THROUGH THE LENS OF RICH CLARKSON

THE VETERAN OF 59 FINAL FOURS HAS CHRONICLED COLLEGE BASKETBALL FROM EVERY ANGLE, AND HIS PICTURES TELL THOUSANDS OF STORIES. HE SHARES THE IMAGES THAT MEAN THE MOST TO HIM
March 06, 2013

GROWING UP in Lawrence, Rich Clarkson and his friends would ride their bikes to the University of Kansas's central power plant and explore the tunnels that ran beneath the campus. The game was to guess where they would come out. One day they emerged in Robinson Gymnasium during a basketball practice. Jayhawks coach Forrest C. (Phog) Allen introduced himself to the boys and allowed them to stay and observe. Clarkson was mesmerized by the sights and sounds of the players as they passed, shot, ran—even when they took their water breaks.

A decade later, in the fall of 1951, Clarkson was a freshman at Kansas, and he asked Allen if he could ride to away games on the team bus; the coach said yes. The timing couldn't have been more fortuitous: The Jayhawks would go on to win the first of their three NCAA titles, and Clarkson would be one of only five photographers who traveled to Seattle for the championship weekend. He has been a Final Four fixture ever since, toting his cameras from courts to locker rooms to planes to shoot 59 championships, snapping photos of almost all of the game's legends. His first picture published by SI—the Wilt Chamberlain portrait on the following page—was shot in 1955 when Clarkson was a senior at Kansas; many more would follow in the 30 years he spent as a contract photographer for the magazine. "I'm always trying to do different things," the 80-year-old Clarkson says. "I'll look for a different angle for a shot or a different place on the court to photograph from. But you always have to be sure that you are ready for that signature moment in the game."

To prepare for that special moment at the Final Four, Clarkson seeks out reporters and peppers them with questions. What are the keys to the game? What big story lines are developing? What players are poised to come up big in the second half? "I try to be intelligent and understand as best I can what will make a significant picture," Clarkson says. "But you never know when the special moment will happen. It can be in the quiet of the locker room before the tip-off. Other times it can be in the huge noise of the arena in the last 20 seconds of a great game."

The hallmark of Clarkson's career is the behind-the-scenes access he has earned. He often approaches a coach in the early rounds of the tournament and asks for permission to stand quietly in the locker room. "It's a matter of a coach trusting you," Clarkson says. "Coaches know I won't cause a problem. These moments are seldom photographed and rarely witnessed by anyone not part of the team."

Gaining this trust hasn't always been easy. During the 1963--64 season he was sent by SI to Kentucky to shoot a portrait of Adolph Rupp for a feature on the nation's most colorful coaches. When he arrived in Lexington he asked the sports information director, Ken Kuhn, if he could sit on the floor next to the bench for a few minutes. The idea was immediately rejected. Undeterred, Clarkson walked into Rupp's office and took a seat. Before the coach could throw him out, Clarkson reminded Rupp that they had met 19 years earlier. Rupp's sister, Elizabeth Lawson, had lived across the street from Clarkson in Lawrence. Before a Kentucky-Kansas game, when Allen was visiting Rupp (who had played for the Jayhawks) at his sister's home, the coaches had summoned a 14-year-old Clarkson to run over with his Ansco Speedex camera to snap a picture.

Rupp remembered that day and still had the portrait Clarkson had printed for him. He promptly allowed the photographer access not just to the court but also to the Wildcats' locker room and to his own home.

Since he was in grade school, Clarkson has been striving to make unusual photographs. At 10 he borrowed a box camera from his mother, Meta Mary, and persuaded a pilot to take him for a ride in a Piper Cub so that he could get aerial shots. That powerful sense of curiosity has driven Clarkson's career. He has shot every major sporting event, but for him, nothing matches the magic of the Final Four, which is why you'll find him in Atlanta during this season's last weekend.

"There's so much drama, and you can see it in everyone's faces," Clarkson says. "The emotional aspects of the game are just as important to me as the great sports action that the Final Four always delivers."

MARCH 26, 1952

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

KANSAS 80, ST. JOHN'S 63

1955

KANSAS MEDIA DAY

"WILT HAD SUCH A HIGH WAIST AND LONG LEGS. YOU COULD SEE THAT BETTER WHEN HE WAS SEATED. I WAS LYING ON THE FLOOR TO GET THIS SHOT."

DURING MY freshman year at Kansas (1951--52), I began traveling with the Jayhawks and sharing in all the team's activities. Coach Phog Allen (far left) was a brilliant motivator whose pregame speeches were epic—and always unpredictable. Allen led Kansas to three NCAA championship games, winning in '52 with a young Dean Smith (fifth from right) as a role player. When Wilt Chamberlain (above) arrived in Lawrence before the '55--56 season, I tried to think of ways to show his 7'1" frame graphically. I had him do a sequence of shots, including his signature finger roll, but the photos didn't convey how tall he was. At one point his shoelace came untied. He sat down in a folding chair to retie it, and I thought, Now that really shows how big he is.

