I won't do negative stories on athletes I know. Get someone else. It would destroy all trust. I want to make athletes look strong and heroic, like comic-book superheroes. Sometimes I'm the opposite of a writer, who tries to humanize them.
My top five athletes of all time? John Unitas, Arnold Palmer, Jim Brown, Michael Jordan, Joe Montana. I love Joe Montana. He's a real guy's guy. I don't know any man who would not like Joe Montana.
Jim Brown would argue he's the best of all time, of course. One time I shot him for SI when ESPN was doing its top 100 North American athletes of the 20th century. They were down to the top 10, and it was all very secretive. Jim came in with his hat on for our shoot. I figured I'd provoke him and see what happened. So my first question was, "Are you in the top 10?" And I could just feel his hair rise.
He said, "Top 10?!"
December 12, 2011
I said, "You know, I think you're in the top five, Jim."
He said, "Name the other guys ahead of me." And then he starts naming them. "Michael? He played one sport. Ali? One sport. I was the greatest lacrosse player. No doubt the greatest running back." And it's true. Jim beat everyone at everything he ever did. He truly believed he was the greatest athlete of the century—as would Michael, probably, and Ali. But Jim may be right.
As far as photography goes, Jordan and Kevin Garnett are the best I've seen in front of a camera. They never change their posture or their faces. If I put a camera up to you, you're going to worry whether you're in the wrong position or whether you look like s---. They understood the camera, and they knew they looked good.
Jordan was my muse. I was lucky, really lucky to have him. I shot him for SI, and we did two books together, Rare Air and Athlete. He was like Elvis Presley: The camera never changed him. In 1956, Alfred Wertheimer shot a collection of behind-the-scenes Elvis photos, and it was as if a photographer wasn't even there. To me, that was the greatest reportage series about a star on the rise. That's what I went for with Jordan.
An example: Michael during the 1988 All-Star Game dunk contest. We're at Chicago Stadium, and Michael's sitting there 2½ hours before the event. I explain that I shot the contest the year before and learned that if you can't see a player's face, the picture is meaningless. So I say, "Is there any way you could tell me where you're going to take off to dunk?"
I can't even believe I've asked him this question. I'm sure he's thinking, "Is this guy f------ for real?"
He looks at me and says, "Yeah, I can do that. Before each dunk, I'll put my finger on my knee." He puts it on his leg, pointing in one direction.
I ask, "You're going to remember that?"
He says, "Yeah, you watch."
First dunk, he points left, so I move to the other side of the basket, from where I can see his face. It's great. And every dunk is like this. Then we get to the final two, starting with the famous one in which he takes off from the free throw line. For that, I'm right up against the stanchion with a wide-angle lens. Michael comes down and slams it and runs right into my lap. A perfect picture. The next dunk, I decide I'm staying in the same place. I look down at the other end of the court, and Michael takes his thumb and jabs it: Move a little to your right, Walter. And the resulting picture is the one you see in all the books.
He was funny about his legs, though. I was in Sarasota, Fla., for spring training in 1994, when he played baseball. Michael showed up early and said, "Come on, we're doing this picture right now."
I was like, Now?
So I said, "Well, stand in front of this wall; it's a good background." I love walls and skies—I'm background-crazy. And the first thing Jordan said was, "Don't shoot my legs."
"I promise, Mike." His legs were strong but skinny.
When I showed Michael photos of himself playing defense, I always showed him pictures shot from above, because he prided himself in playing straight D, without holding.
[Bulls coach] Phil Jackson would lay down certain rules for photographers, but I would bend them as far as I could. I wasn't supposed to be in the trainers' rooms, but that was the best location, because players from other teams would come in. Michael would hold court and talk s--- about everybody. Oh, my God, he'd rail on people, reporters he hated. Most of the time I never said a word. I sat and barely took pictures, just to be that bug on the windshield of a life.
Michael was merciless in an amusing way, but he said things to your face. In 1998 the Bulls had Joe Kleine, Luc Longley and Bill Wennington as their centers. One day Michael was in the training room after a practice, and I was sitting there while he iced down. Those three centers walked by, and Jordan said, "You know what I have to play with?" He looked right at them and said, "Twenty-one feet of s---."
I went out on the town with Michael in Miami while we were working on Rare Air. We met in his room at the Mayfair Hotel in Coconut Grove, and I could see was tired. He was really quiet and said, "Walter, I don't know about tonight."
