Renowned NBA photographer Rocky Widner shares favorite memories, players and photos from his 27 years of capturing the Kings. Plus, Widner offers valuable advice to amateur photographers.
From the Kings inaugural season in Sacramento in 1985-86 to today, Rocky Widner, a nationally-recognized NBA photographer, has seen and captured nearly every memorable image in team history on film. The long-time lensman, whose work has appeared in thousands of online and printed publications, caught up with Kings.com to discuss his gameday routine, favorite players, poignant moments and much more.
“I grew up in North Carolina, and when I was getting out of high school, I didn’t have a definite idea of what I wanted to do. The local community college there was starting a new (photography) program, and I went over there and talked to the professor – Cecil Allen was his name – and he kind of sold me on it.
“I got into it that way – it’s not like I grew up with a camera, taking pictures of this and that. I took some, but I never thought of it as a career or a business back then.”
How did you ultimately land the opportunity to photograph Kings games?
“At the local college, I first started out managing photo labs – the actual processing of photos – for three or four years. I always wanted to move out to California, and the first ad I saw in a national magazine was for a job in Sacramento. I figured I’d spend a year or two here and then move down to the coast because I liked the beach, but I’ve stayed right here.
“I was doing some shooting and still managing the photo lab when I heard about the Kings coming. I loved basketball – I grew up in the world center of basketball, North Carolina – so I had to try and get the job. I contacted their PR person and marketing person and did some jobs before the team even came to town.”
“For a 7 p.m. game, I usually get over (to the arena) at 11:30 a.m. or noon to set up the remote camera, which takes most of the day. I like to get in early and get everything set up, and then (during) the game, I take as many good photos as possible. Packing up is quicker – I usually get out within an hour of the game being over.”
How do you determine your focus, or what you aim to capture, on a given gameday?
“In a regular-season game – if there’s no special news, if we don’t have a new player, or there’s not a storyline with the other team – you’re just looking for the best action photos of the players. It changes, of course, if the Kings just traded for a new player or if the other team just acquired a new player, so you do have to keep up on the stories that are going on around the League.”
How many photos do you usually take during a game?
“I’d say, raw exposures, there are probably around 1,000 for each game and probably 500 or 600 of those are usable. I choose around 175 to 200, which get posted on the NBA/Getty Images website.”
How does coverage differ when shooting a game to a community event to a rookie photoshoot?
“During community events, you’re mostly looking for the interaction between fans and players or kids that are involved in it. You’re trying to show what the event was about, whether it’s one of the learning centers, reading centers, computer labs or the playgrounds.
“For a rookie photoshoot, you usually have the press conference – they’re up on stage and hold up the uniforms for a couple of shots – and then you’re looking for some good reactions while they’re speaking. Then, we usually do a studio set-up and take some shots of the player in their new uniforms once the press conference is over. I also might look for their proud mom or dad there and the interaction between them, or the interaction with the rookies and the coach or (Kings President of Basketball Operations) Geoff Petrie.”
During your time covering the Kings, what have been some of your favorite memories?
“I’d start with the first game ever at the smaller building (ARCO I) – the whole first year was just crazy. It held 10,333 and was sold out every night. The first night people lined up in long lines outside, waiting to get in – it was like an NBA Finals game or something. It was like a premiere, so all of the men on staff and a lot of the fans wore tuxedoes and the ladies wore gowns. David Stern was there in a tuxedo, so it was really something else and it was exciting.
“The team made the Playoffs that year, but it was almost as if basketball was secondary – it was an event to be there, it was the most happening thing in town, by far. It was like the hottest, most exclusive night club in town. The first few games, Reggie (Theus) would dribble up the court, and people were cheering for that – nothing much would have to happen for people to get excited.
“We didn’t lose on Tuesday nights for a long time, and we beat the (Boston) Celtics on a Tuesday night (February 11, 1986) when Larry Bird missed two free throws coming down the end of the game and the Kings won. That was wild – it was just a regular season game, but to us it was a big deal and people loved it.
“We made the Playoffs again in 1995-96 and played Seattle in the First Round. We went up there and won one of the first two games when Mitch (Richmond) went off. So we came home and as soon as the doors opened, the entire building was full right away, especially the whole lower bowl – people standing and cheering during the informal warmups when guys came out and shot on their own. The whole lower bowl was packed and people were yelling from then until the game tipped-off. When the whole team came out in its warm-up gear and went through the layup line, it was just as crazy as it was during the (L.A.) Lakers series and some of the Utah series later on.
“I still talk to (then-coach) Gary St. Jean about it, because I was standing beside him when the Kings came out for their warmups and he just looked around like, ‘What the heck is going on?’
