Proud as we are of the way SLAM reads, we know the biggest reason we’ve lasted 20 years is how the mag looks. To celebrate some of our most memorable photo shoots we spoke to the great photographers who made them happen.
by Peter Walsh
SLAM has been bringing the stories of players to the forefront for two decades, but rarely do we get to hear from the people behind the lens who provide the iconic shots that will live on long after the players’ career are over. Between the phone calls, e-mails, scheduling, cancellations and moody subjects, the amount of work it takes to get the perfect shot is one of the toughest aspects of bringing you the best in basketball month after month, and year after year.
Atiba Jefferson has shot more SLAM covers than anyone and has stories for days from each shoot. The super talented photographer, who has an extensive history in shooting both skateboarding and basketball, provided us with a candid look at some of his favorite shoots for SLAM. (Roll through the gallery above to see some of Atiba’s classic work.) Outside of his work with SLAM, Atiba has shot for the Lakers during the the Shaq and Kobe years (from his bio: “Hell, he was a staff photographer for the LA Lakers and they started to win World Championships. Coincidence? I don’t think so.”), and continues to have a huge influence in the skateboarding world. Here are the highlights from our conversation, including stories about ballers who skateboard, shooting Michael Jordan for SLAM 100, his relationship with Kobe Bryant, and an entertaining day with Gilbert Arenas.
To view more of Atiba’s work, check out his site www.atibaphoto.com.
On his photography career…
Things were so different when I started; it was all film and there was no internet, you looked at the magazine and you studied it. I was the weird hybrid because I wanted to shoot both portraits and action, which I feel is different. That doesn’t really happen anymore; now, you have fashion photographers and portrait photographers shooting covers. It makes sense because these people know one side and I’ve always felt lucky and blessed to come from an action background with skateboarding and progressing into basketball.
Whenever an issue of SLAM comes out, it’s still a really big deal for me. I’m still like a little kid. Back in the day I would study Dome Shots and All-Star issues and look at the photographer’s names—especially the action guys. I always loved the way Clay Patrick McBride shot, he was a big influence on me. I think he’s done the best SLAM cover there is and that’s the Iverson Soul on Ice one. Actually I know he did, because so many people know I do SLAM shoots and the question they always ask is, “Did you shoot that one?” A lot of props to Clay. A lot of props to SLAM.
I worked for the NBA and SLAM made a name for itself [with the players]. Players would really love to shoot for SLAM and that was something that I found very interesting from the get-go. The players really had, and still do have, a lot of respect for SLAM and I think that begins with SLAM’s high school coverage. They know that this magazine has been covering the players since the beginning of their careers.
On shooting LeBron in high school for SLAM 54…
I was shooting a lot of covers and features and I got a call and they asked, “You want to shoot this PUNK?” They told me it was all the way in Akron, Ohio and I said, “Yeah, I guess.”
I got to Akron and I thought, LeBron, that’s an interesting name…And I get to the school and they said, “Okay, here’s LeBron…”
And out comes this lanky man-child and I thought, Whoa! I think I need to card this dude, he looks a lot older.
Now I look at the photos and he’s a baby. I got him out of school and he was psyched and his gear was so janky. His jersey was totally wrinkled and he had Kobe adidas on and he was psyched about that. He was just a kid.
When you shoot the kids now, you can tell there’s somebody in their ear. There was no one in LeBron’s ear quite yet. It was really cool to see because the transformation was overnight. I felt like I got back from that shoot, which was either February or March of his junior year,and all of a sudden by summer his hair was clean and you could tell someone was in his ear. It was funny to see that and by the time his senior year came, which I also shot, he was definitely a star. Next to shooting Michael Jordan, that was one of the most significant shoots of my career.
On shooting Allen Iverson for the first time for SLAM 77…
The first time I shot Iverson was for SLAM’s 10th Anniversary cover. He told the PR people that he was giving us 15 minutes and that’s it. He was already really late for the shoot—I want to say three hours. So he gets down and he’s very nice and I start shooting and I’m watching my clock and I shoot, shoot, shoot and it’s been about 11 minutes and I knew I had gotten it—which is so funny because I was so cocky and I really probably didn’t. I thought, You know what, I’m gonna cut this guy early for what he said.