I said, "Come on, Mike. We planned this one night for the entire season. What is it? Is it going into the public and dealing with all that s---?"
He said, "Yeah, basically." Then he said, "I'll tell you what. We'll go out, Walter, but you leave your cameras here. Neither of us are working, and you lead the way out of here for me."
So now I'm Michael Jordan's point man. And it was really interesting to walk out of the hotel with him. People would see him and they'd stop whatever they were doing and start to move toward him, and I would hold up a hand and go, "Not tonight," and people respected his wish.
We went to Hooters, which was Michael's idea because it was near the hotel. He can't venture too far out. We got there, and Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant joined us, and it was total chaos. It was as if Michael was the only thing that existed in that bar.
I traveled with the Bulls for 20 games or so in 1998. Their bus windows were blacked out, so the bus looked like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, just this black blob on four wheels, and people were running, like the apes in the movie, just wanting to touch it. They came to the windows. They couldn't see who was inside, and the players were looking out in amusement. Everyone just wanted to reach out and touch Michael.
Truly, being with Michael was like traveling with Jesus. All the rules went out the window. Whatever I wanted, I could shoot. I'd go to some spot I knew no photographer should be, and someone would say, "Hey! You can't stand here."
I'd say, "I'm with Michael."
They'd say, "O.K."
Michael came from a good family. I never really saw him abuse his fame. He always kept his word. He was generous. He remembered everyone's name.
I've heard all kinds of stories about his golf games. Mike has serious bets going all the time when he's golfing, because it adds pressure. He'll book an hour of tee times before him and after him so no one else is around. He's a good golfer. All his friends can play.
The last time I shot Jordan was last year. I went into a room in the clubhouse of a private golf course in Chapel Hill, N.C., to say hello, and the usual people were there, his guys. They were like, "Oh, God, I didn't know they were hiring retired people. What are you still working for, Walter?" Always needling, all the time. I had a roll of ones with a couple of hundreds wrapped around them. I took it out and threw it on the table. I said, "I'm ready for you."
Michael said, "Walter, you don't have enough money in any of your banks to play with me. You can play behind me." So I played in his draft.
On that visit I said, "Mike, do you remember the pictures we did?"
He said, "What, do you think I'm dumb?"
I said, "I'm serious. What's your favorite?"
He said, "I really like that roof shot. That was really clever of you to do that. And I liked the blue dunk."
I said, "I'm just checking."
I grew up in East Orange, N.J. My grandparents on my mother's side hated that I went to East Orange High School. They wanted me to get out of there because there were so many blacks and Italians. It was like The Sopranos meets Shaft. But because I grew up in a mixed community, half of my friends were black. Looking back, I think it made a great difference in my relationships with black athletes. They could sense that I understood, because of where I came from. There was this bond between us. I wasn't just another white person who had no idea what their lives were like.
Sports were like therapy for me when I was young. My parents got divorced when I was four, and it was really acrimonious. My dad was a jazz musician who played with Benny Goodman, and I wasn't allowed to see him for four years. Even after that, when I saw him on weekends, it was horrible for me. Every time he would leave on Sunday, I was despondent.
He was replaced for me by a little DuMont TV. I think it was a defining experience, seeing those images in that box at an early age, even if the screen was only five inches. I think that's partly where my visual sensibility comes from. I would stay up late every night watching TV. I escaped into sports.
The first time I looked through a real camera lens was at a football game in 1959. I was 16. My dad took me to see the Giants, and we were way up in the stands at Yankee Stadium, and I remember thinking, There's no way to take good pictures from up here. But then I looked through that camera and discovered that I liked how life looked through a telephoto lens. You could choose whatever you wanted to see and eliminate the rest.
I modeled my life as a photographer on the way athletes play their games. I don't like sitting in a stadium for two hours chitchatting and smiling. What do I have to look at? I know what I'm going to shoot. I've arrived at events just as the national anthem was ending. It used to piss off the other photographers. They're there three hours, four hours before the game. Boring.
But I never underestimated the value of a good rival. Mine was Neil Leifer. He started at SI in 1960, a year before I did, and he was a kid too—16 when he sold his first photo to the magazine. Neil took some of the greatest sports photos of all time. You know the one of Ali standing over Sonny Liston? That was Neil.
