(Editor’s Note: Five years ago, when the Final Four was played in Arlington, Texas, IUPUI M.A. student Cory Collins profiled photographer Rich Clarkson, whose images have defined the history of the NCAA tournament. Clarkson, who received the Curt Gowdy Print Media Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, has retired. But his work – which regularly appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated – will always capture the most memorable moments of the Final Four.
By Cory Collins
A 19-year-old Richard Clarkson drifted toward the rafters of Hec Edmundson Pavilion at the University of Washington, camera in hand. It was 1952. It was the start of a phenomenon. It was the first Final Four as we know it. And like all the greats in this tournament’s history, he took a shot.
The court was lit directly from above, a rectangle framed by more space than bodies. Sixty two years later, he counts them. Six photographers. That’s it. He’d join them as one of seven.
But sitting in the lobby-level restaurant of the Dallas City Center Marriott, on the morning of his 60th Final Four, a different picture appears. Clarkson sips a steaming coffee with cream, backlit by the window behind him, framed by its borders and the red roses that contrast so brilliantly with his black jacket. And he speaks. And you know. He isn’t one of seven.
He’s one of a kind.
From a young age, Clarkson showed initiative.
An only child, he grew up in a boarding house, his family on the second floor of a four-story home. Every morning, the roomers would reunite at the kitchen table, and eat breakfast, the conversation bouncing between Clarkson’s parents, heads of the English Department and Architecture School at the University of Kansas, and a boy who always wanted to be a part of the conversation, to understand the stories.
“It was really amazing growing up surrounded by these interesting people,” Clarkson remembers. “We’d sit around the table and I’d listen to what the hell was going on in their world.”
But Clarkson also wanted to capture stories beyond the boarding house. And though he quickly took to his mother’s box camera, and later, his father’s Argus C-3, he had other loves.
“Actually, I was more interested in being a journalist,” he says. “And I was more interested in aviation.”
So naturally, the precocious preteen published his own mimeographed newspaper that featured stories of flight. And though he jokes about its reach (“Our circulation was 35,” he says), the pages of his modest venture featured a who’s who of aviation.
“I would end up writing to people and commissioning them to write a story,” says Clarkson. “They mostly did.” Included were industry giants like Eddie Rickenbacker, the former head of Eastern Airlines, Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan American Air, and Jack Frye of TWA.
Clarkson, a 12-year-old with sources, got a tip from a Professor Simpson of Kansas’s engineering department that led to a bigger name. There was someone in his office the kid should interview. That someone was Orville Wright.
But even this boy with a dream to fly didn’t lose sight of the story. At dinner that night, he tells his father about meeting one of the Wright Brothers. “Did you get his autograph?” his father asked. No, Clarkson told him: “Journalists don’t ask for autographs.”
Wright died later that year. It’s possible that he granted his final interview to this Kansas kid who would become the eyes of college basketball’s greatest moments.
That snapshot in 1952, that first Final Four, never happens if Clarkson doesn’t dare to ask.
Phog Allen, a legend of Lawrence, Kansas, had been coaching the Jayhawks since James Naismith, the game’s inventor, left the helm. Already, Allen’s own credentials were imposing. It would be just seven years later that he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
But Clarkson didn’t care, didn’t fear. He’d done the math, and seen an opportunity. There were 12 players, some coaches, some trainers, and some empty seats.
“I approached him,” Clarkson remembers. “It was a 39 passenger bus, so I asked if I could ride with the team.”
So started a career that spans over more than 60 years.
“They treated me like a part of the team,” says Clarkson. “I would end up rooming with either the student manager or the twelfth player on the team.” That last man on the roster would have his own legacy. His name was Dean Smith.
Embedded with the Jayhawks, a young Clarkson operated as a one-man beat. “I not only took the pictures, but I wrote the game story for the Lawrence newspaper,” he says. “The real trick was to write a story and give it to the Western Union Operator and get it all finished by the time the team is getting ready to load the bus. So I had like 30 minutes to write the story.”
But Clarkson became better by seeing what others didn’t see. He understood the basketball because he’d watch practice every afternoon. He understood the personalities because they became some of his best friends.
But before there was a lifetime of achievement, there was that first season; there was Seattle.
“My freshman year, they got to the NCAA Tournament,” recalls Clarkson. “So they just included me on the team roster and I just traveled with the team.”
“I’d just take all of my camera equipment and everything in the locker room and put it down over to the side, get the cameras out, get it ready,” he says. “At halftime, I’d go back in the locker room again and hear Doc Allen’s charge to the troops.”
And on the court once more, he was one of seven lenses through which the magic was captured. His Speed Graphic camera, with a rising front that lifted the lens, allowed him to develop a style.
