In the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, photographer John W. McDonough got a taste of what it was like trying to stop Lakers star Kobe Bryant. During a Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas before the Games, McDonough, sitting off one of the court’s baselines, watched as a feisty Bryant dived for a loose ball headed toward him. McDonough moved his equipment as best he could, but, as many of Bryant’s defenders learned throughout the star’s 20-year career, it was hard to stop Bryant once he got going.
“Holy s---, it was not even a real human being that landed on top of me,” McDonough says, reflecting on the collision. “That was the Man of Steel. His legs and his body felt like metal. They did not feel like, in any way, shape or form, flesh on me.”
That was the only time in which McDonough felt the full force of Bryant’s charging into him. But from the start of Bryant’s NBA career in 1996 to his final game in ’16, McDonough witnessed the five-time champion gash plenty of other foes. Later this week, Bryant will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame posthumously. It’s a fitting honor for someone whom McDonough watched mature from an “excitable kid,” in his words, to a full-fledged NBA icon.
“He was Mr. Excitement on the court,” says McDonough, who first photographed for Sports Illustrated in ’82. “And he was excited about reacting, too. And I think that [his reactions] fired up his teammates. I think it got them to another level emotionally, which was really important.”
Bryant graced the cover of SI more than a dozen times throughout his career, with McDonough capturing Bryant in action on a number of those occasions. McDonough documented classic images of Bryant’s flying around the rim and others displaying his trademark ferocity while sitting on the bench. During the ’08 Olympics, McDonough captured Bryant and his wife Vanessa buried in a crowd of media and fans, enthralled by the NBA star’s presence.
“No personality is more popular in China than Bryant,” wrote Alexander Wolff, in SI’s story on what was known as the Redeem Team.
Some of the loudest cheers McDonough remembers Bryant receiving came at Bryant’s final game in ’16. The veteran photographer was assigned to an elevated station around midcourt around the TV cameras. Using a telephoto lens, McDonough sought to capture the exuberant crowds that surrounded Bryant that night wherever he went.
“You have a little bit of a game plan, but certainly, I had no idea he was going to go off and score 60 points,” McDonough says. “It made for a very, very joyous event to go cover.”
Two years later, McDonough visited Bryant’s office in Costa Mesa, Calif., for a portrait session with the ex-Laker. Bryant hugged McDonough when he walked in. While the photographer had only 10 minutes to capture Bryant, McDonough says Bryant was “just excited about the world, excited about life, his projects, all the stuff he was doing. And all that came across while I was photographing him.”
That’s what made Bryant’s sudden death in January ’20 so heartbreaking to McDonough.
“He was giving to others more than he was thinking about his game,” he says, “more than he was thinking about himself.”
Bryant will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday. Throughout his storied career, photographers captured some of his greatest moments for Sports Illustrated. You can view those images here.
In the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, photographer John W. McDonough got a taste of what it was like trying to stop Lakers star Kobe Bryant. During a Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas before the Games, McDonough, sitting off one of the court’s baselines, watched as a feisty Bryant dived for a loose ball headed toward him. McDonough moved his equipment as best he could, but, as many of Bryant’s defenders learned throughout the star’s 20-year career, it was hard to stop Bryant once he got going. Subscribe for full article
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