For the first time in 40 years, Hall of Fame sports photographer Andrew D. Bernstein will not be covering the NBA Finals. Since 1982, Bernstein has covered 212 NBA Finals games. He captured some of the most historic individual and team matchups such as Magic vs. Bird during the Showtime Era, Shaq vs. Hakeem in 1995, Kobe vs. Iverson in 2001, and LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry four times. He also covered the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics during the Showtime era and the Kobe era.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Bernstein’s father was a huge fan of the New York Rangers and New York Mets. They bonded over sports and photography which sparked Bernstein’s interest in a sports photography career.
“I took up photography when I was 14 when my dad bought me an old manual Canon camera,” Bernstein explained. “I took to it right away. It just opened my eyes to being able to creatively visualize something and then translate it through the camera onto film.”
From then on it was love at first sight for Bernstein—his camera, and the ability to capture such incredible photos.
Bernstein attended the University of Massachusetts, where surprisingly he found out there were no photography classes. But the university had a daily newspaper. He became the assistant photo editor almost immediately gravitated to the newsroom two weeks into his freshman year. Bernstein shot different assignments and gained management experience by assigning photographers to events. After making the decision to become a professional photographer leaning toward sports, he transferred to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. However once he made that bold decision to pursue his career path, he was not welcomed with open arms at the college and had to work his way to the top to earn respect.
“I had two amazing teachers, who believed in me, who are still mentors to me 40 plus years later, who would not let me hear the negative noise,” Bernstein stated. “I’m a Brooklyn guy who has a lot of Brooklyn moxie in me. If you tell me I can’t do something or I’m in the wrong place, it’s just going to fuel me even more to succeed.”
Bernstein established if it hadn’t been for the support of his two teachers, he would’ve never met Sports Illustrated photographers who gave him the opportunity to begin his real on-the-job training by being an assistant. He met many key team and venue personnel through his role as an assistant which helped him get his foot in the door at the right place at the right time.
“I was really fortunate to be in Los Angeles at the right time, which was around 1981-82,” Bernstein explained. “I was able to get my first gig with the NBA at the 1983 All-Star Game, which was held at the Forum in Los Angeles. That was really the beginning of my relationship with the NBA as well as with the Lakers, Kings and the Forum.”
That’s when the magic started to happen in his career.
“When I started covering the Finals in 1982, 83, and 84, I was a one-man band,” Bernstein said. “It was just me covering it. No assistant, no second photographer. It has grown now to a crew of around 30, including photographers, assistants, digital techs and assignment managers. I was one of the co-founders of NBA Photos back in 1986, and to see where we are now and what we have become is incredibly gratifying to me.”
Bernstein’s relationships with venues and teams and his outstanding style of work led to more opportunities and opened doors.
“When Staples Center opened in 1999, I was named Director of Photography, and 23 years later, we are still the house photographers for Crypto.com Arena, Microsoft Theater, and LA Live,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein’s company, Bernstein Associates, has provided team and venue photographers to many local teams and arenas over the years.
“I hang my hat on that”, Bernstein specified. “I have probably worked for every professional team in Los Angeles at some point and for almost every venue.”
Bernstein’s company employs a group of talented photographers and assistants which has allowed him to be more selective about the events he personally covers.
“It was a very, very conscious decision,” Bernstein said about scaling back on the assignments he personally covers. “In 2019 I worked a full year, a full NBA schedule, from September until June and then throughout the summer. It was, and is, very physically demanding. Then the pandemic hit and we had the NBA bubble during the summer of 2020. Physically at this point in my life, I have to be conscious of how much I can pile onto myself. When all our work stopped during the first five months of the pandemic I learned how to turn a negative situation into a positive one. That gave me the time to do a lot of work on building my platform, Legends Of Sport.”
Bernstein mentioned that he knew the moment when he realized that he was in the exact place he was supposed to be as a young sports photographer.
“In 1984, during my third Finals, I remember sitting on the floor of the old Boston Garden and they had the parquet floor (square panels that are screwed into the floor),” Bernstein said. “It was so unbelievably loud in there. The panels of the floor were shaking and all I could think to myself was ‘This is really great. How many people get to experience this sort of Boston earthquake,’ it was just an amazing thing.”
Even though Bernstein is not physically covering the Finals this year, he reminisced about the series that he has covered.
“The 1985 Finals, when the Lakers finally beat the Celtics,” Bernstein discussed. “No one had ever beaten the Celtics in Boston Garden to win the Finals. The Lakers had never beaten the Celtics, ever, in the Finals. To be there, to witness it, to document it, was amazing. And the
cherry on top was getting my first cover of Sports Illustrated from that series. That first cover photo of Kareem was a benchmark accomplishment for me as a young sports photographer.”
He mentioned that when he captured that cover it really validated him. All of the self-doubt and negative noise made him push himself harder to stay in the field and do what loved.
“They can’t take that cover away from me, my name will always be on it for eternity,” Bernstein said. “I was able to enjoy the moment – and I wasn’t very good at that for the first two thirds of my career – to be mindful and really understand, appreciate, and be grateful for always pushing myself to be driven for the next game, the next road trip, and the next cover. I wish I was a little more mindful and grateful in those days. That became the secret sauce that made the engine run for me.”
Not only was Bernstein reminiscing about the favorite series he covered, he also shared his favorite iconic moments with two historic coaches, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley.
“Pat was not welcoming to me from the beginning”, Bernstein said. “He was very protective of his huddle and his inner sanctum. Anyone who was not part of that small group who made up the team was really looked at as an outsider. He called them a ‘peripheral opponent.’ I had to earn my way in with Pat as a young photographer which I did, and he trusted me.”
