They have become a crucial focus of the job –a “vitally important, must-get on a game-to-game, nightly basis,” according to NBA photographer Andrew Bernstein.
He is talking, of course, about kicks.
Both Bernstein and Nathaniel Butler have been shooting the League for over 34 years, beginning in an era when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird ruled and Converse was the king of sneakers. Other stars soon caught on–Hall of Famer James Worthy actually signed a million-dollar deal with New Balance upon going pro–but fan interest in what players were rocking on their feet truly skyrocketed when Michael Jordan took over the NBA.
As the entire thing has blossomed into a full-blown phenomenon, Bernstein and Butler have had a front row seat.
“Once Michael showed up with those first Air Jordans, that was the end of that,” says Bernstein. “Because that created this whole subculture of shoe maniacs that just lived and died by whatever new shoe was coming out.”
So photographers adjusted accordingly, becoming more and more conscious of the kicks on the floor when working.
“Back in the day, no one was requesting it,” Butler says. “I was just doing it. It was, Ah, that looks cool, and you’re just shooting different things. But [Jordan] obviously set the bar.”
Today, there are daily notifications and constant direction from the League about specific colorways, PEs or new models to keep an eye on, and photographers take notice of any design that’s visually pleasing. The task includes grabbing isolated shots—usually during warm-ups, free throws, timeouts, or video reviews—and mid-game action shots.
“You can get the stationary shots pretty easily,” Butler tells SLAM. “But now guys are putting—and Kyrie [Irving] is huge with this—stuff on the sole. So you want them up in the air where you can see the under-side. That requires a little more attention and focus, and it’s tricky.”
“I try to cover myself and get these guys’ shoes as best I can during warm-ups,” Bernstein adds. “I’ve been burned a couple times trying to get shoe shots when I really should be shooting action.”
It makes sense when you consider not only the mounting hysteria around sneakers, but also how the players have come to use them: to push political and social messages, to bring to light significant issues in our country, to pay tribute to friends and family. The list goes on and on.
“I think it’s great, the messages they put on,” Bernstein says. “It’s personal, it lets you know a little bit about the person instead of just the athlete.”
There are instances when photographers actually go into the locker room before the game to snap the shoes by themselves, a detail that says a lot about how far—and fast—the culture has developed.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of its evolution, however, is the increasing number of requests to shoot the guys arriving at the arena. [Obligatory plug to @LeagueFits, which you should go follow.]
“If you tried to photograph Larry Bird walking into the arena 30 years ago, he’d like punch you in the face for doing it,” Butler jokes. “But the guys are into it [today]. It’s another way for them to market themselves.”
Butler goes on to explain the procedure some players currently follow: “Guys will walk into the building wearing these. Then they warm up in these. Wear these, and then change at halftime into these.”
Which just goes to show how much sneakers now occupy the basketball world.
And Bernstein and Butler have been there every step of the way, capturing the various looks and helping to push the ever-growing movement forward.
Alex Squadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
All photos by Bernstein and Butler.