For my final blog of the decade I'd like to turn my attention back to a few of the quirkier basketball moments and happenings from this last year that stick out in memory. To each event I have assigned a title that you will no doubt find cheesy and serving as further proof that there is a reason why I shoot photos and don't regularly write headlines.
ONE TOUGH "COOKIE" (Jan. 28, Lincoln, Neb.)
What happened: Kansas forward Mario Little (6'5", 210 lbs.) and Nebraska guard Cookie Miller (5'7", 165 lbs.) are separated by teammates and game officials after wrestling for a loose ball at the Devaney Center in Lincoln, Neb. Looking to excite the crowd, Miller boastfully gestures to the NU student section while being pulled away by teammate Paul Velander.
In 31 years, I'll be the first to admit that I've suffered plenty of delusions and haven't always had an iron-fisted grip on my emotions. However, I have been acutely aware of how short I am (Miller's exact height and weight) especially in moments when I felt my temper was gaining momentum. Based on obvious differences in size and Little's expression, this one could have gotten really ugly for Miller had both sides and referees not intervened. In a perfect world, Paul Velander would get a nice big fruit basket this holiday season from his former swollen-headed teammate (now with West Virginia State) for saving his behind and sparing him further humiliation.
MAN IN THE PLASTIC MASK
What happened: From the same game as the aforementioned skirmish, center Cole Aldrich suffers a broken nose. Aldrich reemerges in subsequent games wearing a protective face mask.
Sure it was little more than a few elastic straps and a piece of hard plastic, but it did kinda have a Hannibal Lecter quality to it.
WHAT CAN BROWN DO FOR YOU? (March 1, Allen Fieldhouse)
What happened: In the sequel to the 62-60 heartbreaking loss that Missouri handed to Kansas on Feb. 9 at Mizzou Arena, the Jayhawks returned the favor with a 90-65 blistering of the Tigers at Allen Fieldhouse. The payback was one that Jayhawk fans could feel warm and fuzzy about, but the gold star for the day went to the student section situated in the north end zone, which displayed a 14-foot wide, modified version of John Steuart Curry's "Tragic Prelude." The mural featured famed abolitionist John Brown, arms outstretched, with a Beecher Bible in one hand and the national championship trophy in the other.
I've always been impressed with the wit and sometimes the gall of some Missouri fans, especially the lengths they are willing to go to make their point. However, printing off 170-plus sheets of paper, assembling them into a fourteen-foot-wide banner and all the while relating it back to the historical roots of the rivalry takes some serious effort fueled by ... let's call it a deep-seeded distaste for the other bench.
DUNK YOU VERY MUCH (Nov. 10, Allen Fieldhouse)
What happened: Kansas forward Marcus Morris sends Pittsburg State guard Andy Smith to the floor with a tomahawk jam that should grace the pregame highlight reels for years to come.
The "dude you got served" award for the year goes to Andy Smith of Pitt State. As I was captioning my images after the game I paused for a moment when I came upon his name. It rang of familiarity and I couldn't decide whether I went to high school, college or neither with an Andy Smith. I did, however, decide that whichever Andy Smith I did or didn't know would have had more sense than to walk blindly into that dunk. Cheers to him, however, for taking the hit.
Happy Holidays to all.
Somewhere shortly before the first quarter ended Saturday, I found myself standing near the mouth of the players' tunnel flanked on both sides by clusters of MU fans and KU fans. Both sides heckled each other with words and gestures while a security guard in a bright yellow jacket repeatedly warned each to keep it clean.
Understanding the sometimes unwavering hatred displayed by either side for their border foes I went to document the exchange and quickly noticed the one-finger salute coming from one particular Mizzou loyalist and pointed back toward the KU side. As I pulled my camera up to document the exchange, that lone finger was staring me dead in the eyes along with the gentleman it was attached to.
What struck me as odd is that whenever cameras and media attention come into play, more often than not bad habits will cease and rather abruptly at that as not to be recorded or "caught in the act." However, this MU fan steadfastly hung the middle finger in my face as if allotting me enough time to finish the job just in case I didn't catch it the first time around.
Now, if my memory serves me correctly, I've covered, at the very least, one game in every Big 12 arena or stadium. Throughout my experience as a photojournalist tossed into the pit between the action and the fans, there haven't been too many expletives I haven't heard rifled over my shoulders at student athletes and within earshot of children no less. I've even seen a dead chicken land onto the court in recent years.
As far as MU fans go, sure they're probably up there among some of the more cantankerous but I've seen plenty of spiteful fans in the other gyms and stadiums too. This exchange, however, was a first for me and I can't really say I'm sore one bit.
So, as I brought the camera down from my face I was already laughing. What else are you gonna do when you're getting hit with a middle finger from a guy who looks to be 30 years your senior and in front of thousands.
My message to this fan? Got it. Thanks.
