Andrew Bernstein is the NBA’s most legendary photojournalist and eye in the sky.
In honor of Kobe Bryant’s retirement, The Shadow League once again spoke with the man who has accumulated over 14,000 photos of Bryant, capturing The Black Mamba’s first media day with the Lakers in 1996 to his 60-point exit explosion in his final game against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday evening.
Bernstein is the Director of Photography for Staples Center and Nokia Live and is the official photographer for the LA Lakers, Clippers, Kings, (and formerly the Dodgers). He's been at this nearly 40 years and is the Godfather of NBA photojournalism.
As Kobe walked off the court for his final home game, you could notice a short , middle-aged guy, holding a camera and hustling and shuffling like an NFL prospect at the combines to keep in front of Kobe and the legion of people around him as he faded into the Staples Center tunnel for his final ice down.
That was Bernstein.
Who better to reflect on Kobe’s illustrious 20-year career than the guy who knew him on a personal level and photo-documented every transcending accomplishment and record-setting accolade?
Andrew Bernstein: “It’s been quite a ride for 20 years and recently I've been looking through a lot of pictures and it's amazing how the road was so amazingly full of memories. First time I met Kobe was Lakers Media Day in 1996. He was a fresh-eyed rookie and I basically took his first pro photo as a Laker, which was his head shot.
I introduced myself to him and he said, 'I know who you are. I know you from all of your posters I had hanging up as a kid.'
Before Kobe, I took pictures of Jordan and Magic and Bird and all of the famous guys. I found that to be pretty amazing because you know the photo credit on posters is probably about 20 -point type, so for someone to read the photo credit was truly amazing to me and he was very respectful. From that moment on we were bound together in some way...that moment sparked the tie between us.
To be there through all of his five championships and to be a part of the ‘inner circle’ there with the parades and Olympic experience... it's just been great. I was with the team up until they went to the Olympics and got to experience him being with some of the greats like LeBron and D Wade and Carmelo and those guys and interact with them."
The Shadow League: What did you notice about Kobe’s interaction with the younger stars?
AB: "He obviously gives and gets respect from players, but I’ve seen him mature from a teenager literally to a mentor and a living legend of the game, where he became the grisly, wily veteran that time has taken him to and he’s embraced that role.
Other greats in the league have expressed how he's influenced them and their work ethic and commitment to the game. And when Shaq left and he got to lead the team himself to the 2009 championship, it was a big turning point in his career and catapulted him up to the true meaning of a leader and he has built on that ever since."
TSL: What are Kobe’s best qualities as a person?
AB: "His commitment. He's totally committed to being the best he can be and he’s taken the concept of work ethic to another level. I've been around a lot of athletes for almost 40 years professionally and by far he has the most intense work ethic and commitment to his job and own self to be the best. That to me is just incredibly inspiring."
TSL: Give us a perspective through your lens of Kobe’s progressions as a player and person in intervals of three 6-7 year periods.
AB: "The first seven years would be him pretty much establishing himself as a bonafide star in the league. Remember, when he came in as a rookie, those first couple of years he didn't play much. Reminded me of a prized race horse struggling to get into the gate. Once he takes off though, he leaves everybody in the dust and that's how it seemed to be with Kobe early on.
There was this incredible potential and who knows, if he had played more minutes in those first couple of years, could he have possibly broken Kareem’s points record? That's something to speculate on. Then again, maybe it saved his body a bit and allowed him to play for two decades.
His coming out party was that All-Star game in NY in 1997, when he won the Slam Dunk Contest and then rose above everyone literally in that game and on that stage at Madison Square Garden...an arena that he loves and has shined in so many times. He won his first championship in 2000 and had that three-peat in his first seven years with Shaq, which was incredible.
Seasons 8-14 was him trying to become the veteran player that could lead a team on his own and he obviously proved that in the 200910 season. He talks about the loss to the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals as being his most difficult and painful defeat, so the victory over them in 2010 was complete vindication for that defeat in 2008. He had said that losing twice to the Celtics in the Finals was not an option. He calls that... of his five rings, his most significant. He said that the other night.
Seasons 14-20 he was King, with nothing left to prove, just the pursuit of Jordan’s six rings. Kobe basically building on everything he constructed as a player, leader, mentor and in business of course. Leaving the game just as he said he would -- in uniform. Returning from that incredibly horrendous achilles injury that no other human being would possibly be able to come back from.
Now we get to reflect on a career that we'll never see again. A guy playing 20 years with one team and everything he's done to help transform and transport the game to the next level for the next group of stars and I'm glad I got to record that."
TSL: Was his relationship with Shaq as troubled as they say?
AB: "I would say as a member of the media, I know that the media always needs a story to print. I think it's overblown and was exaggerated. Like any two strong personalities...on that level, sure there’s going to be problems...you are living with guys for eight months straight and there will be some… I won't even call it turmoil, but just some differences and they managed to work through it and won three championships with it and it's unfortunate it didn't last because everyone thinks they could have won 10 championships. I don't see that being the fault of any relationship between Shaq and Kobe. I've never witnessed that."
TSL: What are the consistent elements in all of your great Kobe photos?
AB: "First thing that comes to mind when you're talking about action is his incredible athleticism as an athlete regardless of the sport. As an athlete we've only seen a few that are at that level of greatness and I have a daughter that's a dancer and I see a lot of dance elements in the photos I look at. Some of them are incredibly beautiful in just how his body can do what it does and did.
He used to be a dunk machine if you remember, 360 and Tomahawks and Reverses and all kinds of stuff, and every one of them were monumental. As photographers, we took it for granted because we saw it so much.
Kobe in my opinion, like Magic, who I shot his whole career as well, never took a night off. I never saw him half-effort it or fail to meet expectations. Every time down the court, from pre-season to Finals to USA Basketball, his commitment was second to none in my opinion.
It can't be anything but sad to know that after Wednesday we’ll never get to shoot this guy on the court again."