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|| News Item: Posted 2008-06-30

Sports Shooter Conversation: A Q & A with Wally Skalij On Covering The NBA Finals
Los Angeles Times staff photographer Wally Skalij shares his insights.

By Robert Hanashiro, Sports Shooter

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / Sports Shooter

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / Sports Shooter

Wally Skalij (middle in black shirt) covers the 2008 NBA Finals in Los Angeles next to Michael Goulding of the Orange County Register (yellow) and Sports Illustrated's John McDonough (right, chimping).
(The Los Angeles Times' Wally Skalij covered the recent Boston Celtics - LA Lakers NBA Finals. Sports Shooter sat down with him to discuss the trials and tribulations of covering this highly anticipated match up, Skalij had covered the Lakers four previous appears in the Finals.)

Sports Shooter: What do you think the biggest difference between covering the regular season --- or for that matter the early round of the NBA
Playoffs --- and covering the NBA Finals?

Wally Skalij: One of the biggest things I noticed during the NBA Finals was the lack of newspaper photographers shooting on the floor. We only had one floor spot during the Finals as opposed to two during the regular season and the early rounds of the playoffs.

NBA officials told me that since players like Lakers Pau Gasol in the league the interest around the world has grown thus squeezing us out of our second floor spot. About 35% of NBA players are from another country and that number is growing. The league also televised the games to over 200 countries. In a way with all the foreign media I felt like I was at the Olympics.

SS: Do you change the way you shoot or your gear for covering something like the NBA Finals?

WS: Since the Times only had one floor spot I had to use more remotes to cover angles that normally where we would have another photographer. It seems when the Finals come around the sports editors get more literal and ask for certain plays as opposed to the regular season or the early in the playoffs.

The drawback to that for me was editing five cards on a tight deadline. The games would usually end around 9pm Pacific Time and our deadline for A-1 and the color inside our special section 9:30. On the road I had to chimp during the game like there was no tomorrow since we had no editor and I basically edited in my camera to save time.

SS: The travel can be brutal...the 2 - 3 - 2 format always seems to end up with a Game 6, meaning another cross-country flight. How did you handle the travel and I heard you had a bit of a mishap or two.

Photo by Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

Photo by Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

Kobe's game-sealing slam dunk in the closing moments of Game 5.
WS: I actually like the 2-3-2 format but I wish the two days off in between games happened when we changed cities. With budget cuts at our paper I had to find the cheapest flight and a reasonably priced hotel, which could make things very stressful. Returning from Boston for Game 3 in Los Angeles I had to wait 7 hours at Logan Airport since our plane had a mechanical failure. I was already tired form the night before after getting back to my hotel at 2am covering Game 2. On top of that they lost my luggage, which had my clamps for remotes so I had nothing for Game 3 in Los Angeles the next day.

A cameraman for FOX TV was on the same flight that was canceled didn't get home until 3:00 am since his connecting flight in Dallas was also delayed. As you know the playoffs take two months and trying to plan your personal life during that time can be a nightmare never knowing if your team will win and move on or what days they will play.

SS: Getting to the arena early is always a good thing even covering regular season games, how early did you and your colleague Rob Gauthier get to the arena and what did you guys have to deal with that early before tip off?

WS: Well when you're going up against all the wire photographers you have to get there early to get the better remote spots although some of the spots were pool only which didn't include us. Rob and I would arrive 6 hours before the games to set everything up and to make any adjustments when needed. I remember showing up 8 hours before Game 6 in Boston because the post would fill up and that was one of the prime spots since we had only one photographer on the floor.

A lot of adjusting of Magic Arms would happen to utilize the lack of space for all the cameras. We also had to shoot features before the game and get them on the web before the game started. I would use every minute of my six hours setting up remotes, preparing my computer and shooting features before the game.

SS: Once the game started, what was your mindset and how was that different than covering regular season games?

WS: Covering the Finals as opposed to the regular season takes on a whole new mindset. The pressure increases and the talking gets less as the game moves on. At any split second the picture of the game could happen in front of you and during the regular season nobody seems to notice or really care if you miss it but when it comes to the Finals the importance takes on a whole new meaning. Everyone seems to be watching including the editors and everyone wants to see the picture that changed the game.

During the regular season the editors don't care about the bench photos or Kobe walking off the court dejected after a loss because there will be tomorrow. Those same pictures in the Finals play very important roles in telling a story because the stakes are higher or it's winning or go home. During Game 6 of the Finals I was shooting with a 70-200 down court in the 1st half because every time the Celtics would hit a three-pointer, which seemed to be often, the crowd would go nuts and I would have a Laker player in the foreground which I knew that could be a cover, storytelling photo.

SS: You had a lead photo on the Times' NBA Finals special section cover of Kobe's game-sealing slam dunk in the closing moments of Game 5 ... it was from the back which I normally would not consider to be the best angle. But this frame seemed to real capture the "moment" ... since you didn't have the dunk from the front, what was going through your mind?

WS: Shooting sports for many years I love the tight peak action photo with the blown out background but there are times to pull back and let the crowd tell the story. The Kobe slam is a good example of that. Lakers were ahead by two points late in the game when Kobe stole the ball, which landed in the hands of teammate Lamar Odom who promptly tossed back to Kobe for the slam. I had all back but shot loose to involve the crowd and hope for some good body language from Kobe to make it interesting.

Photo by Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

Photo by Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
The unfortunate thing about the picture that ran on the cover of our special section is the cropped it into a vertical which took a lot of the impact out of the photo. What you don't see is three fans yelling at a Celtics player to the right of the horizontal frame. I guess the editors needed a vertical. The only drawback to shooting loose to involve the crowd is everyone in the picture will call asking for a copy of the photo.

SS: How does covering the NBA Finals this time around compare to covering it the last time the Lakers were there (2004 losing to Detroit)?

WS: I didn't see too much of a difference other than the 1,000 NBA, ESPN and ABC camera crews on the court during timeouts. OK maybe not a 1,000 but it sure seemed like it. When Doc Rivers was doused with Gatorade I got completely blocked by a video and still photographer. They were actually allowed there during the game? Back in 2004 things seemed to be a little more open.

SS: You had probably the most "perfect" dejection photo after the Lakers were blown out in Game 6 in Boston. Describe what went into getting that story-telling image.

WS: I have to admit it is tough covering the losing team. I have always loved the jubilation of a winning team and the raw emotion of athletes but like in 2004 I had to shoot the dejection first. As time was winding down I knew the editors would want something of Kobe but he was already on the bench just standing there. How many times have we seen the players frowning on the bench? I decided to concentrate on Laker players walking off the court as the Celtics were celebrating on the court. I already had a decent photo of Kobe earlier in the game getting burned by a three-pointer so I knew I could take a chance.

As the game ended I shot the little window of opportunity of the Celtics celebrating and noticed Kobe walking out to congratulate the players. Knowing he had to walk back to the locker room I positioned myself to a spot where he would have to walk right by me and had the luck of the streamers coming down to help tell the story.

SS: How can the NBA make this easier?

WS: The only solution is to keep EVERYONE off the court and let the players celebrate. Were documenting sports history and its being ruined by cable pullers.

(Wally Skalij is a staff photographer with the Los Angeles Times. He has been a frequent faculty member of the Sports Shooter Academy.)

Related Links:
Wally's member page

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