The year was a pretty big one for sports photography because it is the year in which we released Jayhawk Decade. By compiling my own work with the work of current staffers Mike Yoder, Richard Gwin, and former staffers Thad Allender, Scott McClurg and John Henry, along with commentary from sports editor Tom Keegan, we released the 144-page coffee table book, which showcases our best KU basketball images from the Bill Self era, on the day of Late Night. Here's a link to another blog I did about the images from the spreads of the last home stand against Missouri in Allen Fieldhouse.
First things first, football. If you're a KU football fan and are just tuning in for the first time this year and you haven't caught a lick of Matt Tait's coverage, just look at this first image of Charlie Weis being doused in the glory of Gatorade and know that the Jayhawks won all their games and crushed former conference foe Missouri 200-0 for the school's first-ever BCS national title.
Move along now. Nothing more to see here.
For the rest of you who have followed along all season I won't rub your noses in the past, but I will say that a team that shows little to no ability to complete a pass is not any more fun to cover than it is to watch. The team showed improvement compared to the season before and it was fun to see them finally snap their conference loss streak of 27 games by beating West Virginia.
On just about every team I cover, high school or college, I can quickly identify my go-to guys or girls that can't help but wear the emotion of the moment. On this year's team, I looked no further than big #98, Keon Stowers, who had me at hello.
From the moment he yanked off his helmet after catching an interception against South Dakota (the first game), I knew he was my man.
Most sports photographers would agree that baseball is the most challenging to shoot. I second this idea for the simple reason that it's difficult to get into a rhythm when so little can happen for so long and then CRACK, a guy hits a walk-off home run while you've been lulled to sleep.
Covering baseball this year, however, proved to me the importance of staying awake long enough for the unpredictable moments like a squirrel running across the field during a KU/Wichita State baseball game at Hoglund Ballpark.
I'm not usually crazy about static images of athletes staring off into space unless they have blood or dirt on their faces, however, there always seemed to be something striking about Dixon's gaze in this image and thus, I'm including it.
The KU basketball team said goodbye to several seniors in Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Jeff Withey but also one-and-done freshman, Ben McLemore.
I've always liked the image of McLemore leaving a press conference with family members after his announcement that he would enter the draft. I've shot this sort of deal more than once. It always feels like you're watching a young man realize that this is the moment when he not only commits to real-world responsibility but also bids farewell to youth. In McLemore's case, and Xavier Henry's too, I walked away with the impression that this reality had not fully set in until they were sitting behind microphones at a table and all the lights, cameras and attention were on them.
From everything I've read, Ben McLemore has turned quite a bit of heads with his play during his rookie campaign. Likewise, the Jayhawks bounced right back by signing another likely one-and-done in Andrew Wiggins, who helped pull the Jayhawks past the Duke Blue Devils with an big, early-season win in Chicago.
One of the weirdest environments (but cool, not complaining) I've ever shot a game was Imperial Arena in Paradise Island, Bahamas during the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. It's basically a big ballroom (think of your senior prom) converted into a basketball venue. The ceiling looks to be only about 20-feet high and when the action stops, red, blue and green spot lights start swooping around the players creating this dance-party-like atmosphere.
Now, if I'm going to anoint Keon Stowers as my photo-friendly poster child for football, the award on the basketball side goes to……………drumroll……….Frank Mason. Big things are expected from Wiggins and other freshmen Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden, but of all the newcomers, I like Mason's intensity, hustle and a playing style that strikingly resembles former point guard Sherron Collins, who may be my all-time favorite, if I've never mentioned that before.
Cheers to all and to all have a wonderful 2014!
Recently a KUSports.com reader inquired about what it's like when a photographer is run over by a player diving out of bounds. I think getting smashed by anything is typically a bummer, but in this case the only answers I can give is that it sometimes hurts, it's usually expensive and it's often a little awkward with all that sweat involved.
Pictured in the accompanying photo, which came from the first half of the Big 12 tournament championship game, is Texas forward Gary Johnson, out of control and barreling out of bounds. Sitting at left is Jeff Jacobsen, the Kansas Athletics photographer, who if I had to describe his look, I would say appears both vigilant and at the same time a bit skeptical of the situation. As for me, the one with his hand up and tongue sticking out, I don't know what I had hoped to achieve, but I will say that neither did any good to stop Johnson's momentum. On the UT Athletics website Johnson is listed at 6 foot 6, 238 pounds. KUSports.com has me in at 5-7, 160 pounds.
Jeff, who has been shooting sports for over 40 years had the veteran's presence of mind to grab his gear and move with the hit while absorbing it. I on the other hand barely lifted a finger other than the "halt" motion and ended up on my back. I guess I should be thankful I was sent to the floor by hands and arms rather than a shoulder.
Rarely is anyone seriously injured in these situations and it's more often the equipment that ends up on the disabled list. If I were writing this column 20 or 30 years ago we'd be talking about all the bruised and bleeding players limping away from the hard, metal-framed Nikons and Canons with edges sharp enough to knock over a liquor store with. Now it seems like anytime you look at your gear the wrong way it's a $500 repair.
Last week in Tulsa chief photographer Mike Yoder and I had two cameras go down. One gave us an onboard error message during the Boston game and the other was heard screaming for help shortly before being landed upon by Thomas Robinson during the Illinois game.
No matter if the hits are taken physically or in the pocket book, you still have to keep shooting. The experience brings to mind a recent conversation with a friend whose wife is in the later stages of pregnancy with their first child. When I asked how everything was going he replied, "I'm learning how to take a charge."
Before kickoff last Saturday, fellow staffer Kevin Anderson and I strategized about how we would cover the game and among other things, how we might cover the team's entrance onto the field.