I was always worried Neil was going to get the cover, because he was so good at it. One time we're in Cleveland at the NFL championship game, and someone plunges across the goal line. Neil comes running over, and in his New York accent he says, "Cov-ah! Cov-ah! I even left room for the logo." As much as I wanted to kill him, I believed him.
It's amazing what Neil drove me to do. I was shooting the championship game between the Packers and the Giants in 1962 at Yankee Stadium, and it was brutally cold. I've heard players who were in the Ice Bowl say this day was colder. I had these metal camera straps that were sticking to my face when I tried to shoot, and my hands and feet were throbbing. I ended up crumpled in the end zone, on both knees, just frozen to the ground. I was about to give up. It was as if I'd been ice-water-boarded. Then I looked over at Neil, and he didn't even have gloves on! I thought, If he can go on, then I have to go on.
There was a lot of resentment from other members of the press when Neil and I were young. It certainly didn't cross my mind when I was 18 that we were representing the biggest sports magazine in the world.
We covered the World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers in Los Angeles in '63. I had just turned 20, and Neil was almost 21. For Game 3 I was in the photo well on the first base side, and Neil was on the third base side, near the Dodgers' dugout. The Dodgers' Don Drysdale threw a shutout to win the game, and at the end Neil opened the gate and ran onto the field before the catcher, John Roseboro, could get to Drysdale. So you had this little guy out there, Neil, and the two players were trying to reach around him to hug.
The next day we show up at the stadium, and the L.A. press wants to ban Neil from all games, because no photographer had ever run out on the field like that. There on the front page of the Sunday Los Angeles Times is a picture of Neil with the players reaching around him, taken from upstairs.
And you know what? Neil got a great, great shot.
I went to the first Super Bowl, in Los Angeles in January 1967, and it was crazy. SI needed to go to press Sunday night because it would cost a fortune to hold off the presses. The idea was to send two Learjets from L.A. back to New York with the game film, one at halftime and one at the end.
The night before, I went to the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood with a girl from San Francisco to see Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. I didn't drink much at the time, but I had way too many that night. I was completely hammered.
The next morning the phone rang at six, and it was the picture editor: "We got a lot of problems in L.A.," he said. "We got fog. We're going to have problems with the jets. Get up now. And get Neil."
I got into this cab with Neil, and it was hot and smoggy. We had the windows down, and I remember this scorching wind and I had a horrible hangover and Neil was talking a mile a minute—he was in great shape. It was like a bad drug trip. I felt like I had a pipe running through my head, and everything he said just went straight through the middle and out the other side.
We got to the Coliseum, and they had a Coke dispenser, so I drank about seven Cokes, which helped wake me up. I stationed myself in the end zone, away from everybody else. And of course the Packers' Max McGee made a catch, bobbling the ball and pulling it in, and ran into the end zone, and there I was: Touchdown. Cover. This of course infuriated Neil, because I was completely unprepared. That's the last time I ever showed up to work like that.
It's good to love yourself. Reggie Jackson loved himself. He loved posing, loved everything about the camera. In 1969, the year he had 37 home runs at the All-Star break, I took a picture of him in Oakland, shooting down the first base line through a thousand-millimeter lens. Reggie hit one and dropped the bat and just watched the ball. The catcher was up, the umpire was up. You look at the picture, you know it's a home run. No caption needed.
Eleven years later, after Reggie went to the Yankees, a photo editor at SI told me, "We want to redo this picture."
So I spent a week at Yankee Stadium, and I went to Reggie and showed him the photo and said, "I want to re-create this picture. I'm going to go down the rightfield line. You'll see me out there."
He said, "Yeah, I can do that."
And, just as I would with Jordan, I said, "You're going to remember this in the game?"
He went, "Yeah, sure."
So I'm out there, and it's unbearably hot. First at bat, Reggie takes the pitcher to the warning track—boom—and does the pose.
The next inning he comes out to me and says, "How was that?"
I figure I'll push him a bit. He's a competitor, right? So I say, "It was pretty good, Reggie, but you could probably do better, pose it a little longer."
He looks at me, real serious, and says, "I'm going to take him deep the next time."
Drunk fans used to throw coins—Reggie used to wear a helmet out in rightfield—so coins are flying out from the upper deck: nickels, quarters. It's like a war zone. But I stick with it.
