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|| News Item: Posted 2003-12-01

Leading Off: The assignment that changed my photography and my life
By Robert Hanashiro, Sports Shooter

Photo by Josh Yonker / Utah State University

Photo by Josh Yonker / Utah State University

Robert Hanashiro with the Utah State women's basketball team. Utah State reinstated its women's basketball program on March 5, 2002 after a 17-year absence.
When I first received the assignment, I figured it would be a quick two-day trip to Utah State University ... shoot the coach and a couple of players, maybe find some outdoor hoop with nice late afternoon light to do a portrait and be back home in LA , ready for my next gig.

(Maybe if the assignment had read: "Spend a year with a great group of young, attractive, athletic women" I may have been a lot more excited about it at the time.)

Utah State was the only Division I college without a women's basketball program. And for 12 months I was able to document the start up of a basketball team from the ground up.

Little did I know before that first trip that I would make numerous more, shoot thousands of frames and meet some people that I would remember for the rest of my life. It was one of those assignments that changes you're your photography and your life.

I've covered just about all there is in sports. If my career ended tomorrow I could say I've shot everything I'd always dreamed of. From Friday night prep football to the Super Bowl. I've photographed Kareem and Magic. Bird and Michael. I've seen my beloved Giants in the World Series (only to lose twice!) and I've also shot Little League games. My friends know I have loved each moment of the six Olympic Games I have covered.

But there has been no assignment that has been more fulfilling and fun than the year I spent going back and forth to Logan, Utah.

When I tell people that I've been working on a project on a women's basketball team, usually eyebrows raise and they snicker a bit. When I add that I've been spending a lot if time in Logan, which is in northern Utah near the Idaho border, heads shake and I hear "Jezzz! What's in Logan, Utah?" (Which is what SI's Steve Fine said the other day when he asked me what I had been up to lately.)

It was a full year before they would tip-off their first game, but over coffee and bagels with Utah State head coach Raegan Pebley and her assistant John Bartleson I couldn't help but fall in love with the story and the idea of maybe documenting a little bit of history. Well, at least history to those in Northern Utah.

They had only five players in school at the time, but I was given time and access that I had never experienced before ... and probably would never again. I made numerous trips for this assignment and over that time I blended in, at one point Raegan joked that I should apply for one of her assistant coaching openings.

Through the routine individual workouts … visits by recruits … Raegan showing a sonogram of her unborn son to her players … photographing forward Brittany Hagen meeting with a doctor to hear if a knee injury would end her season, I was part of it all.

Can I be objective I kept asking myself.

When you spend so much time documenting the lives of people, you can't help feel a kinship of sorts but as a "journalist" you're told that you keep your distance and your perspective.

After a while I figured out that the best way to report this story wasn't to be so wrapped up in concerns over my objectivity but to be as much of a part of the team as they would allow. If they accept me then, I could be just ignored to make my photographs as things happened in front of me.

Photo by Josh Yonker / Utah State University

Photo by Josh Yonker / Utah State University

Robert Hanashiro is picked up by Utah State center Jessica Freeman during practice after the Aggies season opener.
The morning of the game against Southern Utah University, the first women's game Utah State would play in nearly 17 years, I sensed the excitement but also the nervousness in the basketball offices. A snafu with the team's uniforms only added to the tension ... but a large cardboard box arrived with the 15 home uni's.

Photographing the coaches sort through the uniforms and hang them in the players' lockers later was like watching excited parents wrapping their kids' gifts on Christmas eve.

Through the final pre-game shoot around, to the team meal to a quiet prayer in the locker room before heading out to the court, I was there, maybe just as nervous but also feeling like these players' parents ... very proud and happy.

I admit that I high-fived a few of them as they screamed and jumped together in the tunnel before exploding onto the floor. I grimaced as they tossed up two airballs to open the game. Yes, I yelled "They can't stop you Jess!" after center Jessica Freeman buried a baseline jumper in the face of a defender.

After staying close in the first 12 minutes of the game, the depth and experience of Southern Utah showed as they pulled away in the final 8 minutes of the half 43-29. I headed up the tunnel to the locker room and photographed the Utah State coaches huddled over the stat sheets ... I wondered if I could bring myself to go into the locker room. I decided to go in ... but shot only a few frames, the somber faces of the players told the story very quickly.