MARCH 24, 1967

NATIONAL SEMIFINAL

UCLA 73, HOUSTON 58

MARCH 27, 1971

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

UCLA 68, VILLANOVA 62

"I'M SITTING ON THE BASELINE, AWARE THAT THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT PLAYERS IN THE GAME ARE ALCINDOR AND HAYES."

THE PICTURE with UCLA's Lew Alcindor (33) battling Houston's Elvin Hayes for a rebound in the Final Four tells the larger story of the game. There's backlighting so it highlights everyone in the picture. You can see the score. The graphics and the location of the players come together to form a nice overall composition. I shot all 10 of John Wooden's championships, and he always said the picture with Sidney Wicks (right) was his favorite. Wicks was a star who never really bought into Wooden's team concept, and the two had an awkward relationship. When it was obvious the Bruins were going to win, Wooden began taking his starters out. The last player he took out was Sidney. He and Wooden talked for about 30 seconds. I had a motorized camera and got off about 10 pictures. Years later, Wooden told me Sidney had said, "Coach, you're something else." A print of this photo hung in Wooden's home office; Wicks asked for a copy as well.

MARCH 23, 1972

NATIONAL SEMIFINAL

FLORIDA STATE 79, NORTH CAROLINA 75

"PUTTING A CAMERA ON THE FLOOR WAS A DIFFERENT WAY TO CAPTURE THE SIGNIFICANT PLAY—OR PLAYERS—IN A GAME."

TO GET this photo of Tar Heels guard Steve Previs (13) chasing Seminoles guard Otto Petty at the Final Four in Los Angeles, I had set up a camera on the floor against the basketball stanchion. Before the game I told the baseline referee to watch out for it because I didn't want him to trip. I then sat about 10 feet away with a remote. I had experimented with this approach during the regular season, and I liked this camera angle.

MARCH 30, 1981

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

INDIANA 63, NORTH CAROLINA 50

"MANY HAVE FOUND IT AMAZING THAT KNIGHT GAVE ME INSIDE ACCESS TO HIS TEAM."

EARLY IN Bob Knight's tenure at Indiana, I went to Bloomington to photograph the Hoosiers for SI, beginning an unlikely friendship with Knight that continues to this day. Several hours before the 1981 final was supposed to tip off in Philadelphia, President Ronald Reagan was shot, and it was uncertain whether the game would be played. Both teams had to stay in their locker rooms longer than usual while NCAA officials and NBC executives debated what to do, and Knight allowed me to come in during that time. Of course, the game went on, Indiana won and sophomore point guard Isiah Thomas (11) was named Most Outstanding Player. In this picture he had stolen the ball and was going in for two of his game-high 23 points. This was just a solid action shot that reflected the outcome, which gave Knight the second of his three championships in Bloomington.

APRIL 4, 1983

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

NORTH CAROLINA STATE 54, HOUSTON 52

"THIS PICTURE SHOWS THE JOY OF ACCOMPLISHING A DREAM. IT ALSO CAPTURES THE NOTION THAT ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN AT THE FINAL FOUR."

NOT EVEN Jim Valvano (above) expected his Wolfpack to beat the top-seeded Phi Slamma Jamma Cougars. When N.C. State's Lorenzo Charles snatched Dereck Whittenburg's air ball and slammed home the winning shot, Valvano ran around in circles on the court trying to figure out whom to hug. Finally, some fans and players hoisted him onto their shoulders, and I was able to get this picture. In all of my years, I've never seen a coach as excited and demonstrative after winning a game. His celebration lasted four or five minutes.

APRIL 7, 2008

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

KANSAS 75, MEMPHIS 68 (OT)

MARCH 29, 1999

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

CONNECTICUT 77, DUKE 74

WITH 20 SECONDS left I decided to stop shooting action to get prepared for a celebration picture (above). The 1999 final ended on the side where I was working. At the buzzer the Huskies players ran right at me and right at the camera. This image shows the exuberance of winning it all. Nine years later I kept shooting action right to the end, getting this frame of Kansas guard Mario Chalmers (left) launching the miracle three-pointer that sent the title game to overtime. In 1982 I had shot Michael Jordan hitting the last-second, championship-winning basket over Georgetown. I was on the opposite end of the court and used a telephoto lens, but the shot I got back then was too close. You couldn't see the context. I wasn't going to make the same mistake this time. I had a wider-angle lens, which allowed me to capture the entire width of the floor. This is one of the few times I really planned something and it turned out exactly the way I had hoped.

TWENTY PHOTOSPHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH CLARKSON/RICH CLARKSON AND ASSOCIATES PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY RICH CLARKSON/RICH CLARKSON AND ASSOCIATESCLARKSON IN 1963

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)