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NBA senior photographer Andrew Bernstein discusses 'Journey To The Ring'

October 22, 2010 |  4:13 pm

JourneyHiResCoverLakers Coach Phil Jackson has routinely said he sees "the journey" to the NBA championship more important than the actual accomplishment.

"Journey to the Ring," a collaborative book between Jackson and NBA senior photographer Andrew D. Bernstein, vividly shows why that proclamation carries so much meaning. The book, which is scheduled to be released on Nov. 10, documents the Lakers' quest for the 2010 NBA championship, beginning with the first day of training camp and ending with the Lakers' victory parade.

Bernstein's black-and-white photography provides an intimate snapshot of all those trials and tribulations, with photos ranging from action shots, portraits and behind-the-scenes images. They're complemented with Jackson's captions, which features his witty and insightful recollections to the stories and circumstances behind each snapshot.

Bernstein shared his thoughts with me on the project as well as the concept behind some of the photos in the book.

Can you take me through how this project got started and how the idea came up?

Bernstein: After the 2009 championship and looking ahead toward the 2009-2010 season, there were rumblings that Phil might retire after that year. I had a really great relationship with him over the years having shot up to that point 10 championships, including six with the Bulls and four with the Lakers. I knew that it might be cool to do something on him as it being his last season with a behind-the-scenes documentary from beginning to end, whether it ended with a championship or not. It would be more of a record of Phil's last year. I proposed that to him and he in his non-committal way kicked around this thought and we kind of dropped it. Then once training camp started, I brought it up again. Of course he didn't say anything about it being his last year or anything, but he gave pretty much the green light to do behind-the-scenes coverage than I normally had done, which is a lot. He was able to give me a little bit more access and I went on a couple of more trips with them. As the year came together about midway through the season, it became apparent that this was more about the team and their journey then about their beginning of the season through however it was going to end. Whether or not it was going to be about Phil and his last season or the team, I wasn't really sure. But it started to gel more as a team-oriented project. I talked about that with him. Phil never said anything about this being his last year or not and we were all up in the air about it. So I didn't want to put my eggs in one basket, either.

The project really took shape as I started traveling with them in January. I had made a commitment to shoot this thing in black and white from the beginning. Phil really liked that. I kept showing him pictures and he liked what I was doing. He's a big fan of photography, black-and-white photography specifically. I just kept shooting and shooting and got really great access. As we get into the playoffs, the NBA ramps up their publicity and I get even more access at that point. I was able to piggy back also on some shoots NBA Entertainment was doing, which resulted in a documentary that was on The Association. All of the shoots they did with the team in L.A. I tagged along with them. I was fortunate they had done some of the leg work on that and I was able to get some photos behind the scenes because of their project. Once the season ended, I went to Phil and I asked him to write the foreword and he was totally fine with that. He wrote a great introduction and he wanted to see more pictures. We sent him the initial edit of the pictures and the flow of the book and he said, 'So you have seven chapters here?' and he asked, 'Who's writing the chapter summaries?' I said well maybe we'll ask one of the beat writers or publisher and he said, 'No, I'd like to do that.' We thought,'Great.' The publisher gave him a deadline and he made the deadline and he wrote some great chapter intros. Then he asked, 'Who's writing the captions for all these pictures?' This is all by e-mail. Phil is famous for sending e-mails at 4 o'clock in the morning. I told him I'm probably going to be the one writing the captions because I was there and I can remember what the pictures were and the circumstances. And he said, 'No let's work together on that.' He ended up writing all the captions, which was great because the book was my vision at first and then it became a true collaboration. He had certain things he wanted to discuss.

I envisioned this book having no action in it whatsoever and being completely behind-the-scenes and not having one picture of a basketball being shot or a dunk or anything. When he got more involved, there were strategy things he wanted to talk about, specifically in the Finals on how they shut down [Paul] Pierce and the matchups with Pau [Gasol]. Then the book started to become a great collaboration. I was finding photos that matched the things he wanted to talk about other than the other way around. I think the book is a true behind-the-scenes documentary supported by the action photos. It was a good marriage of the two ideas.