Next time up, Reggie does it. He takes the pitcher deep. And you know what he does? He just stands there, in perfect pose, then walks halfway to first base before beginning his trot. Later he comes out to rightfield and goes, "How was that?" Guy was amazing.
So was Earl Weaver. He had that raspy cigarette voice, always cursing. He was old school baseball. In the early '70s I was assigned to capture him arguing with umpires. If you ever saw Earl argue, he screamed like crazy. So I was sitting on the dugout steps in Minnesota, and he asked, "What are you doing here?"
I said, "I'm here to photograph you. You've got a great craggy face."
He went, "What the f--- does craggy mean?"
I said I was there to document him getting into an argument with the umpires. He said, "Really." Then he thought a second and went, "I might be able to do that for you."
The first night he got into an argument, just a small one. The second night I went over to see him and he said, "How was that?"
I frowned a bit and said, "It was all right."
Then he said, "I tell you what. You be ready in the first inning, 'cause I got a real problem with this umpire." Sure enough, first inning Earl came out of the dugout and got into a screamer, in the umpire's face, and got tossed. As he walked off the field, he looked at me behind home plate and smiled.
There are missed moments, too, of course. Two years ago, during the NBA Finals, I was on the Lakers' team bus at 6 p.m., going from the hotel in Orlando to the arena. Kobe was always in the last seat. Rick Fox was there, and I'd become friendly with him. We were talking, and there was this light streaming through the windows. It was beautiful, and I thought, Oh, God, I got to shoot this.
Just then Kobe went, "Walter."
I said, "Yeah?"
"You ever met my wife?"
"I've just seen her around. I've never met her."
"I really love my wife."
Do I sit down and discuss this with Kobe, which I really want to do, or do I pursue this fleeting light? What's more important? I opted for fleeting light, and that was the end of that conversation. I still think about that.
Who would I like to shoot that I haven't? Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin would be fun. But my great white whale is Roger Federer. I tried, but SI never assigned me to shoot him. He is arguably the most beautiful tennis player you'll ever see play. I've gone to tournaments as a fan just to watch him, and I don't do that too often. He had this swagger from knowing no one was going to beat him.
He's not in control anymore, no longer the king. He's declined with Tiger Woods. It happens to everyone. I will be next. But I'd still like to shoot Federer, and I hope that he and Tiger can both make one more trip to the mountaintop. As the old song goes, "Love is lovelier the second time around."
I was sent to cover Tiger for the first time 11 years ago, in Southern California, and I brought a four-by-five camera because I wanted to try to re-create Hy Peskin's famous shot of Ben Hogan driving down the fairway at the 1950 U.S. Open. Since it was a normal lens, I had to get close to Tiger.
Now, the last thing a golfer wants is to have a photographer six feet away. You're never supposed to stand behind him when he tees off. Me? I decided I wanted to get in his face. He wants competition? He's gonna get it today. This is the way I've always felt. It's a game. I'm ready to play it with you, and I know you're ready to play it. Competition is all athletes care about, outside of money and sex.
So I'm getting close to Tiger, and he never looks at me. Now he's in the tee box, and I'm right behind him. I want him to recognize me and get used to me. All he knows is that I'm this new guy who's really getting in his face. So we're there in the tee box, and I'm starting to feel uncomfortable. My assistant, Tom Oba, and I are looking over. I have my dark glasses on, so I can look around without Tiger seeing my eyes. And now Tiger's maybe 50 feet away with Steve Williams, his caddie, and you can see Williams saying, "F------ asshole, that f------ guy over there," pointing at me. They're looking right at me, and I'm looking the other way.
So I say, "Tom, I think we need to back off for a hole or two," and I start to walk up the fairway.
Then Steve comes over to me and says, "Excuse me, mate, you ever covered a golf tournament before?"
I say, "Yes, sir, many."
And that's when I know the war is on. And I'll get the shot.
A month later, SI assigns me to shoot a cover of Tiger in Windermere, Fla. We show up, and I say, "Hey, Tiger, I'm Walter Iooss. I covered you at La Costa. Did you notice me there?"
And he goes, "Every hole."
From that point on, we were sort of friends.
Often you have only 10 minutes with a big star from the moment he walks in the door. So you always wonder, how much time do you want to spend ingratiating yourself? You have to decide how to use your time and get the best shot.
Sometimes I'll try to slow the athlete's tempo, because he's going from one thing to the next. So he walks in and I start talking really, really slowly.
