by Peter Walsh / photos by Steve Lipofsky
There’s something about the game of basketball that resonates with fans on a visual level like no other sport. The NBA dominates social media as Instagram feeds are constantly clogged with classic, obscure and ironic NBA photos. For those who grew up during the ’90s, every young basketball fan had a picture of either Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson hanging up on their wall and many still have a photo of one of these legends somewhere in their office or home as adults. Many of the timeless moments and players captured during the golden age of basketball that now dominate social media feeds can be credited to Boston-based photographer Steve Lipofsky.
Lipofsky was the Boston Celtics’ team photographer from 1981-2003 and captured basketball legends during their prime on a nightly basis. Lipofsky’s most iconic photos are his shots of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson which have been used in countless publications, and were featured prominently in HBO’s classic documentary, Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals. SLAM recently caught up with Lipofsky to get a look from his courtside, behind-the-scenes point of view of the great Celtic teams and how times have changed in the NBA since he left a decade ago.
SLAM: How did you get into photography and how did that lead you to shooting for the Celtics?
Steve Lipofsky: My dad was a really good photographer so when I was a kid we had a second bathroom that we used as a darkroom and my dad taught me all the basics of photography. I’m a very visual person and I also like the gadgetry of it, I love taking things apart and putting them back together and I always had a fascination for cameras. Back then, it didn’t occur to most people that you could make a living doing something you really enjoy, you had to have a career path. I started to work at some of the color labs with professional photographers in Boston. Back then it cost a lot of money to shoot and print and working for them allowed me to shoot and print a lot.
In the meantime, I met this kid who had an in at the [Boston] Garden and I was able to sit courtside and shoot Celtic games. I had a love for the Red Sox and the Celtics but I couldn’t have told you who was who and what was what, but it was cool to sit there and have an opportunity to shoot and I thought it would be nice to get back in and do some shooting again. I went in to see Jan Volk, who at that time was the assistant GM of the Celtics, and showed him pictures of cows looking at their reflection in ponds and sunsets, it was sort of silly. He told me photographers around here are a dime a dozen but if we get a game that isn’t too popular, we might be able to get you in and that’s exactly what happened.
I think the first game I went to was when they were shooting the team picture. I took the picture and got it back to the Celtics and in some order I became the Boston Celtics’ official photographer. It was kind of like the prettiest girl in high school not being asked out because people are afraid to do it—I don’t think anyone was trying to be the Celtics photographer. There were people there who weren’t getting them what they needed and early on, I worked really hard and got stuff back to them really quickly. The people in the office became my friends and next thing I knew, I was 23 years deep with the organization.
SLAM: That’s unheard of these days…
SL: These days it’s impossible, you cannot get into shoot; it’s so restricted and difficult. When I was working, I had an assistant who started with me at 8 and at 14, I brought him into the Garden to shoot with me and he had pictures in Sports Illustrated probably when he was 14 or 15 years old.
SLAM: Do you still shoot for the Celtics?
SL: I left them a few years back, the NBA took over all the photography for all the teams and I was one of the last holdouts. The Celtics wanted me to stay but I would have had to give up my copyright. There were all these other things I wanted to do and I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything in the world, I’m still friends with a lot of people in the building but I never look back on it [with regret]. I was there for the very best time that I could have been there.
SLAM: Has the NBA’s monopoly on photography hurt its catalog and output?
SL: It doesn’t hurt their photo catalog but it limits the photos you see everywhere. It happens to all the professional leagues now, everything comes from the same source. I’m one of the few places outside of the NBA where you can get NBA photographs. There’s a lot of great photographers shooting for the NBA and they do great work but it’s never good to have a monopoly, I think publications suffer because of it.
SLAM: Do you think the NBA will change its policy?
SL: I don’t think so, it takes a legal team and deep pockets to challenge something like that. I’d like to think it will open up but I’m pessimistic. I’ll put it this way; if magazines and television demand that it changes, it would change overnight but I think people just accept the status quo.
SLAM: So it would almost take a small scale revolution for things to change?
SL: Yeah, a grassroots movement that I don’t see forthcoming.
SLAM: You worked for the Celtics during the greatest era of Boston basketball. Are there any moments that stick out to you in particular from that time? I know that’s a loaded question…
SL: Since I wasn’t a hero worshipper or anything, what was more important to me was good, friendly, interesting people. What I kind of enjoyed was you would go into Boston Garden and it was like going to high school. During the offseason everybody goes off and does their own thing and when you get back to school, you’re really happy to see your old friends. It was a very familiar and warm place to be. Kevin McHale was a normal human being, a great guy who would come up after every game and a bunch of us would hang out. Chris Ford was the same way—a good, decent, blue-collar guy.
