The pressure is on for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. It’s Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, the “Last Dance” for Jordan and Coach Phil Jackson at the Delta Center, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The Bulls are down 66–61 at the end of the fourth quarter when Jordan steals the ball from Karl Malone with 18.9 seconds left on the clock. With 10 seconds left on the clock, Jordan drove inside the 3-point line, executed a quick cross-over to evade Bill Russell, and sunk one of the most iconic shots in NBA history.
Jordan scored a 20-footer to give the Bulls an 87–86 lead with 5.2 seconds left. “The last shot” solidified the Bulls lead and, after John Stockton missed a 3-point field goal, became the championship-winning basket. The Bulls earned their sixth championship in eight years and Jordan wrapped up his career with this legendary shot (he would later come out of retirement as would Phil Jackson). It was the last shot Jordan would take as a member of the Chicago Bulls.
“The Last Shot” is a combination of impeccable timing, unparalleled athleticism, technological advancement, and teamwork.
Photographers, Andrew D. Bernstein, Scott Cunningham, and Fernando Medina, worked together to capture what Bernstein calls, “the most iconic Finals photo in NBA history.”
The NBA Photos team had been testing a new technology that was first used by Sports Illustrated photographers, called the Black Box. This system allowed them to capture the same image simultaneously from multiple angles while utilizing a single burst of strobe lighting. In the late 90s, photographers had to bring and install their own strobe lights in arenas. (Today, NBA venues are equipped with multiple sets of strobe lights that home and traveling photographs can digitally sync with their handheld cameras and remote cameras.)
“The Flash Wizard system links all cameras to the Flash Wizard radio system tied into the catwalk of the arena – we can fire multiple cameras as well as the one in my hand and employ ‘human drones’ who were positioned in strategic parts of the areas. They would follow focus and compose but I would trigger their cameras remotely,” Bernstein said.
The system was first used by NBA Photos in the 1993 All-Star Game in Utah and originally featured cameras that were hard-wired to each other. After years of testing the system and “teaching” it to respond to the lag times in different film cameras, the system met its ultimate test during the 1998 Finals.
“Before the shot was hit in 1998, there had been five-plus years of development on this system, it was a long process but just the return on ‘The Last Shot’ image paid for all of the R&D we had done throughout the years,” said Carmin Romanelli, former head of NBA Photos.
Research and development included hiring an engineer from MIT, and testing the lag time (the milliseconds it took to receive the signal, open and close the shutter, and sync with the strobes) on multiple 35mm and 120mm film cameras. Bernstein added that being limited to 36 frames (or 24 frames for Hasselblad cameras) was also a challenge.
The Flash Wizard system used during the 1998 Finals tethered multiple film cameras to Bernstein’s 35mm Nikon. Once he hit the remote trigger, all the tethered cameras operated by “human drones” plus the remotes in fixed positions would fire.
Medina was one of the “human drones” who continuously composed images in his camera and ensured everything was in focus so that he could produce images when Bernstein hit the remote trigger. He has been the team photographer for the Orlando Magic since 1989.
“Working as a ‘human drone,’ you’re not pushing the button but the camera has been put in [your] hands. Basically you have to be alert and have some sort of picture in your camera at all times because you don’t know when the shutter is going to go off,” said Medina, who is credited with capturing “The Last Shot” on film.
The NBA Photos team assigned credit to the photographer who was holding the camera and composing the images. Romanelli explained that NBA Photos applied this rule consistently when it came to assigning credit to “human drones.” He added that the images taken by stationary cameras, such as those mounted on the catwalk, would be credited to the photographer who set them up.
“The Last Shot” is a culmination of the timing, skill, and preparedness of the NBA Photos team. Each photographer was at his assigned position, focused on capturing the action. Bernstein was positioned in the lower corner of the court while Medina was posted on the opposite baseline and Cunningham was in an elevated position near the center court TV cameras.
“It came down to that possession that the Bulls had, they were down by one point and I was situated in the corner. I see the play unfolding and as you watch it you can see MJ fake and just as Byron Russell stumbles, a few players get into my line of sight and I could only see his feet,” Bernstein said. “As soon as he started to jump I just pushed the trigger. I knew that as soon as I pushed the trigger, the ‘human drones’ would be able to get the picture.”
Bernstein’s photo came out as a blur of bodies but both Cunningham and Medina captured the game-winning moment.
“We had so many things go right but so many things went wrong for the person who was pulling the trigger,” Romanelli said. “This reinforced our model that this was the way to go. We had a lot of celebration around the photo because we knew we had something special right away. It was teamwork – it was so many elements that came together right away.”
Joesph Amati, who was working as a photo editor for NBA Photos at the game commented that “The Last Shot” has now become the gold standard to capturing key moments down court. The image is framed sideline-to-sideline, shows the shot clock, the scoreboard, the action, and the fans.
“We had the exact scenario in mind when Fernando took the game-winning photo. You really want the context to have the photo to live on its own,” Amati said.
The NBA Photos team meets prior to every Finals game to outline the positions of the photographers, which lenses and cameras will be used, and how they can work together to cover historic moments. During the previous year’s Finals in 1997, the team also captured the game-winning shot but it was cropped too tightly and missed the shot clock and the scoreboard so it did not give full context to the moment.
“Everything came together,” Romanelli said. “It was the experience we had, Andy’s experience, Fernando following the plan we had, and the result is a tremendous photo.”
In addition to the teamwork and timing that made the image possible, “The Last Shot” is also special because it captures the emotions of the Finals fans in the Utah arena.
“It wouldn’t have the same impact if it was done in any other NBA arena – we lit the crowd in this first section very well. I think it’s the fans’ faces and the anticipation, that backdrop is almost like a painting, “ Amati said.
As seen in “The Last Dance,” the fans are a key element of what makes the photo so powerful. Viewers can experience the excitement, anticipation, and hope on the faces of fans as Jordan releases the ball. Look for a little boy in a Bulls jersey surrounded by Jazz fans preemptively holding up six fingers for the Bulls’ sixth championship, to various fans yelling, gasping, and holding up signs.
“All the elements came together for us,” Bernstein said. “It was a true group effort and that’s what I’m most proud of.”