Jackson's caption: Ah, yes, it's turkey time -- one of my favorite times of year. I collaborate with my daughter, Brooke, and her family to make the Thanksgiving dinner. Brooke is a terrific cook, and she is doing all the vegetables and assorted things that make dinner great. I've been charged with doing the turkey and then carving it up -- the easy part. The best part of Thanksgiving Day is when we stop before or during dinner and recount our blessings. We have so much to be grateful for and just a couple of hours before this shot I told my players that I was thankful for them, just before we had one of our lighter practices: the Turkey Trot. (Nov. 26, 2009, in Playa Del Rey)

Bernstein: At the beginning of the season, I talked to Phil about this being a behind-the-scenes project of him or the team. I had asked if I could come [to his house] because I know he likes to have a big family gathering on Thanksgiving. I asked if I could come over and shoot it, and he said, 'Of course.' I went over to the house in the afternoon and it was a beautiful day on the beach. His daughter Brooke was there and a couple of his grand children were there and Jeanie [Buss] came over. It was a very casual thing. It's also a good example of me asking and I got the pictures I needed and I knew when the time was to leave. When they sat down to eat, it was my time to go. I had gotten what I needed at that point. Phil surprised me. I didn't know he was a cook. He obviously does. It's a cool thing.

Phil wrote this in his foreword about black-and-white photography: "For me, black and white photography has a depth to it that makes a softer, deeper quality picture, with textures of grays and shadows that really give life to the photograph." Can you explain that concept and what it does?

Bernstein: When you eliminate color from the photo, it becomes black and white, it's less about the impact of what the color does and it's more about the emotion that the photograph has. Not to take away anything from color, which is what I do 99% of the time, but when you put something in a black-and-white context that might have originally been shot in color or everybody is used to seeing in color, mostly game action and behind-the-scenes stuff, it becomes a true documentary feel.

In conjunction with my regular day job, which is doing game coverage and behind-the-scenes stuff in color, it's not like I really had to go out of my way to do anything different. I just had to basically push a button to go from color to black and white. Forty years ago, Phil was on the Knicks and was injured his championship year and he became good friends with the photographer, George Kalinsky. Phil was sort of a photography buff and George gave him the camera and told him to shoot stuff. Phil was shooting on the bench, at practice shooting pictures. There's this great picture of Phil on an airplane taking pictures. They went the whole season with Phil taking pictures and at the end of the season, they ended up collaborating on a book. It's mostly George's photography on 'Take it All.' He had a half dozen pictures in there. The book was only about the championship series. It wasn't about the whole season. My hook to Phil was, 'Here you are 40 years later and you're not with another team photographer doing the same thing.' He liked that idea. He is a big fan of photography. He's a closet photographer. He doesn't like to tell you too much about his personal life, but I know he enjoys photography and black and white is one of the things he enjoys most about photography.

Ron Artest

Jackson's caption: Ron tweeted his fans to meet him on the beach for some touch football. He loves reaching out to the Twitter followers and engaging them on his joy ride of playing in the NBA.' (Dec. 2, 2009, in El Segundo)

Bernstein: It's interesting. The way this picture came about was this was one of the shoots set up by the NBA Entertainment producer, Andy Thompson, for The Association piece. We always sends a photographer along if we're doing something with the team or player. I went along to shoot this thinking it will be great for the book. We got there and were told to get there around 5 o'clock. An hour later, Ron is still not there and the sun basically got away. All of a sudden, Ron shows up with his entourage and a whole bunch of fans showed him that he tweeted to meet him there. These are just fans off the street basically to show up to play touch football with Ron. From the picture you can see the lights from Santa Monica pier behind him. It's basically pitch black outside. The amazing thing about the picture is the technology of the camera being able to record this thing in the dark.

You could never have shot this picture on film. It was a lucky thing. I wanted to show him having fun off the court. What could be more fun than playing touch football? He was having a great time. When we left, you couldn't even see the hands in front of your face and they were still playing. I don't know how long they stayed there. Maybe they had a bonfire and sat around talking to people.