Then the floodgates opened with the rest of the Lakers organization and the NBA.
“Phil Jackson was almost the same way,” Bernstein explained. “As the NBA’s lead photographer, I’m the first person in the locker room when a team wins a championship. I’m in there as the corks get popped and the champagne is flying. I was there for his first championship with the Bulls in 1991, and he didn’t really pay attention to me or anything. Then for his 1992 championship, I was in the locker room and he just looked at me like ‘What are you doing in my locker room man?’ I was just doing my job, and by 1993, he got it and he understood that if he won a championship, the first person he was going to see in that locker room was going to be me.”
Bernstein talked about how he covered all 11 of Jackson’s championships as coach with the Bulls and Lakers as the first guy in the locker room. He mentioned how he and Phil became friends and collaborated on a book together, Journey to the Ring, from the 2009-10 championship.
“I had to earn it, and I was conscious of the fact that one screw-up could end this all for me,” Bernstein said. “And the key to that is never making it about me and being a fly on the wall. Literally being a piece of the furniture while being grateful, humble, and everything else, and hopefully the work will speak for itself. I hold these experiences really close to my heart.”
Bernstein learned very early that his job is to stay locked in when he would be shooting a game or assignment. If he saw the play happen, that means it already happened. If he looked up from the camera and watched or saw something important happen outside the viewfinder, he said he might as well have not even been there and be on his sofa or in the stands watching.
“I had to train myself to always be locked in, to be focused, to have a little bit of anticipation through experience and having watched these players, ” Bernstein explained. “I had to learn and watch and fail many, many, many times because they were so unpredictable. I had to learn those guys’ games, learn the situation that we’re in, and what is the scenario that could happen at that moment. Sometimes you guess wrong, but you have to think and use that experience of repetition of being in that situation of hopefully getting it right more times than you get it wrong.”
Bernstein continued talking about his most memorable moments in the past 40 years and the iconic photographs that he had taken.
“Michael Jordan holding his first trophy in 1991 was such a special moment,” Bernstein explained. “Nobody knew he was going to win five more after that. It was the beginning of the Jordan era and the Bull’s dominance. It was just such a moment in time. You think of sports photographers, you think of action, you think of somebody in the heat of the moment. That was a real photojournalistic moment. I was lucky to have a six sense to shoot that at that moment in a very chaotic moment in the locker room.”
Bernstein noted how his job is to capture the moment in time that will never happen again. One of the most challenging parts of shooting is waiting four seconds between shots. Bernstein shoots with a strobe light system connected to large flash units in the arena. After taking a photo, he has to wait four seconds for the lights to recycle power and be primed to shoot again. If he shoots again before the system is ready, it could blow a fuse.
“There are a lot of times when I’m very itchy to pull the trigger, so to speak, and I have to give it that extra millisecond,” Bernstein stated. “The protocol that is drilled into us that we learned from failure, that when there is a last-second shot, there are two of us on the court, and to capture a very wide shot to get the full perspective of the last-second shot, which is exactly what I did with Kyrie Irving’s shot in 2016. Ray Allen’s shot in 2013 was different because that happened on my side which is why it is a tighter picture.”
Bernstein said that one of the most famous photographs in Finals history was Michael Jordan’s shot at 0.6 seconds for the Chicago Bulls to beat the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals. It is a photograph he is very proud of but didn’t physically take himself.
“MJ’s shot happened on my side of the court, however, I’m triggering other photographers as well as my own camera,” Bernstein explained. “In those days, I could trigger their cameras
because it was all part of a very elaborate and very hard to understand system of radio controlled remote cameras, all firing at the exact same moment on one single burst from the strobes. I can push a trigger button on my camera, then my camera will go off, and other photographers’ cameras will also go off on the other side of the court or in an elevated position because we’re all locked into this one same strobe system. So, in this case, I was blocked at the last second while I was sitting in the corner of the court. When Michael went up, another player came right into my field of vision, so honestly, all I could see was the bottom of Michael’s feet. I knew in that moment I had to push that button because even though I couldn’t get that picture, I knew that Fernando Medina who was sitting on the opposite baseline, had a clear shot and the two other photographers who were locked in on our system on the elevated spots could see it, which is the photo that was made. Fernando took the picture by focusing and composing, but I was the one who actually fired that camera to take the shot. It was a true example of teamwork and proof that the “system” worked. ”
Back then, technology was not the same as it was today.
“In this day in age, there are only two of us on the court during the Finals,” Bernstein stated. “There is me on one end of the court and then there is my good friend and partner in crime, Nat Butler, on the other side of the court. Before 2015, there were two or three other NBA photographers on the court, but now it is just the two of us. The rest of the photographers are in elevated positions or anywhere that they can shoehorn themselves in.”
Bernstein said that he likes to be very outgoing and friendly during the pregame but once that ball goes up he does not talk to anybody so he isn’t distracted from doing his job. He usually finds a quiet place during halftime to gather his thoughts and gets his energy back up and going.
Bernstein continued to speak on how protocol is very different now than how it was before.
“We are instructed to have our cameras on us at all times until the very last player has left the building whether they’re on the bus or in their cars. This comes from being burned a few times very early where all of a sudden here comes Kevin McHale walking across the Celtics logo an hour and a half after game time and none of us had a camera. That would have been an amazing picture to get in an empty building. You learn by failure, trial and error, and experience and take it from there.”
Bernstein said he is excited to get back on the court next season and for years to come. There are many more moments to capture and pictures to be made.