An unexpected locked gate made the path to my rental car considerably longer on a recent trip to Arizona. However, if that gate had not been locked, I would have missed the answers to two questions others posed to me.
As I hauled all my camera gear along a sidewalk to my car, a white SUV rolled slowly past me before stopping. The passenger window rolled down. Suddenly, a woman stuck her head out and began thanking me. Soon her husband joined in offering his thanks for the pictures I take of their son, Justin Protacio, the shortstop on the KU baseball team.
The most popular question to me of late has been, “Don’t you wish you were in Sochi covering the Winter Olympics?” The Protacio parents provided me with the reason why I have been answering “no” to that Olympic question.
Please understand, I would not turn down an opportunity to cover an Olympics, even though I did just that back in 1972. Then, I was too inexperienced and not mature enough to do the job as well as I could today. Now, I have come to enjoy time in a ball park or arena covering a sport where the players, coaches and parents have an appreciation that cannot be matched by even the biggest sporting events in the world.
The KU baseball team opened their season in Peoria, Arizona, with a four-game series against BYU. Saturday’s double-header had been long and drawn out with the second game going into extra innings. Two photo galleries awaited production. Yet, as the SUV rolled away, my steps around the stadium picked up thanks to the kind words.
That leads to the answer to the other question asked by a media member before leaving for Arizona, “How can you possibly want to go cover baseball instead of covering KU men’s basketball here in Allen Fieldhouse? Are you crazy?”
Guess I am crazy because that is exactly what I wanted to do. It is my pleasure every summer at the Sport Photography Workshop to teach alongside esteemed photographers that have covered multiple Olympics. A very dear friend, Rob Schumacher, who I helped get his start in photography just finished covering the Olympics in Sochi for USA Today. I followed his work on-line every day.
They tell me of fantastic photo positions at the Olympics with indoor light carefully set to optimize world-wide television coverage, and thus still photography. The organizers want good coverage and go out of their way to make sure the angles available are the best. The very best athletes compete and the emotion is constantly at its peak in joy and sorrow. The work for the photographers is long and tiring, to the point of near collapse, but grand images are there for everyone to make. Anymore for me, that is the problem. There are just too many photographers seated together taking photographs at the very same moment.
There will be a time, sooner than I would like, when my career as a top sports photographer will end. Age is cruel and often harshly critical. Fortunately, I am not done yet, but my fascination as a photographer continues to shift to events where I can make photographs that others are not. Whether it is traveling with baseball or with softball in Orlando the week before, I have to work very hard to make my images something special and keep them different from game-to-game. I constantly try to find locations to make interesting photographs.
There is one huge bonus to all this. It means so much to the athletes, the coaches and the fans. It is a nice ego boost to receive so many compliments, but they mean much more to me for a different reason. This is my 18th year working for KU. From the very first conversation I had with KU about taking on their photography, the importance of covering more than football and basketball was critical to me. When I finally walk away from KU, my greatest joy will be that every sport received my very best efforts.
Last night, KU won a share of their 10th straight Big 12 Conference title. I was proud to be there and proud to have covered Bill Self and the teams that keep the hearts of their faithful pounding so proudly over those ten years. Yet, on that night weeks ago when I asked why I wanted to cover baseball over basketball, I reeled off reasons to my friend. It started with the fact I was missing a game against TCU. That was left to Laura to cover. Payback it would seem for her long stay in sunny Puerto Rico in January.
I was off to Arizona, a place where I once worked and still love, to shoot a game I love under the sunny skies with temperatures in the 80’s. However, the biggest reason continues to be my hope that people will remember that the so-called “minor” sports are happily covered in a very “major league” way.