Team plane

Jackson's caption: We're on the plane. Guys are creatures of habit and they sit near teammates with whom they can share music and movies. Kobe and I sit across from each other, and Fish sits just in front of Kobe. This is to our advantage. There are times when we are in the air that we can watch game video or confer with each other about game situations. (Jan, 7, 2010, on team plane)

Bernstein: In the Shaq-Kobe era, I remember Kobe sat in the front. Now Kobe sits in the back. I guess he likes sitting next to Phil and they do chat during the trip. I've seen them talking. One of the reasons I put this picture in the selection is I'm asked all the time by family and friends what is their plane like? That is a true inner sanctum that nobody ever sees. I wanted to give people an idea of what it's like. It's a Delta 737 that's been modified for the team. The front section is where the players sit, 2 x 2. The middle section, you can see the coaches, they have tables and sit opposite of each other. The back section is where we all sit, the rest of the staff and the traveling party. This is what the picture is about, time for guys to relax, but they also do a lot of work on the plane. Not the players, but coaches. You also have guys who are injured getting iced and getting electrical simulation. They actually use the time to try to heal the guys who are hurt.

We have an agreement that I can only shoot on the plane when it's not moving so either before it takes off or right when it arrives. Usually at the arrival everyone stands up and I can't get from the back of the plane to the front of the plane. Sometimes we arrive at night. The real time to shoot is when the guys are getting on the plane and getting settled. This is five minutes after they got onto the plane. You can see in the back Chip Schaefer is doling out the per diem to everybody. There's a bunch of envelopes in his hand. You can't see it, but Gary Vitti keeps his electrical stimulation machine right behind where Phil sits and he's probably getting somebody ready to get hooked up with that. It's a quiet time.

Kobe Bryant

Jackson's caption: Ritual before the game ... Kobe sits with his feet in ice water. You can see he has a small cup with ice for his finger. This is not Rodin's Thinker, but he's thinking ... Thinking about the game, or his opponent and how to measure up to the challenge. Last year he put 61 points on the Knicks. They will be ready to play a different defense on this night and maybe try to double-team him. (Jan, 22, 2010, in New York City)

Bernstein: What's interesting about Kobe is he is so focused all the time from the minute he walks in the arena and he has a very, very strict routine with what he does. At home, he's usually one of the first guys in the locker room and always the last guy out. On the road, sometimes he comes a little early. But if he comes with the rest of the team, he has his whole routine. He was banged up at that point. His ankles were hurting, his knees were hurting and, of course, the finger was just killing him all the time. It's a real private moment that's indicative of what really goes on there.

He's just thinking. I'm sure he's thinking about the game. I'm sure he's thinking about everything that is hurting him at that moment and using that time very, very wisely just to kind of refresh his mind and get himself prepared. This was a very quick shot as I walked through the locker room and I saw him. I'm always very careful with Kobe because literally the click of a shutter could disturb him and I don't want that to happen. I took one or two frames of this but that was it. I really love this picture. This gives fans an idea of things you just don't see that happen.

You've talked about in several interviews about your overall approach in maintaining a balance where you're able to get behind-the-scenes and intimate and private moments, while still keeping that distance and respecting the teams' space and privacy. How do you strike that balance?

Bernstein: It's called a fly-on-the-wall mentality. I truly like to be as inconspicuous as possible. I'll never infringe on their private time or the training room or the inner sanctum. I always ask permission first. Whether it's Phil, or [Lakers Director of Public Relations] John Black or [trainer] Gary Vitti, or whoever. Kobe could be meditating in a shower in a foreign locker room somewhere. I know he doesn't like to be disturbed and the click of a shudder would disturb him. I know what lines not to cross. But I might ask him another time if it's cool for me to take a shot now. He'll be fine with that. It's really respecting the guys and their space and their private time. It's also a lot of years and experience and establishing relationships and maintaining those relationships. These guys trust me and they know that my pictures aren't going to end up in some bizarre website or magazine someplace. I feel like and I'm treated as part of the team, with the inner circle of the team. It's a trust factor. I've been with other teams. I traveled with many teams -- the Celtics, Nuggets and Spurs -- and the guys know me or there may be certain guys, like the star players, who know me. But if I go to China or Europe with another team, it takes four or five days for them to have that comfort where they think, 'This guy is cool.' With the Lakers, I've been around for 28 years. Phil is used to me. But I also know what my boundaries are and I don't cross those. I don't go where I'm not supposed to go at a time I'm not supposed to be there.