We agreed that because it was the first game under a new coach, Turner Gill would likely lead his players out as a symbol of unity and a subtle statement that a new era had begun.
What I envisioned happening was possibly a chesty walk, or maybe a tightly formed mass, shoulder-to-shoulder in rows, jogging behind their inspirational leader.
In case you weren't there, none of the above took place. Instead, a big inflatable tunnel went up and soon after Gill and the team congregated inside and took the field but not before a "stage director" held them back. When the cue finally came, Johnathan Wilson led the charge through the haze created by the smoke machines carrying the Jayhawk flag.
Admittedly, it looked kinda cool from a visual standpoint but — whatever it was — it wasn't Turner Gill or at least not the Turner GIll that everyone has been talking about. I don't believe for a second that he had anything to do with the pregame theatrics.
Coaches choose inspirational quotes from historical figures and bring symbolic items like sledge hammers into the locker room to motivate their players. They don't go to party supply stores looking to rent smoke machines.
In a mopey week after a loss like Saturday's, plenty have speculated about what the sudden retirement by athletic director Lew Perkins might mean for a guy like Gill. One way of viewing it is that it's bad news when your meal ticket checks out before you get your feet planted in the new office.
Another way of looking at it is that it's the best thing that's ever happened to him (short of landing the job).
Anyone who could once tell him to jump, sit or stand just left the building or got declawed by the Chancellor, who I'm guessing has bigger issues to worry about than the nice-guy football coach and his rough start.
In that regard, things couldn't be cushier. He is beholden to nobody and now has carte blanche to run his team the way he sees fit: Not barreling through smoke, but unified and with substance, which has been the gist of his credo since he came to town.
Shooting basketball is easy. More correctly, it's pretty easy when compared to photographing a heartbroken student-athlete with his face buried in a towel, still crying 20 minutes after a loss to a less-established opponent.
In cases like Saturday's 69-67 defeat to Northern Iowa, the only photos that dutifully speak to the gravity of the loss are one's of utter dejection. It's only on the rarest of occasions that these are not the final photographs I or other photographers make of some of the most storied basketball programs at the end of their tournament runs. The only real exception, when you consider a team with high expectations like Kansas, are those that come after an NCAA championship win.
Shortly after the buzzer had sounded, coworker Mike Yoder and I made some photos of players looking despondent on the bench, walking slowly from the court and helping each other off the floor.
We then made our way back to the media work area to send a few photos before heading toward the Jayhawks' locker room. When we arrived a large cluster of media members had already gathered outside, waiting to be let in to interview the dethroned number one overall seed. NCAA policy after tournament games allows for a "cooling off" period; 10 minutes for the winning team and 15 for the losing team before media members are allowed into the locker room for interviews.
I've never heard of or met a photographer who lives for these bummed-out locker room situations because frankly, they can be pretty awkward. You're literally in there, photographing these players at their lowest point and the idea is to respectfully document and communicate a representation of the sadness shared by the players, staff and thousands of fans. However, I'm not sure the compassion behind these photographs is immediately apparent to the players when we're in there.
What typically happens is that most of the television cameras will huddle around the high profile players. It's not to single any particular player out or to rest the blame squarely on anyone's shoulders but rather to get a word from the team's leaders. In this case it was Sherron Collins and eventually Cole Aldrich after he returned from the press conference. Around the outskirts of all the attention is the rest of the team and this is where most still photographers try to work. Slowly but efficiently, and without a hint of eagerness is usually the best approach, I've found.
Plenty of hours can be spent fretting over shutter speeds, apertures, lenses, remote cameras or any other devices employed to capture athletes, but it's always the photographs of the athletes who are motionless, sitting along by a locker that are the most difficult to take.
Few things look more foreign to me than basketball clips from the '50s and '60s, and my reaction to them isn't so different than most young people's reaction to viewing classic films. Rather than appreciating it for what it is and how it's shaped what we've come to know and love we can't get past the fact that it's shot in black and white and that much of the acting is way over the top. Watch if you will, the clip below which is about 26 seconds of the first game at Allen Fieldhouse. The date is March 1, 1955, and the opponent is Kansas State.
To me, "40 Minutes of Hell" back then, looked more like 40 minutes of.....well.....kinda just being in the way. Also, it appeared as though Tyrel Reed drew more fouls from his own teammates Wednesday night than these guys did in a season.
Rest assured I'm not calling any of the players soft as I'm one of the nearly 130,000 viewers to have seen another YouTube gem showcasing footage of the '61 KU and MU brawl on the court. My guess is the haymaker you see at about the 25-second mark in the upper left corner would hurt just as much today as it did back then. This one's worth a few plays.
Such pieces do make me wonder, however, if a speedy guard like Reed or a wrecking ball like Sherron Collins might just blow the short shorts off a back-pedeling defender of the '50s. To put an end to my constant state of fear that columnist Bill Mayer would read this blog, march down stairs and slap me over the back of the head for insulting the legends, I instead asked his opinion, along with that of sports editor Tom Keegan. We talked about the game's evolution into hyperdrive and hyperphysical.
Beyond the advent of the dunk, which obviously revolutionized the game, Bill, who witnessed firsthand the feats of Wilt Chamberlain, Clyde Lovellette and JoJo White, explained that implementing year-round conditioning has played a great role in producing stronger and faster athletes. He did, however, stop me short of my next question to emphasize that these three greats, as well as plenty of others, could more than hang in today's game. Tom opined, with a smile, that the play and players have gotten faster but the refs have not, which can partially explain a more physical and loosely-called game.
Whatever the case, maybe I'm glad it's where it's at now because the physical game can be pretty interesting photographically. I'd rather be shooting game action where an occasional elbow sneaks by and one that isn't so ridiculously polite.