I felt panic when I got the photo assignment. I was an 18-year-old part-time reporter and photographer with only a couple of months experience. Sports editor Mike Kilgore handed me a piece of paper with an assignment for later that night — and I had no idea how to do what he wanted.
The assignment was simple. I was to shoot pictures of a basketball game at Cordova High School, a small school about 10 or 15 miles outside of town. But I had never covered a basketball game. I had no idea what to shoot — and I told Mike that.
“Oh, you’ll be fine,” he told me. “Just get in a position to one side or the other behind the basket and shoot what feels right.”
The game was a blur to me. Since I didn’t know what I was doing, I shot several rolls of film, hoping for one usable photo. I felt as though I was in way over my head. The gym was badly lit. I didn’t know a soul there. I couldn’t move the camera fast enough to catch the action.
I walked out feeling like a failure. I was scared to turn my film in.
When I got to work the next day at 1 p.m., the presses were just starting to roll with the afternoon paper. I ducked into the pressroom and grabbed one of the first copies to see if any of my pictures had been good enough to use. I was shocked to see several of my pictures — and I was even more shocked that they were really good photos.
That was the first of many hundreds of basketball games I shot over the next five or six years. I also shot a lot of high school football and some baseball, but I never experienced the same thrill I got from shooting basketball.
I’m thinking about that today as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament starts. I’m nervous about Alabama’s game tonight against Virginia Tech. This is the first time my alma mater has made it to the Big Dance in six or seven years. Basketball isn’t that big a deal in this part of the country — because football is so dominant — but I’m one of those who’s excited about the renewal of Crimson Tide basketball.
This is a young team that looks unbeatable on some nights but looks like a team that could lose to a high school team on other nights, so I have no idea what to expect. I find myself thinking, though, that if it weren’t for that photo assignment at Cordova High School many years ago, I might not even care.
I love football and I love that my alma mater has dominated college football over the last decade. I have a lot of pride in being part of something — even in such a peripheral way — that makes me feel as though I’m part of the best. But as much as I love all those national championship trophies, there’s something about basketball that gives me an entirely different feeling.
Over the course of my years covering high school and small college basketball, I developed an emotional attachment to the players, the coaches and the atmosphere. There’s nothing like the speed with which a game can turn around. There’s nothing like the tenacity and determination that characterize good fundamentals, especially on defense. And there’s nothing like the thrill of a perfectly executed offensive set that results in a thunderous basket.
For me, basketball was an emotional game. I got caught up in the stories and the desire to win. Even though I was supposed to be an impartial journalist on the side of that court, I cared about the players and the contest as much as any fanatic in the stands.
Covering the Walker County high school basketball tournament became a big deal for me. Whether I was working at the newspaper at the time or if I was off at college just freelancing, I would always return for the tournament to take pictures. Even though none of our local teams were great, there were tremendous local rivalries — and the rowdy, packed gyms at these small schools would explode with excitement as one team would rise to the top and dominance was established.
The best experience of my time as sports editor of that newspaper — several years after I was the inexperienced rookie — came when the local community college hosted the state tournament. I was there for every game. I took hundreds of photos and wrote thousands of words. I worked ceaselessly for that week — but it was such an exciting time for me that I didn’t care. (Walker College happened to win the tournament that year — and went to the national JUCO tourney — so it was exciting to be part of that with them.)
I mostly experience basketball on television today. I don’t care much about the NBA, but I still watch a lot of Alabama games. It’s not the same experiencing it from my bedroom as it was standing court-side with a camera. But on those times when my team wins — especially against long odds — I still feel that old rush of adrenaline.
Basketball is a beautiful game when it’s played well. It’s unlike any other sport I’ve experienced in person. So even though I was terrified when Mike Kilgore sent me to Cordova High School back then, I appreciate the lifelong love that it gave me for this emotional thrill.
I’m nervous about Alabama’s chances tonight. I’m afraid we’re going to be bounced out after one game, but I’m hopeful that the unbeatable version of our young team will show up. Either way, though, I’ll be glued to the action and my heart will be in my throat. As the NBA’s advertising used to say all the time, “I love this game.”