Jackson's caption: Kobe working on his game with Craig Hodges, our shooting coach. ... The effort it takes to come back after sitting for a couple of weeks is shown in this photo. It requires dedication to strengthening the body, treating the damaged tissue, and then reestablishing your game. Here is a symbolic photo of what it takes to win these trophies. (Feb 20, 2010, at the Lakers' practice facility in El Segundo)

Bernstein: Kobe was trying to get himself back. This was the period he was out for five games [because of a sprained left ankle]. He was determined to play through what injuries he had and for him to sit out any games is huge. The guy will play through anything and we've seen that over all these years. He was truly banged up at that time and I think there was a stretch in the season where if he could take some time to heal up, that this was the time to do it. I had access to go up into Jeanie's office. Rather than shoot this from the floor level of the gym, I tried to do something a little different. I incorporated the trophies and the symbolism of what it takes to accomplish those with what Kobe's doing out here on the floor, driving himself with Craig Hodges to get back to win another one of these things. That's really what the photo means.

Phil Jackson

Jackson's caption: About thirty minutes before the game, we meet in the locker room. During that time, we watch some selected game film and go over our defensive assignments. Before this game it was important for me to address the team about keeping focused on the important ideas and not themselves -- to lose themselves in the game. You can see how effective my talk is by the players' rapt attention. In the back of the room you can see one of our therapists, Judy Seto, ready to assist Kobe in his pregame activation. Fish is doing his pregame activation -- if you could only see the other side. (June 17, 2010 at the Lakers' locker room in Staples Center before Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.)

Bernstein: I loved Phil's caption about the rapt attention. You can tell he's sarcastic. It's like when I talk to my teenagers. It's the same thing. They're looking somewhere else or texting. But they are listening and they do hear him. To shoot a coaches' pre-game speech before a Game 7 of the Finals as a photographer is a piece of gold nugget. Just to be there for a Game 7, but also to get the moment before they take the stage so to speak, to me is what I live for. Phil allowed myself and the NBA Entertainment camera guy to come in for the beginning of the speech, which probably lasted about a minute or a minute-and-a-half and then he shooed us out. Then he had his time with the team. He gave us a little bit more time than normal with this picture.

From your perspective, what specifically does Phil's captions do to enhance the book and your photography?

Bernstein: It completes the book totally. I'm not going to critique my own photography. But without his commentary throughout the book, especially in the captions, it would be sort of a one-sided presentation of the team. It would be my view of what the team is and I feel like photography gives people a glimpse inside the team of things they don't normally see. But having him comment with all the inner workings, quirks and barbs and jabs here and there, it totally adds to the book and personalizes it. This is his team. He's the captain of the ship so for him to comment on it just makes the book better than what I could imagine it turning out. No one knows the things he knows better than him. It's a perfect marriage.

You go to all the games and you know the production the Lakers put on for a game is kind of like a broadway show almost. The way it's lit, it's like a stage. It's very glitzy. My whole idea was to show everything that happens before the stage lights go on and to give fans the idea of the complexity. There's a lot of mundane stuff that goes on too. There's a lot of traveling and behind-the-scenes working of producing this production. When they go out and the ball goes up, it's the start of a production. Unlike a lot of teams where it's not like that. In L.A., of all the places I've been, I've been to a lot of games and a lot of arenas, it's really a show with what the Lakers do. I know there's a night and day difference between the Lakers and Clippers, but the Lakers like it to be a show. That's why they light it that way and have the kind of production they do. That's what the fans normally see but they don't see all of this other stuff. That was my whole goal going into this thing.

What do you want fans and readers to get out of this book?

Bernstein: First thing is that it was my idea to call it 'Journey to the Ring,' part of it in homage to Phil that he thinks the season is truly a journey of eight or nine months hopefully culminating in a championship. It is a journey. The whole idea of what it takes to go from the end of September through the end of June, from training camp to a marathon season to two months of playoffs, and the work that it takes from everybody from the coaches, trainers and everybody associated with the team that lives and dies with Lakers basketball, to let fans see that behind the curtain. It's Wizard of Oz a little bit. You're seeing behind the curtain of what you're used to seeing on TV. You see interviews with guys off the court, but maybe you don't see the training room or have access I'm able to show in the book through my photography. I want people to use this book as a remembrance of a great season and what it took to accomplish the goal they did in winning the championship.

--Mark Medina

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All photos by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images