I said, “Allen, we got it. Thank you.”
And he said, “Really? That’s it?” And he was surprised.
I did it in hopes that he would remember shooting with me and I shot him a bunch afterwards, and he’s always been super nice. I shot him another time in Philly, I shot him in Denver twice and in Detroit. He is one of those players that I have a big file on.
On shooting Michael Jordan for SLAM 100…
The hardest thing about my job is trying to make these guys look cool. They’re not models and a lot of people forget that—they’re athletes and I don’t think they’re that interested half the time in photo shoots. My whole thing is, who looks good in front of a camera? Who’s a natural? The biggest natural to me was Jordan and shooting him was like nothing.
It was a big honor shooting for SLAM’s 100th. He wanted someone else to shoot it and SLAM really stuck to their guns and they chose to send me. There were so many rules at the shoot: No photos with him. No talking to him. No autographs. No nothing. I get there early but even still, they told me he was going to be doing lines for a commercial so I had to wait a while before Michael was ready. So I’m taking my time to setup and sure enough, 45 minutes earlier then I thought, they’re like, “Michael’s ready!” And he walks in like Jesus, there was like a beam of light under him. Swag can’t even be the word, the presence was so strong.
My brother and I—I have a twin brother, he came out to help me for this shoot—both had Jordan 1s on and walked up to introduce ourselves, and he asked, “You’re the photographer? How old are you?”
And I said, “I’m old enough, I got this Mike.”
He was definitely shocked by the fact that I looked like a kid even though I was definitely in my 20s at that point and had been doing it for a while.
Anyway, the best thing is he sees our shoes, and this was before they relaunched them and there was all the hype on re-releases. He said, “Look at those shoes, those are good shoes.”
We did the shoot and I think they gave us 11 minutes and that’s all we needed. Even by the time we were done I never felt like we didn’t get it. I remember looking at the film and every frame was perfect except maybe two or three. It was awesome. I thought, Whoa, he is a total professional. It was great, he killed it.
On his unique relationship with Kobe Bryant…
I’ve done a lot of shoots with Kobe over the years. He is a natural in front of the camera. Working with the Lakers has given me a great relationship with Kobe too—he would see me at games and I have great photos of him and I in locker rooms and memories of surreal moments where he stopped and talked to me. It’s a big honor for me that he does that because I’ve seen him win five championships and he’s always so happy to see me.
I saw him on a different shoot four or five months ago and it sucks the way everything happened [with his injury] because we were talking about how good he was playing during that shoot. He told me, “I feel it everyday, I am not young.”
I also know him well and have a 100 percent confidence and…it’s crazy to say, but I could see him come back at the start of the season, which I know won’t happen but he’s such a psycho at how hard he works.
He’s so focused on being the best, I’ve honestly never seen it more than any other player. I’ve seen the want on a lot of other players for just one Championship. I remember shooting with Tim Duncan, Chauncey Billups, Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady and they were sitting around talking about basketball. Kevin Garnett asked Tim and Chauncey, “Honestly, Tim, Chauncey, what’s it like being a champion?”
That’s what all these guys quest for in basketball and it’s insane to see Kobe have that drive. I think he’ll be back.
On shooting Melo and A.I. for SLAM 115 (One of only two SLAM covers with smiling players)….
I got a job to shoot All-Star portraits for the NBA and it was an assembly line of photographers and you got 30 seconds with each player to shoot different expressions and backgrounds. When it was my time, they told me I had to get A.I. to smile. And I’ve heard stories where he would say, “Fuck that corny shit, no way.” And I thought, Great, I’m going to be that dude.
Sure enough, A.I. comes up and I can’t remember exactly how I did it, but I got him to smile which turned out to be a photo for a cover of this Japanese magazine. Everyone turned out to be really happy with me and I ended shooting a bunch for them after.
I wasn’t really that worried about [the SLAM shoot], honestly. I was a really big Iverson and Larry Hughes fan because of their dynamic. When they first came out, they both had cornrows and tats and it was sick. Iverson and Melo were like the second coming of that, you could tell they were tight. I’ve seen a lot of player dynamics—I was there for the Shaq and Kobe time and saw a lot of those groups come and go. It’s crazy to see some of the guys really, really close to one another on a personal level, Melo and A.I. were on that level.
