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He shoots and ... DOESN'T score!

 

 

Posing as a Lakers photographer

 

BY COREY LEVITAN

 

      I was born without the sports gene. This freak mutation has freed up a lifetime of Sundays and gives me the evolutionary advantage of being able to mate with females not glued to the tube at Super Bowl parties.

      Unfortunately, it does not come in handy too many other times. (Come to think of it, it's never worked at Super Bowl parties, either.)

      When this newspaper's photo department discovered that I know less about photography than I do about sports, they suggested I try shooting an L.A. Lakers game. There are few things a photographer enjoys better than watching someone fail at trying to prove their job easy.

      "Everybody thinks they can be a photographer because they all have cameras," says my guide, Daily Breeze shutterman Branimir Kvartuc. "But they don't know all the stuff that's involved and the talent required.

      "If someone had a scalpel at home, would they assume they were qualified to perform heart surgery?"

      Dr. Kvartuc and I arrive at the Staples Center at 6 p.m., an hour before the Lakers begin their game against the Miami Heat. He reads off a checklist of gear as he straps each heavy item around my torso.

      "Cameras, long lens, short lens," he says.

      I wobble toward the venue.

      "Hey, I'm carrying some heavy stuff, too," says Kvartuc, apparently referring to his 30 pounds of car keys, pocket change and the emotional Samsonite associated with not yet being famous after 7 years as a professional photographer.

      A guard blocks the photo entrance. He's operating a metal detector and X-ray scanner.

      "We used to put the players through this, too," he says as his wand explores my outer edges, "but not anymore since Shaq got mad."

      The guard asks me to remove the multi-pocketed photographer's vest Kvartuc convinced me was essential while knowing full well I would be laughed at by all his photographer friends. (Since the dawn of digital cameras, all that pocket space for extra film has become unnecessary.)

      I plop my $5,000 Nikon D1 on the scanner's conveyor belt, along with the vest.

      "Jeez, careful!" Kvartuc yells.

      That's OK, I tell him. For my last adventure, I took care of a baby and didn't drop it.

      "This is more precious than a baby," Kvartuc responds. "You can make a new baby for free. These cameras are much more expensive!"

      I inform Kvartuc that no one will like him if that last comment makes it to print.

      "I know," he responds, smiling.

      We Lakers photographers do not have access to the locker room or the venue's many celeb-infested VIP lounges. We have to be satisfied with a fluorescent-lit office by the Zamboni room, where you pay $5 for a soggy Italian buffet.

      "I can't believe you're complaining about the food," says Kvartuc. "There's a segment of photographers who just do their assignments according to what the food will be like. I guess you're just one of them."

      A bigger perk is getting to walk out onto the court from an entrance on the floor. After leaving our laptop booted up in the digital dark room, where photographers email their best shots to their newspapers on deadline, Kvartuc and I enter the arena as thousands of fans cheer.

      They're cheering for the Laker girls, who are already performing their highly dexterous brand of vacuity on the court. The leggy distraction causes me to let my camera jab a passerby in the groin. (Sorry dude -- or, as may now be more appropriate -- ma'am.)

      I inventory the other things that can just as easily go awry. The aforementioned Shaquille O'Neal might trip over me, as he did over Larry David in his HBO sitcom, "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And if he's powerful enough to dictate the security protocol of a gazillion-dollar entertainment venue, there wouldn't be much he couldn't do to utterly destroy this thing I call a life.

      Actually, a twisted mark of honor for the basketball photographer is the biggest name to have ever fallen on his or her face.

      "I don't think photographers would admit that in front of each other, but it's kind of true," says Kvartuc, who cites Scotty Pippen as his. "You just have to make sure they don't fall because of you."

      We tape down our names, scribbled on slices of paper, to the left of one of the baskets. (Spots are assigned only during games deemed important; otherwise, photographers stake their own territory. And if people actually agreed to send me out as a photographer, you know this game wasn't deemed important.)