I think that every photographer who regularly covers a specific team has a favorite player. Maybe favorite is not exactly what I mean, but rather a go-to guy. One who best expresses the feel of the game by the personality that he brings to it. The face you turn to with a minute left and you need to make a quick, gut decision about whether or not to prepare to cover a win or a loss.
If you flip back through the years or even the last several photo galleries it's not difficult to figure out that Sherron Collins is my guy. I feel like I've seen him do just about everything short of leaping into the student section, and he continually grabs my attention game after game. If he's not pounding his chest or roaring in the face of the other team, he's keeping his teammates loose by joking around on the bench.
Collins and his seven-foot counterpart Cole Aldrich are continually coupled together in interviews, photographs and fan discussions as the two most responsible for the team's success.
In large part this is based on talent, experience and the pre-season All-American tag. However, if there was ever an emotional leader with the ability to inspire by swagger and attitude alone, it's Sherron, and as far as I can tell, he knows it.
A year ago an alley-oop to a big man may have warranted a chest bump. Lately, he's all but rolled out the red carpet, calling for the applause of the Fielhouse after "posterizing" dunks by teammates Marcus Morris, Xavier Henry and Thomas Robinson. http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2009/Nov/23/ku_bkc_cau_nk_06.jpg http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2009/Nov/23/three_dunks.jpg
I think it's a show of maturity and knowing that it's best to start building them up now rather than waiting for inspiration to fall late in the year when the shots might not be.
So come March, there will be only one face in the building I'll be looking at. As long as that face is smiling, screaming or even snarling at the guy bringing the ball up the court, I'll be preparing for cheers.
Baseball may be the national pastime but ripping the local sports scribe has nipped at its heels ever since the first crack of the bat. I have beef with these jokers too, but for more personal reasons other than lambasting athletes.
The sports season is long. I mean really long. What you have is basically the same four or five guys in what always seems to be a Chevy Impala rental car getting lost in towns like Ames, Iowa from the beginning of September to the end of March. I think it's fair to say that after seven or so months of eating at Denny's, being layed-over at DFW and listening to Keegan's hippy rock we start to grate each other's nerves.
Below, I've compiled dossiers for each of my fellow coworkers comprised of their name, occupation and most annoying trait that I've discovered to date. This is my official Annoying Coworker, Nails On Chalkboard list for the 2009-2010 sports season. They pretty much all center around eating or traveling because these are the times when we interact most.
Dugan Arnett, KU football beat writer: Shakes his head and stares at the menu in every restaurant we go to until the waiter or waitress hates us. After an extended period of contemplation coupled with awkward silence he will then order exactly what I ordered.
Jesse Newell, KUsports.com online editor: Does this thing where he clicks his thumbnails off his teeth while staring out the car window. This may not sound that bad to some of you, but it's a long drive to Norman and the Flint Hills aren't as cool as everybody says they are.
Gary Bedore, KU basketball beat writer: Is a perfect human being and I have nothing else to say about him.
Tom Keegan, sports editor, columnist: Is quick to point out and become agitated by the peculiarities of others, yet harbors some of the most annoying tendencies of all. The man hates vegetables and onions especially. Tom believes that onions lurk around the corners of his food and the only way to protect himself from their distastefulness is to grill the waitress about the onion content of every item ordered and then he stares at her above his glasses as if to catch her in a lie.
To keep myself from completely flying off the handle in moments like these I try to remember the good times and all the positive qualities that each guy brings forth. A particular instance involving the Henry brothers stands out.
Xavier and C.J. had arrived to KU and a cluster of media members had shown up wanting to catch them for interviews as they left the Fieldhouse following a workout. I was hoping to grab the brothers for a quick portrait after the the crowd had disbanded but I didn't have a clean place with any atmosphere to shoot them because of the construction in and around the Fieldhouse. Knowing this, I decided to set up in Hadl Auditorium and with the clock running started setting up stands, adjusting lights and plugging in chords.
Being the good sport that he is, Tom noticed my frantic behavior and came over to model the light as he and the guys often do. As I fired test shots and made adjustments, Tom showcased his talent for basketball spinning and brought enough buffoonery to the situation to kill any anxiety I may have incurred.
When the Henry brothers agreed to do the portrait I showed them this test photo of Tom thinking it might lighten the mood and give them an idea of what I had in mind. They very politely looked at me like I was completely crazy.
I'd like to think that if Johnathan Wilson knew exactly how difficult it is to get a crisp and tight photo of a receiver with the ball inches from his fingertips he probably would have held on to that second-quarter long ball from Reesing. I'm sure there are those who can show me portfolios of guys like Terrell Owens, Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald with arms outstretched, pulling in touchdown passes to the dismay of some shamed defensive back. To you, my hat is off, and inside that hat you'll find a steaming pile of bitterness.
