SPRINGFIELD — Chris Bourne probably didn’t know what the energetic freshman who bolted into The Massachusetts Daily Collegian’s office would become when he made him the assistant photo editor.
All Bourne saw was a young kid eager to ply his trade and help out the newspaper as best he could. Andy Bernstein would go on to take on a wide variety of projects for the UMass student newspaper, from shooting Jimmy Carter’s stop at UMass during his 1976 presidential run, to sitting on the baseline at The Cage photographing the Minutemen’s basketball teams.
Almost 40 years after jetting across the country for California to finish his BFA in photography, Bernstein returns to the Pioneer Valley this weekend to receive the Curt Gowdy Media Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame during its annual induction ceremony.
“It is a true full circle event as my good friend Phil Jackson would say,” Bernstein said in a phone interview Tuesday. “My first published basketball photo was in the UMass Daily Collegian in 1975 when I was a freshman, so to be going back to Springfield down the road from Amherst to be recognized by (the Hall of Fame) with this Curt Gowdy Award for contributions that I’ve had through my photography is pretty humbling.”
It is hard to tell the story of the last 40 years in the NBA without using at least one of Bernstein’s photos. He has captured some of the most iconic moments of the past four decades, including Michael Jordan in tears hugging the Larry O’Brien Trophy with his father by his side after his first title with the Chicago Bulls in 1991.
Bernstein’s career has featured several once-in-a-lifetime assignments that could be considered the apex of any photographer’s life. He was granted unprecedented access to the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s by head coach Pat Riley, who allowed Bernstein to take photos during huddles and in the locker room. He was fortunate enough to chronicle the entire career of Kobe Bryant, taking the first and last professional basketball headshot of the future Hall of Famer, and capturing all the exciting moments in between.
But his most treasured assignment came in 1992 in Barcelona with the Dream Team. As time has passed, those seven weeks have become even more special to Bernstein as he has realized the uniqueness of the situation.
“If I could have retired after that experience, I would have went out with a bang because there’s nothing better than that,” Bernstein said. “I’ve had some great highlights of my career, but to be embedded with that team for seven weeks from the first day of training camp in San Diego until the gold medal in Barcelona was unbelievable. It was the plum assignment of all time. Just to be around these guys, the greatest players in the game, off the court especially, to see them just when they let their guard down and just hanging out … and to be able to be the guy who records that for history, stepping back from it now is just mind boggling.
“I didn’t take it for granted at the time, but time and distance kind of give you a perspective sometimes and it was really an unbelievable assignment. I don’t think that opportunity will ever come again, and I’m glad I had it.”
Bernstein has been on the baseline for the entire playing careers of most of the 12 inductees this weekend, and would still probably have a presence at the festivities even if he weren’t being honored this weekend. That is how intertwined Bernstein’s photos have become with the NBA, and that is a bigger honor for Bernstein than any award he could ever receive.
“These aren’t people from the past, these are people from my most recent life,” Bernstein said. “It’s really rewarding to see these guys go in and to see their careers celebrated and to have my photos serve as sort of a remembrance or a way to enjoy their careers through my photos.”
Josh Walfish can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.