With Tiger, I try to get him off-track. Once I told him I was going to show him the kind of shot we wanted, and I walked him to my laptop. But instead of showing him golf pictures, I went right to the swimsuit pictures. Marisa Miller, I think. And his eyes went big and he said, "Oh, I love her."
I knew I had him.
Being a swimsuit photographer has done more for my reputation than my pictures of athletes. I shoot swimsuit models two weeks a year; the rest of my calendar is athletes. But I walk in the locker rooms and the athletes are like, "You're that guy who shoots those pictures!" And suddenly the whole locker room is mine, because they think I have access to Brooklyn Decker and Elle Macpherson. But shooting a beautiful girl is no different from shooting a great athlete. You work with light, go with your environment.
My first swimsuit assignment was in 1972. After spending my formative years shooting baseball, football and basketball, I was sent for three weeks to the Bahamas and Acapulco. I learned quickly that models and photographers are the same. You can't put too many of them in the same room. Too many egos.
The worst thing about swimsuit shoots? There is none. I'm not being facetious. If you don't like long flights, that's a problem. Petra Nemcova is as beautiful a model as has ever lived. She once told me that she spent more time in the air than on the ground. It made me think: all the time I've spent in the air, that worthless time up there. But once you get to your destination it's like a paid vacation.
I wake up every day with a chance to take a great picture with a topflight beauty and great locations. I have the middle of the day to play golf and surf and swim, and then around 3 p.m. we reconvene. We go out. We shoot until dark. Then we have cocktails, eat and go to bed. I love the regimen, because I have to be in bed by 10, 10:30, and I'm up at five.
With the girls, most of the time what you see is what you get. Beauty isn't enough, though. In 1982 we were on the north shore of Jamaica, and I'd seen this flat limestone area with the blue horizon behind it and this one windblown tree. I knew I wanted to shoot there. I wanted to take Paulina Porizkova, because she was a talent, the best we had. But swimsuit editor Jule Campbell said, "If you're going to shoot it, you have to shoot all the girls."
So we had three models in our bus: Paulina and two others. I explained that I wanted this futuristic shot with an alien landscape. The other two went first, and their poses and expressions weren't right. Then I took Paulina out and she was perfect.
A star was born. I remember one of the other girls cried on the bus after the shoot.
I was at Cheryl Tiegs's house in Bel Air, Calif., shortly after the issue with the photo of her in a white fishnet swimsuit came out in 1978. This was before the age of supermodels, understand, but she was just blowing up. I was shooting her for the cover of TIME magazine, and the phone kept ringing. I'd never been with someone whose life was changing as I sat there. I remember thinking it was like watching a coin teetering on its edge. Once it fell, she would never be the same person again.
There are certain girls to whom the first thing you say is, "Don't move." Paulina, Petra, Veronica Varekova. Models who can pose make the photographer's life infinitely easier. You just stick them anywhere, and whatever they're doing—just sitting in a chair—you want to take their picture.
The best was Christie Brinkley. I called her Smokin' Christie Brinkley. We'd bring her in last, after all the other girls, when we were feeling burned out, two or three weeks into a shoot. Then in came Christie, with this great big personality, and everyone was energized again. She was the closer.
I was sort of obsessed with John McEnroe. In 1980 I was hired by a Japanese company to photograph only McEnroe for the entire fortnight at Wimbledon, and I had SI too, so I went to every one of McEnroe's singles matches and every doubles match and, of course, attacked it just as I did with Tiger.
I really wanted to get to know McEnroe, so I put myself in his face with the hope that later we could connect. Remember, he went to a top prep school in New York City, went to Stanford. He was a smart guy and brilliant player. But he was often a real a------. Still, there was something compelling about him: You couldn't help but watch him. Wimbledon was his pi√®ce de résistance, with the British tabloids calling him Super Brat and McBrat.
So these two weeks are going by, and, believe me, McEnroe knows I'm there. One day we're on Court 1, and the photographers are in the first row, level with the grass, a great angle for shooting. I have the inside position, at the net right where the players come out of the tunnel.
John had a problem with the film rewind, which made this humming noise. But I had no choice; I had to rewind film. I tried to do it on changeovers. Anyway, in this match I hit the rewind button one time, and I could hear the silence around me. John looked over and said, "You have to do that now?"
