When Senior Editor Scot Leavitt decided a few months ago that we should take a look at some of the NBA's toughest customers for this week's pro basketball issue (The Enforcers, page 38), several of our photographers said Harry Benson was the ideal man to shoot the story. Because the recommendations came from his colleagues, Harry took it as a great vote of confidence; it was only after he had completed the assignment that he realized that the "vote of confidence" may have had more to do with his peers' preference for wearing their cameras around their necks rather than in their ears.
Benson, however, got along famously with his collection of hardwood hard guys. In fact, Calvin Murphy, the feisty 5'9" Houston Rocket guard, who was last seen tap-dancing on a much larger opponent's forehead, even called to tell us that Harry was "nice people."
This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Benson well. He may be the American photographer most beloved by people not generally noted for their lovable dispositions. Joe Namath, who has been known to be truculent with the press, would, if he could, do deep knee bends if Benson asked him to. Querulous Bobby Fischer sat still for Benson. Richard Nixon was a frequent and amiable subject.
"I think Nixon liked me because I was the only photographer who showed up at the White House dressed," says Benson. "Everybody else who came to take his picture looked like a maintenance man. When you're working with someone who is known as a difficult subject, it's just as well not to immediately do something that offends or alienates him. The people who go about glowering at the world don't really want to be on the outs with everybody. They want to be liked, they want somebody to be their friend—so why shouldn't it be me?"
October 31, 1977
Benson grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, where he was a professional soccer player for four years. "I was a goalkeeper in a league where the players got an extra five pounds if their team won. A lot of our people needed those five pounds to put food on the table, so in my position I took the bread from their mouths if I played poorly."
From soccer, Benson turned to photography. He covered the Paris peace talks for LIFE, and the uprisings in Hungary, the war in the Congo as well as the insurrection in the Dominican Republic for the London Daily Express. "You get to know what a hard man looks like." Benson says. "It's not the man who makes a lot of noise and throws his weight around. These NBA enforcer chaps have a way of looking at you and measuring you, like a prizefighter."
Staff Writer John Papanek, who interviewed the enforcers and did the story that accompanies Benson's pictures, often had to massage their egos in hopes that they wouldn't later massage his face, though he claims, "I never felt physically threatened while I was working on the piece." But he adds. "Did you ever sit at your typewriter and hear footsteps? If Darryl Dawkins doesn't like this story, I'm gone."
For his part, Harry Benson is, as usual, not worrying.