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|| News Item: Posted 2012-04-19

Documenting Long Beach State’s Road to the Tournament
By Patrick T. Fallon

Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/For The New York Times

Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/For The New York Times

Guard Mike Caffey lowers himself into the cold water at the hotel pool to soak his legs after the game, per the instructions of the team’s athletic trainer after beating UC Irvine, earning a spot in the Big West Championship game.
About seven years ago I started with sports photography at Redondo Union High School, including a few big basketball games at the Long Beach Pyramid and Honda Center for the yearbook. The experience was exciting, new and felt like the "big time." I thought I made good pictures and I learned a lot from the experience.

If only I knew then what I know now.

Recently I had a chance to go back to the Pyramid and Honda Center: but with a different kind of team and a different mentality about sports photojournalism. In 2006, my mind was on action and reaction. In 2012: the focus was on everything off the court, plus the story of game.

For the last few years The New York Times has gone behind the scenes with a lesser-known basketball team leading up to the NCAA Tournament, telling a story about the dynamics and experience of life on the road with the team. When I learned about my assignment, I was referred to two of these projects, by Josh Haner ( ) and Luke Sharrett. ( )

They made some wonderful photos, setting a high bar of the story about life on the team off the court that readers typically never see. I knew this would be an incredible opportunity.

The key to these stories were the team's cooperation to give us all-access: in the hotel rooms, on the bus, in practice watching film and locker rooms - not just the game. Long Beach allowed us in with their players, my job was to build upon that access quickly and find the unique moments.

My Friday started at 6:30am, a final check of my gear, meeting up with reporter John Branch and the team for breakfast (having already eaten myself). It was time to go to work, making pictures but also beginning to develop a familiarity with the team.

I am always nervous when starting a photo story as you try to build relationships. In a situation like this with the majority of my pictures being made on just a single day, there was an initial fear of missing something, so the task of keeping that fear in check, but knowing when it was time to shoot and when it was time to just hang out was important.

Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/For The New York Times

Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/For The New York Times

Forward Eugene Phelps dressed as Coach Dan Monson, right, wrote his pregame expectations for the team on a dry-erase board.
I had to find the balance as to not be overwhelming. As much as we may try, photographers are not invisible, people will notice you, but with time you will become part of the scene like anything else. That said, these players are professional - they know where their focus is and what their responsibilities are to the team. We would joke around throughout the day, usually when I was trying to get a difficult angle or focusing on some obscure detail like a tattoo or piece of bacon.

Once again that balance came into play of not inserting myself or being the topic of conversation, staying focused on genuine moments and not things that people may do just because you are there with a camera.

As the day progressed I enjoyed talking with the players. I learned where they came from and realized we had a mutual friend: one of my high school's players went on to play for the Women's basketball team at Long Beach. I think being the same age helped things, but ultimately people want to know something about you too - you have to be willing to share a little piece of yourself.

I try to put that extra effort to make a picture: getting low inside the huddle during practice, climbing up into the stands during the game, and not letting myself stay in one place too long. These are things I learned over time through my internships and workshops I was fortunate to attend.

As I claimed my spot on the floor at the Honda Center, Los Angeles Times staffer Wally Skalij was next to me. I've known Wally for a few years so it was fun to catch up, but he was also one of my coaches at Sports Shooter Academy.

The SSA workshop stressed how sports photojournalism goes beyond just the action: it includes the features off the track and trying to see differently. The coaches wanted us thinking more about the story of the game, the details and seeing things graphically. Looking back, it was those very lessons I had put into place all day.

With the team losing at the half, the locker room was tense, but I still had a job to do. The time good times spent with the team earlier helped with the tough ones now.
Unlike the first half on the floor covering action, I tried to roam around during the second half, looking for fans and more feature images in the stands. This did not thrill security, but it worked out ok.

After the game, Coach Monson stressed to his team that their work was not done yet for the team had another game to play tomorrow - and nor was mine. The time for the players to relax after the game, snooze on the bus and returns to the hotel were all opportunities for me to make pictures.

When we got back to the hotel pool, the team trainer ordered everyone to soak their legs in the cold water. I kicked off my socks and joined in this for two reasons: I wanted to see what that angle was like - and my own legs were sore from the 18-hour day. But my exhaustion was only physical, mentally I was excited to get home and start editing my pictures, seeing the fruits of the days labor.

Perhaps it was best summed up by one of the players as I met his family after the game, proof that I was not invisible:
"I can tell you really like your job," he said.

I do indeed.

To see the online gallery of pictures and read the story about Long Beach, see:

Patrick T. Fallon is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri working as a freelancer in Los Angeles, Calif. This summer he will be interning at the Los Angeles Times. To see more of his recent work, check out:

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