My first response was to look down the row of photographers, as if to say, You know I wouldn't do that, John. But John looked right at me: "No, you, the one pretending he didn't do it. You." This was Round 1 of an endless bout between us that would go on for those two weeks and the two weeks of the U.S. Open in August and September.
So we get to the Wimbledon men's singles final, and before the match starts I walk out to shoot McEnroe. He looks at me and says, "You f------ son of a bitch. You f------ c---------." This is before the final. Really, this is what he's going to spend his energy on?
He loses the final to Bjorn Borg. The next day I'm at the Concorde lounge bringing the film back to New York City, and I'm talking to Arthur Ashe and his wife, Jeannie. I say, "I'd really like to meet John."
Arthur says, "I've seen him mistreat too many people. Jeannie can introduce you, but I don't want to."
So Jeannie and I walk over. McEnroe's all in denim: jean jacket, jeans. He's sitting hunched over, as usual, removing himself from the world.
Jeannie says, "Hi, John. I'd like to introduce you to somebody."
He looks up at me and says, "You're an assassin. You're all assassins." He starts getting really pissed off. He says, "Why can't you use just one roll of film?"
I say, "Well, John, you have to change film."
We never did connect.
All the guys who are perceived as a------s are a------s. Randy Moss, Albert Belle, especially Barry Bonds.
The editors of SI KIDS called up in early 2004 and said, "We've got Willie Mays and Barry Bonds in San Francisco. You wanna photograph them?" I said, "Hell, yes." So I took the giant Polaroid. Bonds was just jacked. I mean, his body was sculpted. The reporter for SI KIDS asked him, "What was your favorite subject in school?"
He said, "Math, just so I could count money." And he was serious.
Partway through, I asked Bonds, "Can I take a portrait of you to include in a book I'm doing?" He said no. At the end, I asked again, and he said no again, so I gave up. Then I heard his p.r. person whisper to him, "Well, we do need some new pictures." So Bonds said, "We'll do some pictures if you send them to us." I said no problem.
So I shot him for the book. He had his hat on backward; they were beautiful shots. Then he looked at me, and the last thing he said to me was, "You can use those pictures. But if you do, I'll sue you."
Brett Favre, on the other hand, was a party waiting to happen, back before he cleaned up his act. When he was young, he and his agent, Bus Cook, sometimes arrived at the shoots with beers in their hands. Brett was one of those guys whose eyes just sparkled. It was as if any minute something was going to bust loose around him. Party? Let's roll.
Everyone goes out on the town in the sports world. My first shoot with the great SI writer Dan Jenkins was also my first golf tournament, the '64 Colonial. I was 20 at the time and sort of nervous, because I had to be at the course at eight in the morning. So the night before, I was at the hotel in bed, and I heard this pounding on the door. I thought, What the hell is this? I opened the door and Jenkins and [SI writer] Bud Shrake and a whole bunch of crazy people were standing there. Dan said, "We're partying in your room tonight."
I said, "I gotta get up tomorrow."
He shook his head: "You're gonna party tonight." And that was it. It was easy for Dan, he had to wake up at one in the afternoon. Me, I'd never seen this kind of action on the road. I can't even begin to tell you what took place that night, but he introduced me to the night, Dan Jenkins did.
I shot Ali and Joe Frazier together in 2003 at Joe's gym in Philadelphia, and it was hard to sleep the night before. I knew it was something that would never happen again. This train's passing through my station once, I thought, and I want a good picture. Not just good, I want a monumental picture, one that stands the test of time. But SI wanted a goofy fist-to-the-jaw pose.
I decide to go with the 20-by-24 Polaroid. This camera is the size of an elephant. A technician has to wheel it around. The only thing I do is squeeze a cable release. But with its tonality and film stock, it makes gorgeous photos. I've had people cry when I showed them the prints. It's almost analogous to what Native Americans once thought photography did: The Polaroid captures your soul.
I arrive early and go in the back to see Joe. I say, "Joe, how're you doing?"
He can barely talk. "My legs are killing me, man," he says. He just walked in some sort of charity event, and he's beat.
I say, "Look, Joe. I've gotta put a stool into the ring for Muhammad"—here I pause—"but not you." This isn't good.
Then in comes Muhammad, and it's showtime. He goes, "Where Joe Frazier? I want that big, ugly gorilla. Where Joe Frazier?" But after that entrance, he never says another word. I have him in the ring for 45 minutes, which is a long time for a guy who can barely move due to his illness. Not a word.