For me, getting the catch before the run has always been football's biggest challenge. Running backs and quarterbacks, although shifty, can't stand up to the elusiveness of a really fast receiver that can jump through the roof. At the start of every season, I set out to improve in this particular area, and at the end, I always feel like a kid banging his head against one of those mechanical claw games.
Now I shouldn't say that I never get the reception photo because sometimes I do. However, there's usually something about it such as its shot from behind or the inability to see the receiver's eyes that keeps me from running home to pin it on the fridge. Like this Briscoe catch from the same game, for example.
So when the ball dropped and the Memorial Stadium crowd let out a collective groan, I chimed in under my breath knowing that a photo I thought would break a seemingly endless drought of misses was headed straight for an already overflowing bucket titled, "Almosts."
A photographer friend of mine once told me of this theory he had that adding the element of fire could instantly make any boring photograph 10 times more interesting. I'm not saying he was walking around tossing lit books of matches into dry grass and then pulling up his camera. He was, however, simply making an observation on how enamored we are with fire and how it grabs our attention whether by its beauty or by the triggered responses of danger and alarm we feel when we see it.
Sure I'm impressed by fire-eaters and fire jugglers as much as the next guy, but I'm by no means a fanatic. I will say now, after spending a couple days in El Paso, that I am a fan of the mountains and specifically football stadiums that are built up against them. What a cool idea.
Last Saturday's game at the Sun Bowl wasn't unexciting because it simply wasn't. From a fan's perspective, there existed plenty to be impressed with, such as Meier's bomb to Briscoe, Daymond Patterson's interception tip to Justin Thornton and Maxwell Onyegbule's and the D-line's overall performance. From a photographer's standpoint, however, it's not like Jake Sharp was diving Superman-style over the pile for his touchdowns. He didn't need to. Despite the ease at which the Jayhawks eventually began to score, pulling an interesting photo out of a one-yard touchdown run can sometimes be difficult.
During those times when things just aren't going my way and I'm faced with a difficult decision, I refer back to a fail-safe question I always ask myself: "What would Sports Illustrated do?" There, right in front of me, was the answer. The ultimate symbol of strength. A mountain cradling a football stadium in its bosom. So that's the course of action I decided to take. Hang back. Stop shooting so tight and take in some of the scenery. http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2009/Sep/18/mountains.jpg Had this photo been shot by an SI photographer, I'm for certain that he or she would have made a photograph that would have incorporated this natural wonder into the background, captured a moment of peak action with Todd Reesing hurdling No. 93 at the goal line in a glorious fashion that completely encapsulated the essence of sport. Oh wait, and the little person in the red jacket on the side of the mountain, if you go straight up from Reesing's head, that person would be signaling touchdown. http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2009/Sep/18/guy_on_hill.jpg Unfortunately for myself there won't be a mountain range outside every away venue I travel to. However, if you flip on your TV and suddenly the cameras turn to a pylon that's engulfed in flames, you'll know what I'm up to.
A "sportrait" as you can probably guess is a fun little nickname the photo world has given to certain portraits of athletes. Not all portraits of athletes are "sportraits" and not all "sportraits" are of athletes because some of them involve NASCAR drivers. Kidding.......kinda. The term most properly identifies a style of portraiture that you commonly find with athletes. When I say this I'm talking about dramatically-lit scenes reminiscent of the bright lights of the field or arena. Then there's the player, holding his or her respective ball, bat or device and leering down into the camera with the intensity that only a true competitor can muster. If words don't suffice just imagine what Rambo might look like clutching a football to his side rather than a machine gun.
Usually when these photo sessions occur I've spent about two hours preparing the lights for a shoot that can last all of a minute and a half. Needless to say there's not a whole lotta "How you like the food at Mrs. E's?" going on. It's pretty much "Hello." "How are ya?" "I'm so and so and I'm here to do such and such." The strobes pop a couple of times. We shake hands. They're out the door and I start untangling wires and turning off lights. To their credit, a few minutes isn't enough time to really get to know a person to the point that you one, trust them enough to let down your guard, and two, feel comfortable enough with them shooting your portrait for tens of thousands of people to see.
All this considered, imagine my surprise when Elijah Johnson and Thomas Robinson stroll inside the Horejsi Center with smiles on their faces, poking fun at each and most importantly, relaxed. Bedore was doing a feature story on the two of them being newbies, roommates and good friends. We started out with the all too familiar and predictable back to back pose and it just didn't have a feel like it was going anywhere. Now in the past I've suggested a less serious approach and it's fallen flat because I hadn't built up enough of a rapport or because the player didn't want to be seen any way other than dominant. With these two, once I told them about the story, they started with headlocks and transitioned to noogies with ease.
What stood out to me is that unlike most of these situations the two walked in with smiles and became animated and active participants. I know that the traditional image of confidence is standing tall, chin raised with a tight jaw, but the more I work around athletes the more I believe it's best expressed by the ability to simply let loose.