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How They Shot “The Last Shot”

Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

Everybody inside Utah’s Delta Center—and doubtless millions outside of it, as the contest remains the most-watched NBA game of all time—stood as Michael Jordan dribbled past half-court. 

On June 14, 1998, with the Bulls trailing by one point and a championship on the line, the roars of the Jazz faithful quieted to an apprehensive, muffled din. Would Utah double-team Jordan like they did the previous year, when he passed to Steve Kerr for an open jumper to clinch the title? Or would Jordan, who rumor had it was about to retire, take the final shot? 

As the clock ticked down to single digits, two photographers prepared to take the picture of a lifetime. Fernando Medina and Andrew Bernstein both worked for NBA Photos. On one end of the court sat Medina, playing the part of “human drone.” His job was to manually focus his Nikon camera and to frame the action unfolding in front of him with his viewfinder. On the opposite end sat Bernstein; his duty was to trigger the button that would remotely snap the image Medina had composed. They were synchronized by a revolutionary wireless system designed by engineers from the University of Vermont. 

What they produced was a Stockton-to-Malone-like masterpiece of teamwork that documents Jordan’s denouement as a Bull set against a hypnotic backdrop of heartbroken agonists. Our eyes drift from Jordan and the suspended ball to the wall of spectators, their faces frozen as they react to history in real time.  (A higher-resolution version of the photo can be seen below, or here.)

The picture “was a miracle, and it wasn’t a miracle,” Bernstein says. “Luck benefits the most prepared, and we were prepared.”

This photo could not be reproduced. Today, every professional photographer uses digital cameras and rarely shoots with film. NBA Photos no longer employs human drones. The people in the stands would be holding up their cellphones, and the NBA would try to sell the image as an NFT.

This was The Last Shot in practically every way.

NBA Photos developed from the fertile, febrile imagination of David Stern. Prior to Stern’s 1984 ascension to commissioner, the NBA’s photo archive only took up a couple of drawers at league headquarters in New York City. The NBA relied on freelancers to supply pictures for Hoop magazine (which also served as the game program), and the teams hired their own local shooters. If magazine or book publishers needed basketball photos, they acquired them from Sports Illustrated’s archive, shot by the likes of Walter Iooss Jr., John McDonough, and Manny Millan, or else from wire services like the Associated Press.

“Nobody [at the NBA] had invested a cent in photography,” remembers Terry Lyons, the NBA’s longtime PR chief. “David Stern recognized that it was very important to document the visual history of the league and to have a supply of top-quality photographs that captured the essence of the NBA for corporate presentations, league meetings and speeches, and marketing campaigns for sponsors and media partners.”

In 1986, after Stern greenlit the launch of NBA Photos, Lyons turned to two young photographers. Nathaniel Butler was born and raised on Long Island and grew up listening to Marv Albert’s radio broadcasts of Knicks games. He attended St. John’s University during the Chris Mullin–Mark Jackson–Walter Berry era and, not being good enough to make the team, started shooting black-and-white pictures for the school paper. He interned at Sports Illustrated and learned the craft while lugging cameras and lights for Iooss, Millan, and others inside Madison Square Garden.

Lyons entrusted Butler with photography duties on the East Coast. Butler alternated between covering the Knicks at MSG and the Nets at the Meadowlands, while shooting the visiting teams that played them. “Nat was our tentpole in New York,” Lyons says.  

Los Angeles–based Andrew Bernstein covered the West Coast, where he shot the Lakers at the Forum, the Clippers at the Sports Arena, and all the visitors. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Bernstein moved to California not long after visiting his sister, actress Didi Conn, while she was filming the role of Frenchy in Grease. He earned his BFA from Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design in 1981, and was mentored by several legendary photographers, including Iooss, Bill Robbins, Jim Caccavo, and Neil Leifer.

Bernstein shot his first NBA game in 1979–80, better known as Magic Johnson’s rookie year. That marked the start of a propitious decade of growth for the NBA, fed by the cross-country rivalry between Johnson’s Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics, and an influx of young stars (Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, et al.). Stern turbocharged revenue streams with corporate partners eager to leverage the league’s rising popularity, negotiating lucrative TV contracts for cable, network, and satellite coverage. The NBA added seven new franchises beginning in 1988, and helped spread the game internationally via the Dream Team and exhibition games outside the U.S.

