Q+A: David Liam Kyle
The Cavs team photographer discusses his playing days and his Classic Hoop Collection.
by Peter Walsh / @goinginsquad
Every person who has ever had hoop dreams has one.
The hoop where they perfected their jump shot or learned to take off with the right foot when going up for a left-handed layup. A basket that survived the elements and numerous bricked jumpers year round. For those who love the game, that basket isn’t just a place where you shot hoops, it is engrained in you and often serves as one of the fondest memories of an upbringing.
During his travels, former professional basketball player and Cavaliers team photographer David Liam Kyle comes across many of the hoops that fathers put up for their sons or daughters in order for them to begin their own hoop dreams. Kyle has shot hundreds of hoops around the country over the last decade or so and has put them together to form the Classic Hoop Collection. Each picture is captivating in its own right and tells its own story, making for a beautiful and intriguing project, undoubtedly to be beloved by those who hold hoops on the highest pedestal.
David Liam Kyle caught up with SLAMonline to talk of his own history with basketball and the world of photography.
SLAM: Can you give a background on your playing career and how it led you to photography?
David Liam Kyle: My junior year, I became the first All-American at Cleveland State—I think I set eight school records there.
Between my junior and senior year, Red Auerbach held a camp for kids and he had rookie camp at the same time. He would invite top players in as counselors and at night the counselors would play against each other. Midway through the week, he asked me and one other college player to play with the Celtics’ the rookies and the vets. They had just won the Championship, we played at a local high school and it was packed. There were people lined up outside looking for autographs and I was just playing great.
It was a great week of basketball and I was trying to prove that I could play forward. There were rumors that Auerbach didn’t like it when players dunked the ball so no one was dunking but I had this one tomahawk dunk over Fred Saunders and the place went crazy. When we were done playing, the crowd rushed the court and patted me on the back saying, “You’re gonna make the team!” and I still had a year of college left.
The next day, Auerbach and Tom Heinsohn came up to me and said, “You proved to us you can play forward, can you play center?” and I started laughing and they asked what was so funny. And I said, I’ve been playing center my whole life, I was trying to prove to you guys I could play forward! They put me on the bus to play center that night.
I was playing with Jo Jo White, Doug Collins and John Havlicek. I’m sure they were told to give me the ball so Auerbach could see what I could do. I was getting the ball on the block and I was so used to getting double- and triple-teamed in college and I only had one guy on me throughout and I played really well. Auerbach wanted to know how old I was and when I told him I was 20, he said, “If you were 22, I would sign you to play with us right now.”
My senior year, I had trouble with my Achilles tendon before the season started. I decided to play and as the season went on my Achilles was feeling worse and by the end of the season, I wasn’t even practicing, I was only playing in games.
Every time the Celtics came into town, they would give me tickets to the Cavs-Celtics game. I tore my Achilles a month before the Draft but they drafted me anyway and would have drafted me earlier but word got out that I had torn my Achilles. I tore it again later on and developed an infection, which I didn’t realize I had.
I went over to Europe to play and played for a few months but my ankle kept swelling up and didn’t feel right so I couldn’t get going. I ended up having surgery again.
I tried out for the Cavs twice, the first while I had an infection. The second, I had reporters and people telling me that I was going to make it but I don’t think there was any room on the contracts, they were all tied up in other players.
Then I went to Holland and one of the guys on the team was into photography. We were in London for Europe Cup and he said, “Why don’t you come with me and take some pictures?” I didn’t have a camera, but I ended up buying one when we got back and we went out and started taking pictures in Holland and I immediately loved it.
SLAM: After you discovered photography, did you have to start contemplating between your basketball career and following photography?
DLK: When I came back from Holland, I started to try and learn as much about photography as I could on my own. I had a teaching degree, I was going to be a teacher and coach but I couldn’t find any teaching jobs. I had some opportunities that were developing in photography and I was offered a job at a weekly newspaper. I got a call to play in London and I told the guy I was going to go. But two days before I was supposed to go, I called back and didn’t end up going. I had a passion for photography.
With photography, the doors started opening for me. I got a job at one of the largest weekly newspapers in the country at the time and there were some really good photographers there who helped me get rolling and remain my friends to this day. I always wanted to shoot for Sports Illustrated, that was my next goal. In ‘89 I went to a sports photography workshop and they had a “Super Shooter” award, which was given to the top-50 photographers in the country, and I won that award. I got some assignments from Sports Illustrated so I freelanced for them and worked for the paper.
I was contracted by the Cavs for the ‘91-92 season and left the newspaper to work for them and I still do all the Cavs home games today.
SLAM: Was playing basketball something that came easy to you, whereas photography presented more of a challenge?
