Jim Colton: I understand that this April, you will be covering your 59th NCAA Basketball Championships. What can you recall about the first tournament you covered?
Rich Clarkson: In 1952 there were a total of eight photographers covering that tournament and when the trophy was awarded after the game, I think I was the only one left shooting as the others had left to make deadlines. That year, I traveled with the team (Kansas University) to the finals in Seattle. The 6 foot 9 inch center from Kansas, Clyde Lovellette…the tournament's Most Outstanding Player… was accommodated at the hotel by putting two beds together.
The night before the game, the assistant coach, Dick Harp, took the team (myself included) to a movie a block from the hotel in downtown Seattle and when it was over, we were all walking back to the hotel and we crossed the nearly empty street in the middle of the block. An officer jumped out of a police car and stopped everyone. Harp trying to explain to the officer said, "It's understandable, we're just a bunch of Jayhawkers." The cop thought he said we're just a bunch of “jaywalkers" and was threatening arrests brandishing handcuffs.
The next day, Lovellette went out with a Navy buddy into the harbor in a small rowboat and the fog suddenly rolled it and they had no idea which way to row. He was late for a team meeting and meal and no one knew where he was and they went into crisis mode. He finally resurfaced.
JC: I once heard you tell a story about finding tunnels or “non-traditional” access to the hoops gym at Kansas University?
RC: Kansas University is located on a hill called Mount Oread. As kids growing up there, we would ride our bicycles up the hill and began our explorations which often ended up in the tunnels beneath which housed the steam pipes from the central power plant to heat the campus buildings.
We would try to remember which building each doorway would lead to (our game would have lacked the approval of both the university and our parents) but it was an exploration that always produced twists and turns. One afternoon, we heard and followed the sounds of a bouncing basketball and emerged in Robinson Gymnasium.
We entered the double doors at the end of the room where the University of Kansas basketball team practiced and sat down against the far wall to watch. The practice was stopped for a moment while the players took a water break. The coach, seeing these kids sitting at the room’s end, walked over to talk with us and allowed us to stay and watch. Thus I met the famous “Phog” Allen – Dr. Forrest C. Allen.
JC: Over the 59 years you’ve covered the tournament a lot has changed with technology, access and means of publishing. What do you wish hadn't changed? And similarly, what has changed that that you are actually happy about?
RC: In those first years, I would photograph the first half of the game, race to my basement darkroom, process the film and make prints and then run to the bus station to make the 9 o'clock bus to Kansas City (for the Kansas City Star, the Associated Press and sometimes Acme…the predecessor to UPI) On the other end, they had copyboys at the bus station to pick up the envelopes and rush them back to the newsroom for the morning papers. That was how we "transmitted" back then. Bill Straeter, the AP staff photographer based in Kansas City, would come to Lawrence with a portable transmitter which he would set up in the basement of my house and send pictures LD (Long Distance) over the phone-- his pictures and occasionally mine.
When I began shooting for Sports Illustrated, it was on the big strobes which two assistants would set up in the catwalks two days before the games. Those big Ascors of 5000 watt/seconds enabled an exposure of about 5.6 on 100 ISO speed film and you could hear them “pop” if there was not a lot of cheering at the time. Photographs from those early days had this wonderful quality to them. On wide angle shots, the arena's background produced this mystical blue tint. That was from a combination of the strobes (two of the four of which were always backlights) reflecting off the cigarette smoke. That ended when smoking was banned in the arenas.
One of the power packs and light head exploded in the catwalks during a tournament in Philadelphia. Glass from the flashtubes fell right behind me into the crowd. The assistants in the catwalks got to the power pack right away, got it turned off and put the spare into place after just a few minutes. But one of the media coordinators came over to me saying, "Your strobe exploded and this stuff is falling on all those people behind you! What should we do?" Everyone in those stands was watching us, and I said, "Don't look up!" I think he had come to tell me to stop using the strobes, but at that point, he was laughing so hard he just left without telling me to pull the plug.
At the 1984 tournament in Seattle we were asked by Sports Illustrated to shoot 35mm film instead of the large format for Hasselblads which we had used with the strobes for ten years then. Barbara Henckel had just become the picture editor at the magazine and I asked why and she said 35mm was easier to edit. So I'm shooting one hand held Nikon and the other on the floor with the tripper cord in my other hand (I've done this for years to be able to shoot either camera instantly) and as the game progressed, I thought to myself, this is going pretty well. With the strobes going off, you have the image in your mind. I always had an assistant loading the Hasselblad magazines, but with 35mm there was no reason. As the first half wound down, the thought suddenly crossed my mind, "this sure is a long roll of film.” I tried winding the spool and I realized there was no film in the camera! When the photographers on either side of me weren’t looking, I loaded my first roll of film.
Luckily, the second half went well and Barbara called the next day to say that my pictures dominated the issue including a two page spread of Patrick Ewing with an epic slam-dunk. And she complimented me on such "a disciplined take," as she didn't have that much film to edit. I never told her until years later why.
Today, and at the Final Four this year, the pictures will come right out of the camera on to the internet to not only the media workroom in Atlanta but onto the screen at the Sports Illustrated offices in New York, virtually the second they are taken. That has resulted in my being more careful in shooting, so not to inundate cyberspace with useless images that everyone has to edit out.
JC: Basketball is one of the most difficult sports to cover in so far as getting something "different." After all those years, and all those games, how do you keep it "fresh?"
RC: Getting something different is what I used to do all the time and by midseason I was trying everything from shooting from the catwalks, from the stands high behind the basket, to exactly opposite the basket ten rows up in the stands. Sometimes, this was dictated by a player (Wilt Chamberlain with his classic finger-roll shots) or a team's strategy (Kentucky driving the baseline). But at the National Championship games, I used remotes for other angles. It was what I called the 'insurance" plan…to insure that almost everywhere on the court, I was in position for it, unblocked by cheerleaders or fans or other photographers. So to keep it fresh, introducing all of those new various angles all applied. At a regional tournament in Lincoln, Nebraska, where one end of the court was a wall instead of stands, I brought in a 12-foot stepladder and photographed from the top of it. As it turned out, it wasn't such a great idea, but at least I was thinking.
JC: As someone who has "Been there, done that," in the college hoops world, what sage wisdom could you offer a young photojournalist that is interested in covering future tournaments?
RC: A fresh look often produces interesting pictures and young photographers can bring that perspective. The only trouble is restrictions for photo positions at major games and tournaments. So my first suggestion is, if you want to make really great pictures, go to games during the regular season where you can get less restricted access. We had a woman attend our Sports Photography Workshop one year and when I looked at her portfolio, it was all Little League games…but wonderful pictures! I've used this example for many years. If you want to make really good pictures, try going to the little leagues, not the major leagues. You may think they don't sell. But she showed me a book of her Little League pictures that was published by a major New York publishing house. As I looked through the book, I understood how she pulled it off. All of the captions were written, at her request, by major league players that she cornered during spring training. Smart thinking!
JC: Any last thoughts about the NCCAA tournaments that may be of interest to our readers?
RC: My access behind the scenes has been something I have always placed a high priority on. From my early days traveling with the Kansas team to getting access to locker rooms at halftime...and not just Kansas but also at Kentucky and Indiana and Notre Dame among others. That is all tied to trust with the coach, which you earn. And I have never made promises to do or not to do something during those times of unique access. I'm a journalist first and I don't make deals.
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