The second half began much like the first ended and I wondered if I could bring myself to march up into the stands to try to make a frame of the court level scoreboard with the players in the foreground.

In the end, the score really didn't matter. Raegan spoke quietly to her team after the final horn sounded, finishing by telling her players to "Go up into the stands and see your families." Hugs from moms and dads, tears of happiness and joy replaced the faces of defeat.

Was I totally objective? Probably not. Did I tell the story completely as a good reporter should? Absolutely.

Spending a lot of time on a story of this magnitude was important. Getting close enough to the players and coaches was essential to showing what they went through to start up a Division I basketball program totally from scratch. And fortunately the coaches, players and the university felt comfortable enough with me to allow me the access and the opportunity to tell their story.

We don't often get a chance to get an insiders' look at things, especially with professional and major college athletics ... it's the reason why I love John Feinstein's books so much and use them for inspiration (run out and get a copy of "The Last Amateurs") ... but when you have an idea and a dream, go for it. Just like 15 players and 4 coaches did a couple of weeks ago up in little Logan, Utah.

* * *

I've created yet another expression for the Sports Shooter Glossary: "Doing a Howard Beal".

A central character in Paddy Chayefsky's movie "Network" Beal is an aging news anchorman, who one day instructs his TV audience to open their windows and scream "I'm mad as hell and I'm not doing to take it any more!"


That's exactly the way I felt after seeing a Sports Illustrated "Leading Off" double truck in the Nov. 17 issue. The photo, taken by Heinz Kluetmeier, is a panorama of the sidelines of the Miami - Tennessee football game. The composite image shows DOZENS of unnecessary people loitering along the sidelines, all wearing a pink media credential.

Unofficial totals (bodies outside of the bench area):
- Needless "civilians" (people with no business on the sidelines) 73
- Bozos talking on cellphones: 2
- Uniform cops: 8
- "Event Staff": 7 (At least most have their backs to the action and they are watching the crowd in the stands; the cops are all watching the game!)
- Cheerleaders/mascot: 19
- TV cameras: 3
- TV cable pullers: 3
- Local TV camera pointers: 1
- Dish holders: 2
- Photographers: 9 (including one chimping!)

So if you're as "mad as hell" like I am --- after screaming out of a window, contact your local school's sports information director (or for that matter the College Sports Information Directors of America at Send them a photocopy of that sideline panorama and circle all of the unnecessary bodies.

They probably won't do anything, but you'll at least feel a little better ...

* * *

Wasn't that an unbelievable weekend in Manhattan Beach we had on Nov. 7 - 8?

"A perfect 10" is what one person wrote to me the day after our annual weekend of photography, learning, sharing and fun ... and I couldn't agree more.

We had over 450 people participating in this year's Sports Shooter Workshop & Luau and seeing so many Hawaiian shirts, feeling the positive vibe I can't help but wonder what possibilities we have for future.

A couple of things I can say: Get your entries ready for the Annual Sports Shooter Contest and keep your eye out for the announcement of another Sports Shooter "event" that is in the planning stages at the moment.

Details will be announced in The Newsletter and on shortly. Trust me ... as always it will be fun and cool!

There are many, many people to thank for this year's Workshop & Luau. Needless to say it starts with the great lineup of speakers, breakout class leaders, staff and volunteers ... and ends with the fine people at Nikon.

This is the third year I've held the Workshop & Luau and the only way it gets better and better every year is with the efforts of the people that give us their time. The most precious thing we can give is our time ... and luckily I have a lot of friends that feel what we do at Sports Shooter is worth giving us their time. During this weekend of Thanksgiving I want to say "mahalo nui loa! to everyone that helped and attended with this year's Luau.

So keep your calendars open in early November ... as the governor of California would say: "I'll be back!"

(Also a name to remember for the future: "Sports Shooter University".)

* * *

Issue 61 features a fabulous hands-on article by Darrell Miho on putting up a glass remote. We also have articles by Max Morse on covering the latest Michael Jackson scandal, Rick Rickman on the business of photography, Photodude, Tom Dahlin on an inexpensive way of getting quality prints, Mongo checks in with a Holiday Gift Guide and Mike Treola's take on the Workshop & Luau 2003.

So sit back, adjust the contrast on that monitor, adjust the volume on that Junko Onishi Trio CD … and enjoy Sports Shooter v.61!

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