“The league was growing like crazy in the early 1990s because of Michael Jordan,” says Scott Cunningham, the Atlanta Hawks’ longtime team photographer. “I mean, he created magazines in Europe and Asia.”

“There was a big need for original pictures to coincide with the push of things internationally starting in the mid- to late-‘80s,” Butler concurs. “It was like, ‘Oh, there’s a new magazine in France and one in Australia.’”   

Bernstein, Butler, and their NBA Photos colleagues occupied a singular niche. They weren’t journalists per se, although they churned out editorial fare from the games. Their main charge was to supply a pipeline of original content whose intellectual property was owned and licensed by the NBA (jokingly referred to as “Nothing But Attorneys” by those who had to do business with it): from action to portraits, from publicity to behind-the-scenes machinations at the annual draft. 

“Andy and Nat were shooting 24-7, and the playoffs, the All-Star Game, and the Slam Dunk Contest became a goldmine,” Lyons says. “NBA Photos grew so fast that it was far and above anything we could run out of the PR department. So, it was shifted to NBA Entertainment. That’s where it belonged.”

The imagery they created, reproduced on posters, in print publications, and on various marketing and commercial platforms, fulfilled Stern’s vision and turned the NBA and its players into recognizable global brands. 

The association’s golden goose, the gift who never stopped giving after grabbing the baton from Johnson and Bird, was Jordan, he of the tongue-waggling acrobatics, the must-have Nike sneakers, and the iconic shaved head. He arrived in the NBA after leading the U.S. to the gold medal at the 1984 L.A. Olympics. By the time he served as the face of the Dream Team in Barcelona, he was very possibly the most famous person on the planet.

Bernstein’s “Come Fly With Me” photograph of a soaring Jordan, taken with a remote camera mounted behind the backboard, epitomized Jordan’s and the NBA’s ascendency. 

In the pre-digital era, shooting basketball presented several challenges. The most pressing issue was the lack of available light in darkened arenas with dark wooden floors. Butler recalls having to deal with “cigarette and cigar smoke in the old Boston Garden.”

The best solution was to use strobe lights, hung high in each corner of the arena, where the flash wouldn’t distract the players. But in those prehistoric times, no arena bothered to install permanent strobes. Photographers had to arrive hours before tip-off so they (or their assistants) could lug the strobe units up to the rafters and secure them.

This was no easy feat. At Atlanta’s now-demolished Omni Coliseum, they could only access the catwalk via the roof. “You had to go outside and climb up about a 30-foot ladder to get to a hatch on the roof,” Cunningham remembers. “If it was raining or storming, you’re getting soaked. You felt like you were dodging lightning up there.”

Working with strobes requires a very disciplined form of shooting. The strobe sets (typically comprising four 2400-watt/second packs) need time to re-cycle after they’ve been fired, which means that a photographer can only shoot one picture roughly every four seconds. Shoot too early, and you risked blowing a fuse or even blowing a circuit panel in the arena. Too late, and you missed your shot. 

“We can’t lean on a motor drive when we’re shooting with strobes,” Bernstein says. “If Michael Jordan goes in for a dunk, we can’t shoot 10 frames in a second and pick out one, like most news photographers do. We get one shot.”

Connecting the camera to the strobe unit was yet another trial. Sports Illustrated had pioneered a breakthrough called the “black box,” which resembled a shoebox and allowed photographers to connect their cameras to the strobes. But this system was hardwired: It required “miles of cable” to operate the system, according to Bernstein. “It took hours to set up and was a logistical nightmare.”

A solution emerged from an unexpected source. Jim Clark was an engineering student at the University of Vermont. For his senior project, he devised a wireless transmitter for a sonar-ranging system that involved the use of a radio trigger. When a friend of Clark’s who worked for a studio photographer mentioned that a shoot had been ruined after a passing car snagged the cables attaching the cameras to the strobes, Clark decided to modify his endeavor. 

Seed money followed so that Clark could convert his makeshift model into a working prototype. Dubbed the FlashWizard, it allowed photographers to fire multiple cameras synchronized to one strobe burst. Through the use of its microprocessor, it eliminated the “miles of cable” required by the black box.

Photo courtesy of Jim Clark.

Clark and two fellow engineers formed LPA Design in Burlington and approached NBA Photos, which was now run by Carmin Romanelli, a veteran photo director who had started his career at Sports Illustrated and then worked under Neil Leifer at The National.