I finish off the photos SI wants, and then I start to shoot these sepia Polaroids known as "chocolate," a combination of color Polaroid and black-and-white film processed together through the back of the camera. These I'm shooting for myself, which is the only way to get good pictures. If you just take what your editor wants, smiley pictures, you're sometimes dead. They hire you to do what you do best, but they always fight it a little, because they have this preconception of what they want.
So I have these two old, battered, sick warriors who left their lives in the ring, and Ali still looks mean. Every boxer's mean. And we got this one photo, the last one, in which you can see it all, everything right there on the faces of these two men.
I first photographed LeBron James in 2003, when he was a rookie in Cleveland. He was pretty raw as a teenager; he didn't have any of the smoothed edges he has now. When I shot him six years later, in 2009, the difference was amazing. He walked in like a king that day, and he took over that room. And not only physically, although he was massive then. I've never seen an athlete look like that. He was muscular, charming, articulate, the prince of hoops. He couldn't have been more of an ambassador for the game.
Times change, and sadly, LeBron became a villain to many after The Decision. I've seen a lot of entourages, but none like his. In July 2010 I got an assignment from Nike to shoot LeBron right after his TV special announcing his move to the Heat. We rented the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, where the Lakers and the Clippers used to play, and there were 53 people on my crew—including hair and makeup artists, production people, a stylist. I had $10,000 in Hollywood lighting. It was huge. When LeBron arrived, it was as if Nelson Mandela had come in. Six or seven blacked-out Escalades pulled up, a convoy. LeBron had bodyguards and his masseuse. His deejay was already there, blasting. This for a photo shoot that was going to last an hour, tops.
This is how crazy it was: I wasn't even allowed to talk directly to LeBron. There was a liaison, someone from Amar'e Stoudemire's family. I would say to him, "O.K., have LeBron drive right," and then he'd turn to LeBron and say, "LeBron, go right."
LeBron had guards in the portals on the mezzanine level, talking into their hands. Really, what was going to happen? And then at the end of the shoot they all got in the Escalades. My God, I've been around Michael Jordan, but with him nothing even came close to this. Unimaginable.
For the opposite kind of experience, I'll point to Cal Ripken Jr. I wanted to do a shot at twilight in St. Petersburg during spring training in 1981, sit him on the dugout steps where the light, the sky, the field and my strobe were all balanced. I was sitting in the locker room with him, and he said, "The night game is what, six days away, 7:05 start?" And I said, "Yeah." And he went, "O.K. So we're going to shoot like at what, 5:07?" I said, "Yeah." Then he reached into his locker and took out a pad and wrote down, Photo session with Walter. No athlete had ever done that with me.
About 10 years went by, and I shot Cal again during the Streak. I wanted to shoot in late daylight with the streak numbers visible on sheets hanging from the buildings behind Camden Yards. He said, "Well, if we're gonna do it, let's do it right. We'll do it after a doubleheader." By the way, this was August, late in the season. He was exhausted. But he did it. He posed and then he came back to the dugout, and as we took a few more shots, his eyes rolled up in his head, and he started to sleep right there. But he'd given me the time.
Mariano Rivera is not only one of the greatest players I've ever seen in baseball but also one of the most sincere. He's such a sweet guy. For years he kept saying to me, "I have to get Derek [Jeter] a nice girl from the mountains of Panama."
I said, "He's really gonna love that." Very cynical of me.
Then one time I asked him, "Who taught you that cutter?"
He said, "God."
I said, "God did?" Being an atheist, I said, "God never taught me anything."
Mariano said, "Oh, yes, he did, Walter." He was very calm. He said, "He gave you your great talent. You should be thankful."
That humbled me. The truth is, I see photos everywhere. I look at someone sitting next to me at lunch, and instantly I'm putting up a background in my mind. That's just churning all the time. If the beauty's there, I want to take a picture of it. I could be anywhere. I take hundreds of iPhone photos, and I compose those too, as much as I can. What I really am is lucky to be doing what I do.
People play the lottery for the same reason I do my job. They're hoping some magical moment comes along and they win $10 million. I've been winning my whole career: The phone rings and, "You're going to Bora Bora." Last year, "You're going to Fiji" and "You're going to the Maldives." Or "You're shooting Tiger" or "You're shooting Michael."
