opposite side of the court, I had no idea I'd caught the perfect moment: Michael's arms, body position, eyes — everything frozen in the instant he switched hands from right to left to make this basket.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesLAKERS VS. SIXERS, 1983Andy Bernstein: The 1983 Finals was my very first one working for the NBA as league photographer. I wanted to do something interesting and special for the cover of their "NBA Today" publication, so I came up with the idea of the two stars staring each other down as they grabbed the trophy away from each other. This would never happen today, but back then it was surprisingly easy to accomplish. Dr. J and Kareem respected each other so much, and I think that comes through in this photo.
Grant Hill: Yeah, you can see a personal relationship even though they were rivals competing for that trophy. Legends and class.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesCAVS VS. WARRIORS, 2016Grant Hill: This was LeBron’s moment to let it all go. So much emotion — you don’t know when or whether winning a title will ever happen, and when it does it’s a combination of exhaustion and the realization of everything that it took to get to that very moment. I'm not really sure how Andy got through the crowd to take this picture ...
Andy Bernstein: Some of the most important photos of an NBA Finals come right after a team wins the championship. There’s incredible chaos all over the court but I always head right to the star player and stick with him until the trophy presentation. As the buzzer sounded, I couldn’t find LeBron, but I saw a crowd of security in one area so I headed there and did my thing. I use a 16mm fisheye lens for these postgame moments, and here I held the camera as high as I could and somehow there he was. I was able to bang off a few frames just before the crowd closed in and he got to his feet.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesWARRIORS VS. CAVS, 2015Andy Bernstein: This was the biggest moment of sportsmanship I'd witnessed or documented in my career. You can see from the clock and scoreboard at the top of the frame that the game was almost over and that the Warriors were about to defeat the Cavs for the championship. During a time out, the Cleveland arena was deathly quiet and LeBron walked the length of the court to shake Curry’s hand before the game ended. He knew he'd lost but showed the class to make this gesture to his rival. I’m glad I was able to record this with my camera.
Grant Hill: This is how you conduct yourself as a champion. It shows a lot of respect and maturity.
You can listen to Bernstein's podcast, "Legends of Sport," in which he discusses sports, memories, and photographs with the iconic athletes he's shot over the years; Grant Hill is his latest guest. And you can see his pictures on Instagram at @adbphotoinc.