As the final teams that will advance to the Final Four in the NCAA Championship tournament were settled on Sunday, In Sight takes a look at the expansive career of one of the most significant and dedicated sports photographers of college basketball.
Rich Clarkson has been photographing the NCAA Championships for six decades. Clarkson’s work is a catalog of some on the single greatest athletes and coaches to ever emerge from college basketball, many transcending their legacy beyond by playing in the professional NBA league. Names and faces like Patrick Ewing, Bob Knight, Magic Johnson, Bill Walton and more pop out from Clarkson’s rich collection of images, not to mention some of the most iconic moments of victory and defeat in college basketball.
In Sight spoke to Clarkson recently at the height of March Madness to reflect on his storied career as one of sports photography’s most seminal and groundbreaking figures, his relationship with some of college basketball’s most well-known coaches, and why he decided that photographing this year’s tournament would be his last.
In Sight: After six decades capturing so many iconic moments in NCAA champion history, why the decision to make this year your last?
Clarkson: I can’t keep going on forever. 60 seems like a nice way to round things down. If someone asked me what is the most difficult thing you face in photographing a game, I would say at it’s the end of the half and you’ve been sitting crossed legged for over 40 minutes, just getting up.
In Sight: How did you get your start shooting sports? Were you an athlete yourself?
Clarkson: Not at all. I got into sports photography in high school in Lawrence, Kan. There were two things an aspiring new photographer would photograph: car accidents and sports. By the time I got into the University of Kansas I was freelancing for the Kansas City Star and Topeka Daily Capitol and AP. Early on I had an opportunity in which I sold a photo to Sports Illustrated. It was one of those freelance pictures of Wilt Chamberlain I had taken. They wanted the full take. Three months went by and I was still in school at the University of Kansas. I got a phone call from Gerald Astor who was the photo editor for Sports Illustrated at that time. He liked my work and wanted to know if I could shoot the University of Kanas-Iowa State basektball game. This was the lead story. That was my first assignment ever and it ran six pages.
In Sight: You must have so many memorable moments over the course of your career. Which one stands out to you the most?
Clarkson: So many memorable moments. But one was accompanying the Kansas team to Seattle for the Finals. I traveled with the team and it was one of those freelancer things where it was like sending pictures to news organizations and asking “Will you pay my way?” I was rooming with the No. 12 player Dean Smith. There was also the night that President Ronald Reagan was shot in March 1981. The players were sitting around wondering if they were going to be able to play.
In Sight: The world of sports photography has changed a bit since the first tournament you covered, is there any aspect of the field that you long for or that you are really excited to see continue?
Clarkson: Technology has enabled us to do things we couldn’t do before. But photographing sports is not just a story-telling picture; it’s something of significance, not just a pretty picture. Knowing the game, the players and the coaches, that enables you to recognize something significant when it comes along. The difficult thing today is mostly in the numbers of photographers wanting to photograph events. The rules are tighter and restrict more of the area where photographers can go and what they can do. And there is nothing worse than an empowered usher that takes pleasure in telling you “You can‘t go there.”
In Sight: Are you ever rooting for a particular team?
Clarkson: The University of Kansas when a student. There have been times when I’ve known coaches so well, I’m rooting for them in a close game. Maybe not so much the team as much as for the coach.