Thus began a painstaking collaboration to perfect the technology. The earliest iteration of the FlashWizard was promising, but imperfect. Studio work often takes place in a bubble-like atmosphere in which the photographers can control factors like noise and temperature. If a camera’s battery runs low, they can replace it. If they need to measure the time delay for the shutter of each camera to open, they can figure out the math on a spreadsheet.

That environment is far removed from what sports photographers encounter, shooting on deadline in vast arenas filled with 18,000 sweating spectators. “These guys were not going to be able to pull out a calculator and re-calculate the timing of each remote camera under pressure,” Clark says. “It just wasn't going to happen.”

“It was frustrating because the FlashWizard would work, but only for short periods,” Bernstein remembers. “It would start out great when the cameras had fresh batteries, but when the batteries got weaker the cameras started slowing down.”

“Sometimes you’d get nothing out of a particular camera,” Romanelli says. “It was a learning process. We were like their R&D.” 

“We did testing ad nauseam to get things going,” Butler says. “If something didn’t work, we’d go, ‘Jim, what’s going on?’ He’d go in the back and do some fiddling.” 

Romanelli flew Clark to NBA games so that he could observe Bernstein, Butler, and the other photographers in situ. By late 1995, Clark and his LPA team produced the FlashWizard2, which resembled a slender walkie-talkie complete with antenna, and “automated the calibration process in real time on every shot,” he says. 

When the kinks were worked out and the wireless system fully operable, the result was nothing short of a revelation. NBA Photos could cover the entire arena with remote cameras, as many as 32 simultaneously, all synchronized to fire on a single strobe burst. They could mount remotes in every nook of the arena—behind the backboard, in the rafters, at mid-court, on railings, from ground level—enabling them to photograph, say, a Michael Jordan dunk from dozens of perspectives. 

One snap equaled multiple pictures, each color slide unique, that could be licensed for magazine covers, posters produced by the Costacos brothers, images for the competing trading-card companies, ad campaigns, you name it. And these images were in demand.

“I’d tell a magazine editor, ‘Hey, Andy got a great shot, we’re using it for the cover of Hoop, but two weeks from now you can have the original,’” Lyons recalls. “Stuff was FedExing its way around the country. If anybody held onto a slide for more than a day or two, we were on their case.”

Another wrinkle was the use of “human drone” photographers to supplement NBA Photos’ coverage of high-profile events like the Finals and the dunk contest. In effect, drones were human remotes. They did everything but shoot the picture. They followed the action with practiced eyes and composed the image while manually focusing their handhelds (in the days before autofocus). Their cameras were synced with those of the “master” photographer: When, say, Bernstein pushed a trigger button that was mounted on his camera, he also fired the drones’ cameras.

Working this way required a different mindset for the drones. “It was much harder than shooting the game yourself because no matter what was going on you had to have it framed up all the time,” remembers Cunningham, a Roanoke, Virginia, native who studied photography at the Art Institute of Atlanta before joining the Hawks. “You had to concentrate to keep the camera in focus because you never knew when the flash was coming. You didn’t have any control over when the photograph was taken.”

“When you are a drone, you have no idea when the camera is going to be triggered,” Medina says. “Your angle of the moment is not the same as the person triggering, so the ideal shot for you may be before or after the camera fires, which is extremely frustrating. Or, the camera doesn’t fire at all because the person triggering is blocked from the action you are seeing, or your [FlashWizard] unit didn’t get the signal.”

Medina was used to adapting to unusual situations. Born in Cuba, he and his family fled Fidel Castro’s Communist regime in 1962, when Fernando was three years old. (His mother was pregnant with his little brother, who was born on July 4 in Florida.) After his father re-joined the family, they settled in Miami.

At Brevard College in North Carolina, Medina took Photography 101, the only formal photo instruction he ever received. For class, he shot the campus scene and some sports. He once went to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in nearby Greenville, South Carolina, to shoot a live event. The band’s plane crashed later that evening, killing several.  

For the Orlando Magic’s inaugural 1989 season, Medina was contracted to be one of the team’s freelance photographers. After Shaquille O’Neal was drafted, the Magic hired Barry Gossage, who had trained under Bernstein, to take over those chores, with Medina assisting and shooting games. In 1996, Gossage left for a similar position with the Phoenix Suns, and Medina took over the gig, with help from Gary Bassing. 