DLK: Basketball didn’t come easy to me; I worked at it. I started in the seventh grade after never having picked up a basketball when my CYO league needed a few guys. I developed to 6-10, 245 and I was all muscle, I could hit anything 18-feet and in. I played hard and tried to copy the style of Dave Cowens. He was someone I tried to emulate. In high school, I was long and lanky and tried to shoot hook shots like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
For me, sports and photography are interrelated in the sense that I have a passion for both. Photography is something I worked at, as an athlete I set goals for myself and I carried that over to photography. You have to work with people and be a good teammate and work toward one goal. You look at it as a team concept and do the best you can.
SLAM: Does your playing background give you an advantage when you’re working basketball games?
DLK: Yeah, I got to know the plays once I started shooting the games and found out where the play was going. I like to go in early and watch the players workout before the games, a lot of the times they work on the moves they’re going to use in the games. I’m getting one shot every three seconds so I have to decide if I’m going to shoot a player driving or shooting a jumpshot and anticipate the movement.
SLAM: I was looking over your Classic Hoop Collection; can you talk about the project and how it came to fruition?
DLK: I was on assignment and I passed by a house with an old hoop and I went and knocked on the door but no one was home. I thought the hoop looked interesting so I went ahead and took a picture and kept it in my files. I started noticing some of the other old hoops and thought, I gotta get a picture of this. There was one in my neighborhood on an old tree that was probably four feet in diameter with no bark on it, it was 10 feet high and they cut the top of the tree off. They added a hoop that extended out about five feet from the main road and I thought, I gotta get a picture of that. I went and knocked on the door and no one was home so I ended up driving away. I kept driving by it but never did anything and a year later they had cut it down. From then on, I started taking pictures before the hoops collapsed or got taken down.
I probably started this about nine years ago, but it wasn’t anything that I had planned on doing. I just thought it was cool and I like the hoops, they tell a story. If you look at them, you can just imagine some kid shooting around or his father building the hoop. It represents the purity of the game and kids just having fun shooting around, playing in their driveway.
SLAM: Do you have a favorite memory of a hoop you shot or a conversation with one of the hoop owners that hit close to home?
DLK: I guess that’s why I keep shooting. I haven’t really found one that was close to mine. We had eight kids in our family and we never had much but we had a single driveway with a single garage behind our house. My older brother grabbed 2x4s and put up a hoop and it wasn’t a thing of beauty whatsoever. We had a fence on the side and you had to rebound it before the ball went over the fence so it helped you develop rebounding position.
We had a good neighborhood. We had a bunch of guys who liked to play. We had good games, man. I got pretty good and started playing two-on-three and would let the guys use bats to try and block my shot to even things out.
SLAM: When you’re shooting other hoops, do they remind you of your upbringing and how you started?
DLK: It’s doesn’t remind me per se, it makes me feel that these people who built the hoops love the game. If you look at some of these rims, they have duct tape holding them up and they’re rusted. I like the permanent hoops because when the dad or the son put it up, they knew they were going to be playing for a long time.
I’ve only photographed one of those portable hoops that have water or sand in the bottom. When I stopped, it was a guy’s farm and I thought it was only a temporary hoop but he said it had been there for 15 years. His boys had played there and would play in the mud and gravel. He said I was lucky I came today because he was giving it to the neighbor the next day.
When I stop at somebody’s door, I’ll knock on the door and take a step back and they’re always afraid I’m going to ask for money or whatever. I just say, This might sound kind of weird, but I’m a professional photographer and I’m working on a tabletop book of old basketball hoops. Do you mind of I photograph your hoop? Some of them tell me a story behind the hoop. My mistake has been looking at it photographically and I haven’t written down a lot of the stories.
SLAM: I took a look through your whole portfolio and you don’t limit yourself to just basketball. Do you prefer to shoot those other subjects to do something different?
DLK: I love the Cavs. I love the NBA. It’s natural for me. I like it all but I love basketball. I’ve had a passion for basketball since I started playing. It’s not just a game; it’s all the people I’ve met over the years through the game. I got a college degree from basketball. I was one of eight and I wasn’t even thinking of college as a kid.
I saw the JV coach after I had grown and he asked me if I was planning on going to college. He saw me play and said if you listen to me and bust your ass, you’ll get a college scholarship. And he was right. I listened to him, busted my ass, worked hard… it helped that I grew a little bit. It’s guys like that through the game that have made a difference in other people’s lives that they don’t even notice.
To purchase a photo, visit http://davidliamkyle.com/classichoopcollection and use the SLAM10DLK code at checkout for a special 10 percent discount.