Tales of the greatest Kobe pics from the man behind the camera

If there’s a memorable NBA photo — like LeBron James’ floating reverse slam on Feb. 6 — there’s a good chance it was taken by legendary NBA photographer Andrew Bernstein, now in his 38th season as the Lakers’ team photographer.

Over his four decades shooting the game, he has created and served as the senior director of NBA Photos, captured the past 37 NBA Finals and, in 2018, won the Basketball Hall of Fame’s Curt Gowdy Award, given to an exemplary member of the basketball media.

But it was L.A.’s biggest star, Kobe Bryant, whom Bernstein photographed the most — a voluminous collection of iconic images, from which we offer this photo journey of the lifetime Laker’s indelible 20-year career.


Kobe, the beginning

1996: As an 18-year-old on Lakers media day, Kobe Bryant came up to shake Bernstein’s hand. Though he had yet to play a game, Bryant said he knew all about the NBA photographer. Bernstein was shocked; he isn’t exactly a household name, and the two had never met. But Bernstein’s NBA posters, Bryant told him, were all over his childhood bedroom. “Who reads the photo credit on posters?” Bernstein recalls thinking. The answer: Kobe Bean Bryant.

Kobe and the greats

1998: Before he turned 20, Bryant played in his first All-Star Game, which produced this moment, in which five future Hall of Famers — Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Dikembe Mutombo and Shaquille O’Neal — witnessed this Bryant dunk. To capture it, Bernstein set off a series of remote cameras, including this one behind the backboard, looking through the glass. “He’s literally rising above the rest,” Bernstein says. “This photo sums it up.”

Kobe and Shaq

2000: Taken with a camera placed on the floor, before the NBA banned the practice, this photo illustrates how the pairing of Kobe and Shaq worked: one man drawing attention to render his teammate nearly unguardable. “This is a true teamwork photo,” Bernstein says now, wistfully, of the duo that would combine for three titles before their famously volatile dynamic turned unworkable.

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Kobe and MJ

2003: “I wasn’t going to waste a moment with Michael,” Bernstein remembers Bryant saying, unapologetically, when asked about this photo years later. Bryant’s game, of course, had long been compared to Jordan’s — in style and ruthlessness. Which was just how Bryant wanted it. Bryant had wanted that so badly, in fact, that he’d used Jordan’s final All-Star Game, of all places, to get inside Jordan’s basketball mind. The duo would share the court just one more time before Jordan retired at the end of the 2002-03 season.

Kobe over Yao

2003: Bernstein, sitting along the baseline, snapped this image through a remote camera positioned on a television platform behind him. (Note his elbow in the shot.) And though the shot catches the 6-foot-6 Bryant climbing the Rockets’ Yao Ming, who’s a foot taller, Bernstein had to persuade Bryant to include it in a 2018 book the two did together. “Kobe looked at dunking like frosting on the cake,” Bernstein says. “He was more about the cake.”

Kobe and Phil

2009: After the Lakers clinched their 2008-09 championship, Bernstein captured a moment between Bryant and coach Phil Jackson, with whom the Lakers star had an up-and-down relationship. Bernstein waited until after they released from an embrace to capture Bryant’s exhaustion and vindication. It’s the only one of Bernstein’s photos that hangs in his home. Why? When his preteen kids would bicker, he’d march them in front of this photo. “Look, these guys get along,” he told them. “This is respect. You guys can do it too.”

Kobe on ice

2010: Bryant, who’d turn 32 later in this season, sat at his Madison Square Garden locker, readying for the second game of a back-to-back — a preparation that he preferred to do in solitude. At Staples Center, the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings let him use their empty training room. On the road, it was a closet or an unused shower stall. At MSG, where there were no nooks or crannies, Bernstein was worried that one click of his shutter could disturb a meditating Mamba, a sentiment he relayed to Bryant years later. Kobe’s response? “I didn’t even know you were in the room.”

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Kobe at work

2010: Embedded with the team for the 2009-10 season for a book he did with Phil Jackson, Bernstein found himself in Jeanie Buss’ office awaiting Jackson, who was scheduled for an interview with NBA Entertainment. Bernstein, as a matter of practice, tagged along to get production stills. As the crew set up, the photographer noticed Bryant going one-on-one with assistant coach Craig Hodges on the practice court below. It was an hour and a half after practice, and Bryant — who had missed the prior five games with an injury — was grinding to get back on the court.

Kobe, in shadow

2010: To re-create Bryant’s proverbial shadow, Bernstein turned off seven of the eight strobes positioned in the Staples Center scoreboard — which, at the time, had no advertising underneath. “Preparation, thinking about something, solving a problem photographically and seeing the result,” Bernstein says. “That’s all very gratifying when it comes together like this.”

Kobe, in repose

2012: According to Bernstein, who had witnessed it firsthand for two decades, the Lakers superstar was particularly adept at removing himself mentally from chaotic situations. The lights around the backboard indicate the game was about to start but also speak to a larger theme: Bryant, beads of sweat already forming on his forehead, could zone out even when it was time to go in. “His pulse rate was probably half of what mine was at that point,” Bernstein says now.

Kobe and LeBron

2012: In the final exhibition game before the London Olympics, Team USA took on Spain in Barcelona. According to Bernstein, in all his years around the NBA, he had never seen a player lace his own shoes. Ball boys typically do it for them. Here, the league’s two best do just that.

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Kobe, mere mortal

2013: Bryant sat on the floor after being fouled by the Warriors’ Harrison Barnes. Soon after, he would learn that he’d torn his Achilles tendon. “It was the only time that I ever saw fear in his eyes,” Bernstein says. Bryant would make the two free throws anyway. Later, he’d come out of the locker room with crutches and, eventually, be placed on a cart and taken out of the arena. According to Bernstein, who had stayed to capture the scene, that’s when Bryant hid his concern. His wife and daughters had come to greet him.

Kobe, the dad

2013: Bryant’s second daughter, Gianna, was on her father’s shoulders at an All-Star open practice. “He loved being a dad,” Bernstein says. “As they were walking out of the arena, Mamba time is over, now it’s daddy time. It was a really beautiful thing.”

Kobe, the champion

2014: At a community event for kids at the Lakers’ practice facility, Bryant just happened to be in a room with five championship trophies. Bernstein looked at the trophies, and Bryant, the five-time champion, looked at Bernstein. Lightbulbs went off, simultaneously.

Kobe, the finale

2016: Bryant scored 60 points on 50 shots in his final NBA game, then walked off the court for the last time as a player. How did Bernstein get the shot, front and center? “You have to make really good friends with the security guys,” he says.

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