HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — As sports fans, we live for the action. The movement, the speed, the grace and physicality of the athletes, and the path of the ball in the air.
With HD technology, we bring the action into our homes. And with the Internet, we have the ability to watch the action over and over again.
Yet a still photograph, a single frame of action, can elicit feelings and responses that video can’t. Don’t think so? Just browse through Sports Illustrated‘s 100 Greatest Sports Photos of All Time.
From Aaron to Alcindor and Ali, the list includes photos of the greatest athletes of the last century. Bannister, Dimaggio, Gretzky, Mays, Montana, Phelps, Robinson, Ruth, and Woods. The list goes on and on, and includes nine shots of NBA action.
The nine include the No. 1 sports photo of all time, according to SI. It comes from NBAE photographer Fernando Medina, and is of maybe the most iconic moment in NBA history.
The Chicago Bulls had a 3-2 series lead in the 1998 Finals, but they were on the road, they were running on fumes and Scottie Pippen injured his back in the early minutes of Game 6. The Bulls all knew that this was the end of the line, with Michael Jordan was set to retire, and Pippen and coach Phil Jackson set to leave Chicago.
When John Stockton hit a 3-pointer to put the Jazz up 86-83 with 42 seconds left, things looked desperate for Chicago. But then Jordan got an open lane to the basket for a layup and the Bulls only needed one stop to give themselves a chance to win. The Jazz didn’t even get a shot up, as Jordan left Jeff Hornacek to swipe the ball from Karl Malone in the low post.
Jordan calmly dribbled the ball up the floor and his teammates cleared out. He ran the clock down to under the 10 second mark, shook Bryon Russell, and rose for a 19-foot jumper, the last shot of his storied Bulls career.
On the opposite end of the floor, Medina sat with his camera.
This week, Medina answered a few questions about that moment, that shot, and having his photo honored by SI …
NBA.com: What do you remember about that moment?
Fernando Medina: Just that there was a high probability that Jordan would take the shot and I wanted to make sure I framed it right and that it was in focus. I was part of NBA Photos’ team of photographers covering The Finals. We had discussed how we wanted to cover possible game-winning shots. Since the Bulls were going away from me and the action would happen on the opposite end of the court, I just made sure my mechanics were right.
NBA.com: Did you know at the time that you had just taken an iconic photograph?
FM: Actually, not really. The image was photographed on slide film, so unlike the digital cameras of today, I had no way of seeing the photo until it had been developed by a film lab. Joe Amati, with NBA Photos, approached me on the court immediately after the game, wanting to know if I had gotten the photo. I knew the camera had triggered, but, I had no way of knowing if the flash strobes had fired, and told him as much.
I then went over to the Bulls hotel to cover their arrival back from the arena. When they arrived on the team bus, fellow NBA Photographer Andy Bernstein was with them. I followed him into an elevator along with Bulls guard Ron Harper who was holding the NBA Finals Trophy. We ended up on the Bulls floor and next thing I knew, we were in a suite and there was Michael Jordan, sitting at a grand piano with a cigar holding a bottle of champagne, singing “I want to be like Mike”. A member of the NBA Entertainment video crew used a lamp sans shade to light the scene. Walter Iooss was also there, covering Michael. It was surreal.
Afterwards, Andy and I headed to the local film lab that NBA Photos was using to develop the game film that evening. That was the first time I saw the image. No one had found it yet in the dozens of bags of slides from that night. Knowing how I had marked the specific film bag, I found it, opened the box of slides and it was the second image I pulled from the box. I held it up to the light and looked at it for a moment, handed it to Amati, and never saw it again until it was published in ESPN Magazine. That was the first time I was able to actually “see” and truly appreciate the photo.
NBA.com: What’s your favorite part of the photo?
FM: That’s easy, the myriad expressions of the fans in the stands. An NBA team executive I know has a 3′ x 5′ framed copy in his office. You can spend quite some time lost in all the expressions. I saw none of that when I took the photo. All I concentrated on, at the time, was a wide shot including Jordan, the ball, most/all of the players on the court and the shot clock.
NBA.com: Anything special about the camera/technique in getting that shot?
FM: The NBA Photos team uses a system, designed by LPA Design, of FlashWizard 2 transceiver units that allow an unlimited number of cameras, either manned by a photographer or preset as a remote, to be triggered by one photographer simultaneously while synched to a single set of flash strobe units mounted high above the court on the arena’s catwalk. This results in well-lit, high-quality images from unlimited multiple angles of any play. Also, another factor that worked in my favor was the close proximity of the fans to the court in Utah. In most arenas, the stands are farther away from the court and would not have been as well lit as in EnergySolutions Arena.
NBA.com: Is it harder to get a great shot from the opposite end of the floor than from the near side?
FM: I wouldn’t say it’s harder, just that your objective may be different. Your subject is facing away from you, but, as this image proves, if you plan ahead, you can end up with a decent frame. I didn’t get Jordan’s face, but I got a few hundred other ones that tell the story of that moment in history. Also, it’s actually easier, if your trying to get the shot clock as part of the image.
NBA.com: What does it mean to you to be honored by Sports Illustrated like this?
FM: I am honored and very humbled by this recognition. To me, it represents what this country is all about. Who could foresee that a poor refugee from Cuba would end up with the opportunity of photographing Michael Jordan taking his last shot as a Bull to win the 1998 NBA Finals, and make good on that opportunity! Amazing. To think of all the great photographers and their great photographs through time and history, I find it hard to believe that God blessed me with the image chosen as Sports Illustrated‘s favorite, so far. Thank you very much to those at SI who liked my work enough to bestow it with such an incredible honor.