Longtime NBA Photographer Nathaniel S. Butler Shares His Favorite Moments

Andrew D. Bernstein and Nathaniel S. Butler have photographed more than 35 NBA Finals together as the senior official NBA photographers and first met at the 1986 All-Star game in Dallas, TX. Based in the New York area, Butler has been covering the New York Knicks and New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets for the NBA since 1984.

Butler went to St. John’s University and began photographing basketball games at Madison Square Garden, where the team played their larger games. At MSG, he met photographers from Sports Illustrated who were also there to cover the game.

“I started working as an assistant which was basically an apprenticeship. It was the greatest experience ever,” Butler said. “At that time, Sports Illustrated was what we all aspired to do…it was the greatest learning experience I’ve ever had.”

From that experience, Butler learned how to light indoor arenas and the importance of timing using the strobe system that restricts shooting to one photo every four seconds. He continued to shoot games at MSG and worked as an intern in the NBA PR Department in 1984, the same year David Stern was promoted to Commissioner. 

“There was no photography department back then,” Butler said. “David had just started NBA Entertainment, he wanted to archive the NBA history and document history.”

At that time, the NBA did not send photographers to every game and the NBA Photo Department was nonexistent. Butler explained that the international market sparked a demand for NBA photos and, in 1985, the NBA Photos Department was created.

“It started with me covering press conferences and talking my way into a Knicks game,” Butler said of his NBA photography career. 

Bernstein and Butler reminisce about the early days of covering NBA games, from dragging two miles of zip cords through arenas and stadiums to dealing with spontaneous strobe failures and being limited to a finite number of photos per roll of film.

“What some of the younger people may not realize was that we were shooting with film…editing and processing the film was a labor-intensive process,” Butler said.

Butler shares the memories behind some of his most iconic photos including the time when someone stole Michael Jordan’s jersey from the locker room and MJ had to wear a generic no. 12 jersey during the game on February 14, 1990.

Other images include the iconic shot of Bill Russell and Michael Jordan with the MVP award which was taken in just a few frames. 

“These guys have 17 rings between them…This is what I talk about being fortunate enough to document things,” Butler said.

Butler shares a documentary project he’s working on to sort the fact from fiction when it comes to NBA championship rings. 

“After you get one ring, you don’t get another ring…Bill Russell won 11 championships in 13 years. There’s a lot of urban myths about what you get instead of a ring,” Butler said.”Everyone talks about rings and championships…but Bill Russell may have gotten a tea set for winning an NBA Championship.”
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