      Kvartuc instructs me to sit Indian-style on the first shiny wooden floor my tush has touched since I was the last one picked for dodge ball in ninth-grade gym class. He begins instructing me about how to hold and work my cameras. He screws on a pole called a monopod, on which the weight of the long-lens camera rests.

      "I don't need one of these because my arm is strong," he says. (In his native Croation, the name Branimir Kvartuc apparently translates to "why be nice?")

      The long-lens camera is to capture the action at the far side of the court. I am to switch to a weaker, short-lens camera when the players are in our faces.

      "The exchange has to happen real fast," Kvartuc says. "Watch me."

      He switches his own cameras like Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral, then explains how to shoot.

      "Aim, click halfway to focus, then shoot," he says. He has me shooting with auto-focus.

      "Nothing can go wrong that way," he says.

      Good, because I'm checking out the Laker girls most of the time Kvartuc thinks he has my attention. The blonde one at the end catches me fantasizing about our future together, smiles, and calls me over to pose for a photo. (The real world is much kinder than high school was.)

      Up close, I notice that she is not as insanely gorgeous as from far away.

      "Yeah, we call them Monets," Kvartuc explains.

      It's just as well. I don't know how I'd feel about a cheer being led whenever I'm unable to sustain the desired level of bedroom excitement.

      Magic Johnson is seated behind us, next to Dyan Cannon. Neither is squatting Indian style on the floor like us. But I'm not paying $2000 for a ticket like they are. And I have a better view.

      Across the court sits film director Penny Marshall, a.k.a. TV's former Laverne. Apparently, she enjoys appearing in crowd close-ups with sweats and no makeup, I guess to rub it in TV's former Shirley's face even harder that she's not there.

      Oh yeah, and Jack Nicholson is sitting off to the side, just far enough away for me to snap photos with no danger of being chased with an ax like in "The Shining" (or with a golf club like in real life).

      After former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash performs the national anthem, I realize that his will be the last face I recognize on the court tonight. Not only have I never photographed a basketball game before, I've never watched one in its entirety. (Shaq is familiar from his TV appearances and his, um, illustrious rap music career. But he's been suspended for getting into a fight, I'm told, probably with a photographer who tripped him.)

      "You don't know who Kobe Bryant is?" asks Kvartuc. "Nuh-uh!"

      His face crumples into the same incredulous stare someone should have shot Mariah Carey at her very first movie-pitch meeting.

      "There are people who would do anything to be where you are right now! Kvartuc screams. "They're gonna be so mad at you!"

      The horn blows and both teams zoom off toward the far court.

      "Aim, click halfway to focus, then shoot," I tell myself.

      This turns out to be impossibly hard. In the time it takes for me to half-click them into focus, the players have already moved out of it. I move the camera, center it on the action and half-click again.

      One Laker shoots and misses. So do I. Then all the players suddenly barrel down the court at us. Each of their legs is taller than I am. Like in ninth-grade dodge ball, my instinct is to bolt out of the way. As much as it might bolster my photography career, I don't want Scotty Pippen treatingmy body like the front door to a trailer home on a typical episode of "Cops."

      At the last second, the players pivot toward the basket on our right.

      "Switch cameras! Switch cameras!" Kvartuc screams. "What are you doing?"

      I put down the long-lens camera and grab the other one, leaving the monopod jutting out in front of me.

      "If one of the players comes by, you're gonna kill him with that," says the annoyed photographer next to me (who, by the way, commented before the game, "Nice vest").

      "Aim, click halfway to focus, then shoot," I tell myself.

      Again, the players have moved out of focus by the time I am able to set it. But that's OK, because my field of vision is blocked a good half of the time by the butt of the referee, which is as big as the back of that Ford SUV I always seem to be stuck behind in 405 traffic.

      "Oh yeah, we call that a zebra crossing," Kvartuc says, a reference to the black-and-white-striped uniform.

