Staff photographer Manny Millan's earliest brushes with picture taking weren't auspicious. As a teenager hanging out at the Henry Street Settlement, the famed community center on Manhattan's Lower East Side where such future SI shooters as Neil Leifer and John lacono got their starts, Millan decided he preferred the poolroom to the darkroom. Then, as a Navy airman stationed aboard the USS Wasp in 1965, Millan was given a 35-millimeter camera and a roll of film, and charged with recording the return of the space capsule Gemini 4. The entire roll came back blank.
Fortunately, as his five photos of heavy weight Mike Tyson's successful defense of the WBC title show (page 20), Millan, 44, has learned to capture boxing better than splashdowns.
Before becoming a full-time staff photographer in 1980, Millan spent 13 years working for both LIFE and SI, first as a print drier and stock clerk, then as a studio assistant and contract photographer. He paid his dues by taking on unglamourous assignments, including six grueling weeks of the Golden Gloves championships at the Felt Forum in 1973. Watching and snapping may have helped him forget his own brief pugilistic career. "I had one fight at the Boys Club," says Millan. "The guy was a full head taller. All I remember was his gloves bouncing off my head."
Besides boxing, Millan has covered sports as diverse as bobsled-ding, white-water rafting and tennis for SI, but he has a special talent for basketball. "Manny's one of the premier shooters in the country, particularly for basketball," says SI photographer Heinz Kluetmeier. "He chooses his angles carefully, moves around more than other photographers and avoids the clichè shot. When a player makes a special move, Manny's there." Of the 68 covers Millan has shot for this magazine, 32 have been of hoops. His first cover, a photo of then New York Net Julius Erving, appeared on our May 17, 1976 issue. "I loved photographing the Doctor," says Millan. "In almost every picture his knees are up in some guy's face." And his unforgettable cover shot of Arkansas's high-flying Hog, Sidney Moncrief (Feb. 13, 1978), sent SI picture-pickers orbiting out of their seats. ("I was afraid I had shot too early," says Millan.) The photo had repercussions beyond Moncrief's thundering dunk: It was so popular it was made into a poster that sold like pig feed in the sooey state. Just recently Millan had back-to-back covers: Magic Johnson (Feb. 23) and a powerful shot of North Carolina's J.R. Reid (March 2) body-blasting his way to the basket.
When it comes to creating a great photograph, Millan breaks down the shooting percentage this way: "Seventy percent is skill, 30 percent is luck." Our breakdown: SI is 100% lucky to have him.
These days Millan isn't shooting blanks.