I live for these things. I love these jobs. You never know when it's going to happen, so there's always an element of surprise.
I've stayed in this because I'm still fascinated by people who do things the rest of us can't. For me, it's part of this childlike fantasy, this enthusiasm and love of being around great athletes that hasn't gone away. How could it?
I'm just gonna work until it stops. I love the planning of jobs; I love to think about them almost as much as shooting them. I like the process of having something out there ahead of me as opposed to a black hole with nothing in sight.
Athletes always believe they've got one more trick up their sleeves. None of them want to quit.
I don't blame them.
The easy access to sports stars is only one of the things that's changed since the Sixties
Talk about times changing. The picture of Joe Namath poolside at the Galt Ocean Mile Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, before Super Bowl III? Can you imagine that scene today with Tom Brady? Never.
Another difference: Today I just download files back to the office—bang, like that. But in the 1960s and '70s, getting photos back to the magazine in New York City was crazy. We had to use Learjets, helicopters, limos. During spring training I would work all day and then drive five hours round-trip to an air-freight office in Florida every night to drop off film.
The office didn't want to hear excuses; just get on the plane on Sunday with the film and get to New York, or you don't work. There were times I would leave the rental car parked, motor running, outside the terminal. The Hertz and Avis offices were right inside the terminal doors. "Your car's outside!" I would scream as I ran to the gate.
Sometimes I'd give the film to flight attendants. There were no security issues back then. They would take the film and hold it and give it to someone from the magazine who'd meet the plane in New York.
STICKBALL IN CUBA
How street kids in Havana showed me the essence of sport—and I almost spoiled the game
There's one picture of mine that embodies what I feel sport is about: a child's heart. The photo is of kids playing stickball in Cuba, and this fat boy's at the plate, and it's that millisecond when the ball is pitched to you and nothing else is happening in the world, and you hit a home run. Then there's the joy you feel, and the adulation you get from your teammates. It's the reason adults play softball in Central Park. You can still reach that moment at 30, 40, 80.
After shooting the scene I said, "Let me take a swing." I made contact, and I just dropped the bat and stood there and watched the ball. It went onto the roof of a building, and I was dancing around, just pumped. Then all of a sudden I realized: I had just lost the kids' ball. This was Cuba; it wasn't as if they had another one. The kids looked heartbroken, so we had to drive around and find a tennis ball for them.
An Olympian helped me take a great photo, but what I saw was not what he saw
My miracle picture came in 1982. I was assigned to document the U.S. team during the lead-up to the 1984 Olympics, and I took a lot of shots of diver Greg Louganis at the national team's training center in Mission Viejo, Calif. One night I shot a photo of him when it was almost dark, using a strobe light and a slow shutter speed. Behind him was one strip of red at twilight. When I opened the box of slides, the picture was flipped so Greg seemed to be diving upward out of flames. It was magic. I still think it's one of the best pictures I ever took.
So the next time I went to Mission Viejo, I took a print and handed it to Greg and then backed off a step, with my chest puffed out. He looked at it for a moment and said, "I'm bent." He handed it back to me.
I said, "Excuse me?"
"I'm crooked," he said. "Look at it." And he walked away.
What's it feel like to be a sports star? My idol gave me the chance to live the dream
You wander arenas all your life, and you're always wishing you were on the court, where the athletes are. But for one afternoon in 1987 I actually was there. I got paired with Bjorn Borg (inset, second from right) in an exhibition tennis match at our hotel on Antigua, against the island's top two players.
Understand, I loved Borg. I named one of my sons Bjorn and the other Christian Bjorn. So this was big for me. But if you're those other two guys, who are you going to hit it to: Borg or me? So I knew I was going to see almost every ball.
I was a pretty decent tennis player, but something happened that day. For the first hour or so I was in that zone athletes talk about, or beyond it. When I came to, we were up 6--2, 6--2. We'd won the match, which I didn't realize had ended until we were asked if we wanted to play a third set.
Now it was the third set, and we were down 4--3. Bjorn waddled up to me and said, in that robotic way of his, "I do not want to lose this set."
I said, "All right," and we did it: We won 7--5. I had never done anything in sports at that level.
The next day I got a note from Borg. I still have it. It reads, Thank you for carrying me in the match. Stay in touch, Bjorn.
That's the only time I lived the fantasy of being the athlete. That was my moment.