Medina learned from some of the best in the business—he cited, among others, Bernstein, Butler, Cunningham, Iooss, Millan, Victor Baldizon, and Bob Rosato—while singling out Gossage. “Barry is by far my most important mentor,” Medina says. “He taught me most all I know about shooting portraits, especially how to light subjects. Without that knowledge, I would have never been a successful sports photographer.”

Medina was about to become the most famous drone in sports history. But he wouldn’t, couldn’t do it alone.

“There’s some anxiety in the people who are drones because they have to re-train their brains,” Clark explains. “They’re used to being the one to push the button. Now they’ve got this moment of faith: ‘Is he gonna push the button at the time I would push it?’”

In 1997, as Jordan and the Bulls were driving for a championship, the NBA Photos team missed a game-winning shot in the playoffs (everyone involved is a little fuzzy on the details of who and when). Or, rather, they didn't miss it, but the picture lacked context—like, famously, the scoreboard that tells the story in Arthur Rickerby’s classic horizontal photo of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. 

“We failed miserably,” Romanelli says. “You gotta understand the moment.”

“We got burned,” Bernstein agrees. “We just didn’t think it through.” 

Redemption came in 1998, when Utah and Chicago met again in the Finals. The Jazz held home-court advantage in the 2-3-2 format and took Game 1 at home. The Bulls won the next three, including a 96-54 thrashing in Game 3. (In a sign of the defensive times, 96 points was the highest total for either team in any Finals game.)

Chicago hoped to clinch at home in Game 5, but Jordan missed a potential game-winning three at the buzzer. The teams headed to Salt Lake City for Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7. 

NBA Photos descended on the Delta Center, spearheaded by Bernstein and Butler, with Medina and Cunningham joining them as human drones. Bernstein’s L.A.–based assistant, Garrett Ellwood, managed the setup of the FlashWizards inside the arena and ensured that the system functioned. Romanelli and his key assistant, Joe Amati, arranged for a local lab to remain open all night to develop the dozens upon dozens of rolls of film that would be shot.

This time, if the game came down to a single play, Romanelli’s instructions were clear. “I told Fernando, ‘You gotta follow the play and you gotta be wide. We need to see the entire scene.’”  

“Carmin said, if it’s a last-second shot, the protocol is to go wide horizontal, sideline to sideline, showing the 24-second shot [clock],” remembers Bernstein.

“He told us including the clock was very important and that it should be a loosely framed shot,” Medina says. “No reason to shoot tight and miss capturing the entire situation and game atmosphere.”

Utah led 49-45 at halftime and 66-61 after three quarters. With under a minute left in the game, John Stockton swished a three-pointer to give the Jazz an 86-83 advantage that buoyed the noisy home crowd. 

Jordan answered with a devastating sequence. Coming out of a timeout, he hit a slashing lay-up to cut the deficit to 86-85, taking just four seconds off the clock. Stockton dribbled the ball up the floor as the Bulls set up their defense. Jeff Hornacek, guarded by Jordan, set a screen on Dennis Rodman to free Malone in the low post. Stockton passed to Malone, who didn’t notice that Jordan hadn’t followed Hornacek through the paint. Jordan snuck up behind Malone, swatted the ball loose with his right hand, and took possession with 19.8 seconds left.

Jordan dribbled into the frontcourt and eyed the defense from the left side of the floor, beyond the three-point line, guarded by Bryon Russell. Unlike the previous year, the Jazz elected not to double-team Jordan with Stockton, who stayed with Kerr.

As the final moments unfolded, the NBA Photos team was in position, their cameras loaded with Fujichrome 100 ISO slide film. Bernstein was stationed just off the baseline, on the sideline across from the Jazz bench, aiming his Nikon camera at Jordan in the near court. 

The FlashWizard system synced Bernstein’s camera with three drones:

    • The first, Medina, sat on the floor, his legs crossed, along the baseline at the far end of the court. He was almost directly behind Jordan and held a Nikon 80-200 f2.8 zoom lens attached to his Nikon F4 camera. 
    • The second, Ellwood, was positioned on the other side of the basket stanchion from Medina, near the Chicago bench. He was using a digital camera and preparing to run onto the court after the game.
    • The third, Cunningham occupied an elevated position, next to the TV cameras at midcourt, and thus was able to cover both sides of the floor. 

Butler was not synced with anyone; he was underneath the basket “in a primo spot,” slightly to the right of the hoop, facing Jordan with his Hasselblad camera.