“And then during the runs later on – after the magical summer when we got J-Will (Jason Williams), C-Webb (Chris Webber) and Vlade (Divac), plus Peja (Stojakovic) came over – everything came together. I remember the first time it hit me was when I came home after a game, and ESPN’s lead story was, ‘And now to the most exciting team in the NBA – the Sacramento Kings.’ It caught me off guard and I was like, ‘Wow, something special is going on here.’
“The first time we won a Playoff series against the Suns (in 2001) was pretty fun, (as was) that whole era. The thing is, not only were they good, but they had so many personalities that people loved – they played together, passed the ball so well and you could tell they liked each other.”
Who have been some of your favorite past or present Kings and opposing players to cover?
“There have been very few, if any, people who’ve come through here who you wouldn’t want to know anyway, outside of them being great basketball players – the organization has been really lucky in that way. We’ve had a ton of nice players and also staff, like Bill Jones, the trainer who came with the Kings and was here for a long time, who was just a wonderful man.
“Some of the nicer players were Corliss Williamson, who’s as nice of a person as you could ever want to meet – no ego, just a super nice guy. It was the same way with Wayman Tisdale, a wonderful man who was just genuinely nice all the time.
“Terry Tyler was a super nice guy. Joe Kleine, Derrick Smith and Randy Brown were tremendous. Mitch is a great guy – his nature is kind of quiet a little bit, but a super nice man. I could go on and on.
“I liked J-Will a lot – he had a good sense of humor and kept me cracking up. Scot Pollard was a super nice guy and hilarious, and Bill Wennington could be a stand-up comedian. Henry Turner, Harold Pressley, Webber, Vlade, Peja, Hedo (Turkoglu), Bobby (Jackson) were all great.
“What’s funny is I grew up as a Celtics and Baltimore Bullets fan, so I disliked the (Philadelphia) 76ers quite a bit, but Henry Turner and Dr. J (Julius Erving) were good friends. Henry introduced me and it turned out that Dr. J was fantastic! It was kind of eye-opening for me because I had this preconceived notion of him, and it was a good lesson about perception.”
Which players have you most enjoyed photographing?
“Two really stand out as my favorite guys to shoot, strictly by their games and how they were to photograph over the years. Michael Jordan, of course, is the ultimate player to photograph – he could do everything and he did it all with a little flair, too. He did some amazing athletic things.
“Dominique Wilkins was an incredible athlete and fun to photograph. When he got a chance to dunk, he didn’t just lay it up – he’d put on a show for fans.
“As far as Kings players, Henry Turner and Gerald Wallace were good to photograph (because they were) crazy athletes. J-Will was fun to photograph because he was always doing something wild – he was actually really hard to photograph in a way, but after a while, I got some idea of what he might do, but even then, I had no idea what he was really going to do.
“I remember in the (2000 NBA Rookie Challenge) when he bounced the ball off his elbow, behind his back and the place went crazy. He was coming straight at me, so I couldn’t really see what he did because his body blocked the view of him bouncing it off his elbow, so I’d thought he’d just thrown a normal behind-the-back pass. Everyone was freaking out, but I was like, ‘That’s nothing!’ He was lot of fun, and he showed his personality and expression when he played.
“Anybody who shows emotion and you get some idea of their personality, they’re fun to photograph. DeMarcus (Cousins) had a couple of pretty big dunks last year, and you could see how fun he can be.”
What are some photos you’ve captured over the years that standout as your favorites?
“There are a ton, but one that people might be familiar with is LeBron James’ first dunk when he came here. He got the ball and did his signature dunk where he draws back with his right arm, so I got a couple of pretty good photos. There are also a few Jordan pictures I’ve captured over the years that people would recognize.
“There’s one really good one of Mark Olberding, of all people, dunking over Manute Bol. On this occasion, Mark jumped as high as I’ve ever seen and dunked over Bol, who was 7-foot-7.
“There are some pretty good ones of C-Webb – he had a lot of expression and usually put some flavor on his dunks.
“Also, Mike Bibby yelling after he hit the game-winning shot vs. the Lakers (in Game 5 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals) stands out.”
What advice would you give to amateur photographers looking to improve the photos they take?
“It all comes down to practice, especially when you’re talking about sports photography, where you’re trying to capture movement. (I’d recommend) shooting games. It doesn’t matter what the level – high school, college, even pick-up games – if you shoot those, it’s still basically the same thing. Obviously, the pros are moving faster and jumping higher, but the same principles apply as far as tracking the movement and getting your timing down.”
What are some of your favorite Kings images? We’d love to hear from you in the below comments or on Twitter @SacramentoKings.