The 24-second clock is running out as Mr. Magic backs toward the hoop, spins, head fakes, hits a fallaway jumper with a fingertip roll, yes! The crowd starts hollering Hollywood, Hollywood, and exchanges the latest cult handshakes. I congratulate myself because I got the whole move, in sequence, on film.
What makes it easier to get shots like this is to own that beautiful gift from the Far East, the Nikon F2 with motor drive. I captured Mr. Magic's moment at the NBA championships, but similar scenes are played all across America in high school and college gyms, and almost every team has its own Mr. Magic.
Basketball is fun to photograph because you can get so close to the action—sit right under the basket—and not end up in the emergency room. You also don't have to be related to the Rockefellers or an Arab to afford the equipment. You don't really need the expensive Nikon (the motor drive, of course, is far too costly for most amateurs); all it takes is a 35mm camera, a lens or two, ranging in focal length from 24 to 105mm, and a credential to get on the floor.
But how do you get the credential so you can masquerade as a professional photog? The best way (and this is the method I used when starting out) is to get in touch with the sports information director, or the head of publicity, maybe the coach, even a rich alumnus, and tell him what you would like to do. In return for the chance to photograph the game, you promise him some 8x10 prints of his boys gyrating up and down the floor. This works well on (he high school and sometimes even on the small-college level.
If you're trying the big schools or the pros. Plan One may not work. This is when Plan Two goes into effect. Tickets can be the answer. Not only will you get new angles to shoot from, but also a chance to spend some of your hard-earned dollars on your favorite hobby. To shoot effectively from the stands, you'll need a lens ranging from 135 to 300mm. I know what you are saying: I don't work for some famous sports magazine, and I don't want to spend all of my greenbacks on an expensive telephoto-lens deal. You have nothing to fear. What you do is go down to the local camera shop and check out the used-lens section. Here is your chance to buy a top piece of equipment that 90 times out of 100 is as good as new. The way to make sure you don't end up in that 10% bracket is to make a lens test. Find a lens you like, put a deposit on it, take it home, load a roll of Kodachrome 64, take a picture of your dog or anything that will give you a chance to check the lens for sharpness and color quality, get the roll developed and make your decision.
You are now ready for the big time. The best film to start with is everybody's favorite, Tri-X. I recommend that you use this black and white film, which is a little easier than color, until you get the feel of working at a game. It is also important to shoot at a high shutter speed such as 1/500th of a second so you can freeze the action, and Tri-X, with its 400 ASA rating, will permit you to do this even in marginal light.
One of the best angles to shoot from in the stands is basket level. From there you see the players' faces rather than their chins and beards as they leap toward the ceiling. You'll also be able to watch a Jabbar go three feet over the rim for a rebound. There is a whole separate game being played at that altitude, and only a few see it. This is a chance to take a line picture.
Keep trying new locations. Your knowledge of the sport will increase the more time you spend photographing, and your fallaway jumper with the fingertip roll will improve. But don't get too good too soon. You wouldn't want to make Neil Leifer and Heinz Kluetmeier nervous.