      At the end of the first quarter, Kvartuc fires up his camera's view screen to check his photos. Photographers have invented a word for what he's about to do: chimping. That's because they resemble chimps while staring down the backs of their cameras and going "ooh" at all the pictures.

      Zebras, chimps -- the world of photographers is a veritable zoo, which should not be surprising to anyone who's witnessed their red-carpet behavior during movie premieres.

      Chimping could also refer to the belief among sportswriters that monkeys are capable of taking equally good pictures. But that belief is wrong. Kvartuc shows me all the shots he got by sitting two feet to my right. They are all in focus and referee-free.

      "Were we at the same game?" I ask. My pictures resemble Stevie Wonder's from that camera commercial spoof on the old "Saturday Night Live." Even using auto-focus, I managed not to get anything in focus -- unless it stood perfectly still. Jack Nicholson I got.

      "You're hot, too," Kvartuc says.

      "Thank you," I repond. But he means that my pictures are too bright; the shutter speed is wrong. And he wonders why I've snapped so few photos. The computer chips hold 130; I've used only 26.

      "Did you keep your finger down on the trigger?" Kvartuc asks. Unbeknownst to me, doing that  makes the camera rapid-fire like a machine gun.

      Thanks to that neat little trick, I have three times as many out-of-focus photos in the second quarter as in the first. But, according to the principle that even a broken clock is right twice a day, there are more good ones, too. During our second chimping session, I proudly show Kvartuc a photo I've managed to take in focus.

      "That's a perfect shot of a guy's back," Kvartuc says.

      "Yes," I explain. "But his back has his name printed on it. That way, at least I can tell who it is."

      Not until the fourth quarter, with 5 minutes to go, do I get what Kvartuc considers my first publishable photo. I have no idea which Laker is in it. Still, Kvartuc says it's good.

      "The problem is, no paper would run it," he explains, "because the Lakers are losing." (The final score is Heat 102, Lakers 96.)

      "The Lakers are sucking against a really bad team tonight," Kvartuc explains. "You need a picture of the Heat romping over them, taking the ball away, falling on someone, crushing someone."

      That seems easy enough. I'll just walk onto the court during the final five minutes and ask the players to be more considerate of an inexperienced photographer's needs.

      "Just scooch a little to the right, Mr. Tall Man with the mean face," I'll say.

      "Actually, you shouldn't focus on action shots at all so late in the game," Kvartuc says. "You need to focus on the star players. You don't want action shots but reaction shots."

      I've yet to graduate "aim, click halfway to focus, then shoot," and "how to avoid referee butt." Now I am also required to be Al Michaels with a camera, knowing who's important and who's not?

      "Which one is Kobe again?" I ask.

      The final buzzer rings out and, judging from the tepid crowd reaction, I am the only one in the arena who is happy about it.

      Back in the digital darkroom, Kvartuc decides to share my exploits with his photographer friends while uploading his own pictures to the paper. As my photos pop up, the giggles begin.

      "That's artistic," says Lori Shepler of the Los Angeles Times.

      "What's that? Disembodied arms?" asks Mike Baker of the Los Angeles Daily News.

      "I'm sure you're a great writer," Shepler adds.

      Next, a whole series of blurred action shots features a tack-sharp scoreboard.

      "The readers need to know what the exact score was when these photos were taken," I explain my motivation.

      "That's called soft focus," Shepler says. "You're really good at that."

      Not until now do I discover that I was supposed to leave the camera half-clicked and follow the action that way. No wonder I found it so difficult. A new half-click wasn't required before each picture. The camera would have stayed in focus.

      "You set him up to fail," Terry Pierson of the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin tells Kvartuc. "I like that!"

      As in all my adventures, I get the hang of this just in time to never do it again.

      Claps erupt when my perfectly-focused Nicholson photo is uploaded.

      "That's your calling," says Baker.

      "Paparazzi!"

      Corey Levitan is also available for blurry weddings and bar mitzvahs.