I shot Melo for his rookie cover for SLAM, so we we were already cool. It wasn’t hard, to be honest. It was just like, you guys talk about something funny and kick it and they got it. And that’s the thing about Allen’s smile, it lights up a room. For a guy that is so good at looking thugged out and hard and all that, he has the best smile in the NBA. When Allen smiles, it’s like magic.
On shooting Darius Miles, Elton Brand and Lamar Odom for SLAM 57…
That was their idea, which was awesome. They were all about it and they came in like, “Yo, we got this idea! We’re gonna switch jerseys!” Lo and behold, that is one of my other proudest moments. That whole crew, that whole era, it was really exciting basketball. Those guys were doing it their way and it was cool to see the generation that was influenced by hip-hop.
On shooting Lamar Odom…
I am a huge Lamar fan, he has such a sick style and I always wanted to shoot him. Plus, he’s always been a really cool dude. I would see him around L.A. and out in clubs, I’ve seen the dude in LAX just by himself and that to me is cool. He does not seem like the type of dude that needs a lot of bells and whistles.
I did a ‘Day in the Life’ thing a few summers ago with Nike, and we were in Queens rolling around his hood. We had crazy security and his homie wanted to go by his house and get a CD or something and Lamar took off. We were in Lamar’s car shooting, and he was like, “Yeah, it’s right up the block,” and it was ghetto.
I’m a skater—I skate in ghetto-ass neighborhoods. I know what to look for. I didn’t feel threatened or anything, but we were in a hood-ass area for sure. Lamar is in a 7-Series Beamer flossin’ and everyone is yelling his name and it was real funny because he didn’t give a fuck. Security finally found him and we’re like, What are you doing?! You can’t leave us!
On shooting Gilbert Arenas for SLAM 102…
It was super funny because we have this mall here called the Beverly Center [in L.A.] and he’s behind the counter of a Sprint store and I asked, “Are you workin’ here?”
And he said, “Nah, man! I’m getting a phone, my friend works here!”
Gilbert was always super cool. We were going back and forth as to where the shoot was going to be and it was really disorganized. I told him, “I got this dope house in the hills, let’s shoot it here.”
Gilbert was really into video games and my brother and I are really big gamers. This is when hacking Xboxes was a really big thing and we knew this dude who was way ahead of his time. He had a boutique, it was like the Supreme of video game stores. Anyways, [Gilbert] needed an Xbox hacked and we told him, “Oh no problem, we got you, we know this dude.”
And Gilbert said, “No way! I’ll do whatever you guys need.”
Any my brother said, “Dude, I want these new adidas golf shoes…” And Gilbert told him it was no problem.
So we hooked him up with our friend and my brother told me he was chillin’ at home and the guy from UPS comes and is just like, “Got these shoes for Gilbert Arenas.”
And my brother said, “No, those are for me.” And the UPS guy goes, “Damnit! I thought Gilbert Arenas was going to be here.”
There’s always tons of stories about Gilbert from the shark tank to the oxygen mask and all that stuff—he’s always a really good time. People don’t realize he’s one of the most positive, down-to-earth dudes to shoot. Everyone always thought he was this gun-wielding, thugged out psycho but nah, he’s just a really down-to-earth guy. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about that dude.
On ballers that skateboard…
Kyrie told me on the last shoot [for SLAM 169] that he skated before he played basketball but he broke his ankle and couldn’t skate anymore. He’s been to [pro skater] Eric Koston’s park and there’s footage of him online skating and Eric told me he was pretty gnarly for a basketball player
Oh, the funniest story is Rodney White! I’m in Denver skating right by the arena and we’re leaving the skatepark and fuckin’ Rodney White is just mashing down the sidewalk on this board! These dudes are so big that they should be on long boards, but he’s just mashing down the street and we were like, Oh my God! This is pre-Twitter and Instagram but luckily I had a Sidekick and got a photo of him.
He told me, “My condo is right here, the skate park is right here, it’s way easier to get around.” And we were like, No fuckin’ way!