They watched as Jordan made his move, driving hard toward the middle of the court. Near the top of the key, he abruptly planted his right foot and crossed the ball over. Russell stumbled, and Jordan rose to shoot.

Suddenly, Bernstein’s view of Jordan was blocked by a player, probably Toni Kukoc. He didn’t know what he was shooting, only that he had to shoot. “I didn’t see Michael in that millisecond after he made the fake and goes up,” Bernstein recalls. “All I saw was the bottom of his sneakers. But I knew that I had to fire it for Fernando and Scott.” 

As Jordan released the shot, strobe lights flashed in the rafters.

After the postgame celebration, Bernstein followed the Bulls onto their team bus. He spotted Medina at the hotel where the team was staying and together they crashed the afterparty. The highlight came when Jordan entered the suite, still in his champagne-soaked championship shirt and game shorts, and started banging the keys on a baby grand piano while smoking an enormous cigar and singing the words to the “I Wanna Be Like Mike” Gatorade jingle.

“It was the most surreal moment of my life,” Medina says. “I’m sitting on the carpet at the end of the piano bench, Andy is on the other side, and we’re tossing film rolls to each other when one of us ran out. Time kind of stood still for me.” 

Still, in that pre-digital era, no one could be certain about what they’d shot until the film was developed. When Medina and Bernstein went to the lab to see what they’d gotten, Medina recalls, some joker told him they “didn’t get the shot.”

He had to see for himself. Medina walked over to the table where the film of each photographer was lined up in separate bags and pulled out the slides from the camera he’d used at the end of the game. “I took out the first slide, and it was black since it was the last on the roll. Then I pulled out the next one, held it to the light, saw it was a technically good photo, turned to one of the NBA Photos guys and said, ‘Don’t you ever mess with me again!’

“I really had no idea how good the shot was since I had seen it for a second, maybe, but I was just happy that it looked like a usable shot.”

Bernstein’s view had indeed been blocked by a player, and he produced “a big blob.” Ellwood’s digital camera “did not fire,” probably because it didn’t get the signal from the FlashWizard.

Cunningham crafted a fine overhead shot, one that included all 10 players on the court as well as Utah coach Jerry Sloan standing in front of his bench. “I’m proud of my shot, but the first time I saw Fernando’s shot, I was like, ‘don’t even show mine,’” Cunningham says. “I would’ve retired if I had gotten Fernando’s shot. I would’ve just gone away.”

Butler got an excellent picture of Jordan in the air shooting, despite having to wait for Antoine Carr to clear out. “My picture of that shot has rarely been seen,” Butler says. “[Photographer] John Biever was sitting to my right, and he had a beautiful picture with the shot clock at the other end.” (Sports Illustrated used Biever’s tightly cropped photo for its cover.)

“It’s a great photo,” Butler says, "until you see Fernando’s.”

Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

While Jordan commands every eyeball in the arena, the range of human emotions depicted in Medina’s tableau draws our attention away from him, abetted by the fact that, at the Delta Center, “the fans were packed together close to the court and the stands had a very steep incline,” Bernstein says. “I don’t think that Fernando’s picture would’ve been as effective in any other arena.”

Zoom in on the operatic couple under the basket screaming at Jordan to miss. They stand next to a man in an absurd “It Ain’t Over Till The Fat Lady Sings” T-shirt. Look, really look, at the silent torment of those clasping their hands together in prayer or resignation or horror. One poor soul—black shirt, far left, about a dozen rows back—is covering his ears!

What about the stately gentleman in the dark blazer standing about three rows up from Stockton’s head? He’s staring disapprovingly at the guy in front of him. Imagine missing this because some bozo is waving white balloons and blocking the court.

While the crowd is overwhelmingly Jazz-ed, Chicago fans are sprinkled in the mix. Check out the youngster three rows up from the top of the time-clock, wearing a white cap with the Bulls logo.

“6.6 on the clock,” Medina notes. “It was MJ’s sixth championship in six tries. He is 6-foot-6. This was Game 6. He won six NBA Finals MVPs, and the kid is holding up six fingers. Very serendipitous.” 

“That kid,” Lyons says, “having the guts to know that Michael was going to drain that shot. I would love to track him down one day.”

Another youngster, wearing a black Bulls jersey and a black baseball hat (count five people to the right of the upper right corner of the backboard), stands with his arms raised in prescient triumph. There appears to be an empty seat to his left and then another kid—his twin brother?—wearing the same hat and the same expression. The vacant seat between them haunts me: Did someone run to the restroom at the wrong time?