In terms of sports and excitement, I’d say the Boston-Philadelphia games were probably the times when I almost forgot to take pictures. There was such electricity and it was such a great rivalry—not a mean-spirited one like the Yankees-Red Sox—there was a lot of mutual respect. The people in Boston loved when the Sixers came here to play. One of the most electrifying moments was at the Garden when the Celtics were about to be eliminated by the Sixers and the Sixers were going to go to the Finals to play the Lakers. When the game was out of reach, all the people in the Garden stood up and chanted to the Sixers, “Beat L.A.,” that’s where that chant came from. It brought tears to my eyes and made the hair on my arms stand up, it was quite a moment.
SLAM: Did the fact that you weren’t a big basketball fan growing up help you when you were shooting? Were you able to look at players as subjects rather than idols?
SL: Yeah, very much so. There were times I would kind of lose myself a little bit but for the most part, I had a very professional detachment where I was concentrating on the shot and all the technical things I needed to do. Back then it was film, it wasn’t digital and taking pictures of basketball games with manual focus and no zoom lenses and not being able to see the images that you’re shooting was a tough thing to do. I think when you really work professionally as a photographer, you can stand back and shoot almost anything and have a sense of professionalism and detachment.
SLAM: When you were shooting the Celtics during their championship runs in the ‘80s, did you understand the magnitude and how important these shots and moments were at the time?
SL: Yeah, I did because I would get nostalgia ahead of time. I would see Larry Bird out on the court by himself and thought to myself, he’s not going to be here forever. You go to games and it doesn’t occur to most people that these guys have a very short career. When you get these special moments like the championship runs that the Celtics had, it’s hard to get into your head that that’s finite. I knew that things wouldn’t last so I made it a point to get Bird, McHale and Parish together on the court and posing. It’s not like we needed any special shots but I was thinking these three guys aren’t going to be together forever and I want to get this now and capture the essence of them together.
I thought the same thing with Red and the Boston Garden. Sadly, I knew sadly that they wouldn’t be around together. I shot Red with the banners behind him and the parquet floor below and again I went to the Celtics and said, Look, some of these shots we just need to take. We’ll find uses for them in books, magazines and posters or whatever but these photos need to be taken. Somebody needed to do it, it was almost like a civic duty.
SLAM: Your shots of Magic and Bird are incredible and have become the defining shots of their relationship. Can you just talk a little bit about their relationship and how it came through on film as well as their lasting legacy and your role in it?
SL: There are some pairs of people like Kareem and Robert Parish that I have a ton of photos of. But Larry and Magic didn’t occupy the same space very often on the court since they played different positions so I was hyper-sensitive to any time they got close to each other. It was largely a matter of luck because we weren’t posing these guys, you had to be ready to get it when it happened. I knew then that Bird and Magic was going to be a classic pairing forever. As long as there’s an NBA or professional basketball, Bird and Magic will probably be the premier rivalry and matchup in basketball history.
At the time, Boston had a real blue-collar ethic and the fans were a bunch of regular joes who resented the whole L.A. attitude. You’d go off to California and people showed up late to games and had no clue what’s going on, and I think Boston fans thought the team was a reflection of that. They liked grumpy old Larry Bird, he represented Boston as working class. It wasn’t like the Philadelphia rivalry where there was a lot of mutual respect, there was a lot of animosity and resentment toward L.A. For one thing, Boston and Los Angeles didn’t meet that often so when they do the stakes were always higher. They probably met almost as many times in the Finals as the regular season…Heck, maybe even more. There was no way I wanted to lose to the Lakers, the Celtics had a very proud tradition and there was a lot emotionally invested into those games.
SLAM: Did you shoot the Celtics’ most recent championship team?
SL: No, I was gone for that but one cool thing was Sports Illustrated called me…The whole process of getting a Sports Illustrated cover is they go through a slideshow of photos from different photographers and you don’t even know you’re being considered. One day I got a call during the 2008 Finals with Boston and L.A. and the editor—who is also my friend—at SI was asking me about the date of a photo I took of Larry and Magic—they wanted a particular photo date. I found out that they were going to use it for the cover. It was a pretty cool bonus considering I had already left the team and that was my second SI cover.
SLAM: Do you think that speaks to how timeless your photos are and how timeless the Boston-L.A. rivalry is?
SL: It speaks to the importance and the timelessness of the golden age of basketball and in particular, the Boston-L.A. rivalry. I feel like I’m a professional but if I was shooting high school sports and did the same quality of work, I would not get the attention and the photographs would not get the attention that I do. It’s not that I’m a great, big deal photographer and that’s why my photos were so popular. I was like a good plumber or electrician, I knew what tools to use and tried to do my job conscientiously and if you work hard enough, you get a little bit of luck too.