While you’re staring at that space, look at the man in the gray T-shirt one row below the kids. He’s aiming a video camera at Jordan, doing the best he can in an era before our phones became our cameras. 

I count at least four fans taking photos with regular cameras, including a guy just to the left of the upper left corner of the backboard. It looks like he stepped into the aisle to take the picture. That fan was “almost directly across from me,” Medina says. “It’s a kind of symmetry.”

While you’re admiring that man’s plaid shirt, how about the two women directly behind him? One appears to be mouthing something that cannot be repeated in a family newspaper (I don’t think it’s “Defense”). 

The other has her head turned away from the court to, what, say something to her friend? She’s about the only person in that section who’s not totally absorbed by the game. I want to scream at her: “Lady, you’re missing it!”

The nine players on the court, each caught up in their roles, are equally compelling. Whether or not you believe Jordan pushed off Russell, the form of his follow-through is picture perfect, down to the pinkie. Russell has turned to see if there’s a rebound in the offing, while Carr readies to box out Rodman. Hornacek watches the shot (his defensive responsibility includes the onrushing Kukoc), while Stockton eyes Kerr. Malone contemplates ignominy. Referee Hue Hollins is blocking the view of a photographer who probably still curses Hue Hollins to this day. 

One player doesn’t appear in Medina’s picture. After Jordan stripped the ball from Malone and dribbled up-court, Scottie Pippen trailed the play. When Jordan attacked Russell, Pippen was positioned on the right wing, between the three-point line and the sideline, out of sight of Medina’s viewfinder. 

Game 6 didn’t end with Jordan’s bucket. More than five seconds remained. But after the Jazz called a timeout, Stockton’s long jumper missed. “If Stockton hit that, there wouldn’t be The Last Shot,” Butler says. “That’s sports. If it had gone to Game 7, Michael was cooked.”

You might have noticed above that the mandatory photo credit for The Last Shot reads: “Fernando Medina/NBAE,” with no mention of Andrew Bernstein. That caused some old-school photographers to grumble, but not Bernstein. “Fernando deserved to get the credit,” he says. “If he hadn’t composed it and had it in focus—two of the three necessities to make a great picture, the third being pushing the shutter—then it doesn't happen. He got two out of the three right.

“I’m super-proud of the photo because that was a shining example of teamwork,” he adds. “It really showed what we could do as a group.”

“Andy Bernstein is a great photographer, period, and I always mention Andy’s role in the photo whenever I am interviewed about it,” Medina says. “It is a fair outcome. The drone photographer gets credit for his creation, the trigger photographer gets credit for his handheld, plus an infinite number of remotes he has set up all over the arena, and NBA Photos gets a boatload of content.” 

Indeed, beginning with its first publication as a full-color, double-truck spread in one of the first issues of ESPN The Magazine, the revenue this one photo generated “paid multiple times for every penny we invested in terms of equipment, developing the technology, flying guys around and putting them up in hotels,” says Romanelli, currently Global Vice President, Sports Business Development for Getty Images. “It paid for everything.”

The five photographers interviewed for this story are still active. Medina has been with the Magic for 34 seasons, and also covers the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL. Bernstein is among four photographers whose work is permanently exhibited at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and is one of only three photographers to receive the Hall’s Curt Gowdy Media Award. Butler spoke to me from his hotel during the Eastern Conference Final; he’s currently shooting his 38th NBA Finals. Ellwood was in San Francisco covering his “24th or 25th” Finals; he is currently the Denver Nuggets’ team photographer. Cunningham has shot the Hawks for 42 years and, although he keeps threatening to retire, is preparing for next season.

These days, they primarily shoot with digital, autofocus cameras. Images get instantly transmitted to an editor at NBA Entertainment headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey. Their work appears almost instantaneously on their phones, on the league’s Instagram feed, on the Getty Images wire.

“Now it’s instant gratification if you get the shot or instant agony if you didn’t,” Bernstein says.

LPA no longer manufactures the FlashWizard2, although a few photographers remain devoted to the technology. “They were expensive units back then, but 27 years later we are still using them and creating great shots,” Medina says. “They were versatile enough that we converted from film cameras to today’s digital cameras without skipping a beat.” 

But the FlashWizard2, too, will one day take its last shot. 

“There’s one guy on the planet who knows how to repair those things,” Bernstein says. “When they die for good, they’re done.”

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