“That’s what made it easy to actually make low-angle pictures,” he says. “It made everything far more dramatic. So I would do that most of the time when I was shooting basketball.”
And the lack of media attention allowed him to pick his spots, to always find the angle that told the story.
“In those times, at the NCAA final, you could do basically anything you wanted to do as long as you didn’t get in the way,” Clarkson says. Instead, he learned to get in the moment.
In the six decades since, things have changed. But there does exist a through-line, a theme: Clarkson captured moments that would define a sport.
There’s the image that defined crushing defeat –a portrait of Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats after losing to an all-black team from Texas Western in 1966.
“Kentucky was the odds-on favorite at the start of the season to win the championship,” Clarkson explains. “….And there they are, defeated. To me, that was the obvious picture. The funny thing about that is, there were other photographers there, and I’ve not seen any one else that photographed [Kentucky]. They were all busy shooting Texas Western, the winners. To me, the other one is the better storytelling.”
Then there’s the picture that put in perspective an unbelievable body, Wilt Chamberlain sitting in a folding chair, his knees reaching for the sky as he ties his shoes.
“He had a very high waist. His legs were unusually long,” the photographer says. After trying pictures of him dunking, standing tall, he dragged that chair beneath his lights. Chamberlain had to tie his shoe. Clarkson snapped the shot, his first to appear in a startup called Sports Illustrated.
And there’s the still frame that captures a complicated relationship, UCLA’s Sidney Wicks leaning over his coach, John Wooden, after the 1971 championship, thanking him at the end of an often contentious journey.
“I held down on the motor drive,” Clarkson remembers. “I got about six frames of the moment. One of which, Wooden had this cherub-like expression on his face.”
For Richard Mackson, a notable photographer who spent many years with Clarkson at Sports Illustrated, who has seen the picture framed in Wooden’s home, it’s that image that means the most.
“It was emotional for me,” Mackson explains,” because one, I knew Sidney. Two, I knew Coach Wooden. And three, I knew Rich Clarkson.”
The reality of a man behind the camera is that his life is lived behind the scenes. Even Mackson, a close friend, admits “he’s a hard person to get to know.” He’s a man that frames the action and stands behind it. In this way, it’s easy to see how a man can be at the top of his industry, be at 60 Final Fours, and go relatively unnoticed by the basketball community.
But for those who do know him, he’s a man worth honoring.
So who is Rich Clarkson?
He’s a great photographer.
“Rich is a damn good photographer,” Mackson says. “He is a damn good artist…He was an auto-focus onto himself.”
But he is also a great adapter, a man willing to take a risk.
“Rich was open to try new things,” says Mackson. “He knew to get the picture you needed, because then you were safe, then he’d go off and take the risk and he’d get something that was just unique or outstanding.”
That willingness also applied to new technologies that might have perturbed other industry veterans. Clarkson was never a man set in his ways, just a man that always wanted to capture the best image.
“He was an early adapter, an early adopter,” Mackson explains. “He wouldn’t necessarily invent the technology, but he was early to recognize its value. And he wasn’t afraid to try it.”
Clarkson talks about the early years, when “you would go to a sports event and everyone did the same thing,” a time when “not too many people were trying to be innovative, and they would stand or sit where someone told them to.” Clarkson was not one of these people. He moved when others sat.
But above all, perhaps, Clarkson is an educator, a man that’s left his mark
Jeff Jacobsen, a photographer for the Kansas athletic department, worked with Clarkson at the Topeka Capital Journal from 1969 to 1979. He’s seen that education firsthand.
“I believe that Rich was a groundbreaking sports and news photographer,” Jacobsen says. “And I think his photography is often overlooked. Because another part of his legacy is how many photographers he helped to nourish, to help grow…
“He’s not always the easiest person to work for because he demands so much of you,” he adds. “But because of his demands, you’ll become a much better photographer and a much better person.”
Among those impacted are people like Mackson, like Jacobsen, like the late Brian Lanker. “If you look at the people the guy has mentored over the years, it’s like a who’s who of photojournalism,” Mackson says.
“The passion to teach others and help others and impart his knowledge…it’s never gone away,” says Jacobsen. “That burning passion has never left them either.”
That legacy of Richard Clarkson still lives on. His company, Rich Clarkson and Associates, organizes the Summit Series in Denver, a collection of photography workshops that helps to elevate young or unsung photographers and teach them the art. Instructors include Brad Smith, the Director of Photography at Sports Illustrated, and National Geographic Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns, who got his first job out of college thanks to Clarkson.
“Only Rich could pull these people together,” Mackson says. “A lot of it is because it’s dedication to him. It’s camaraderie and dedication to the man.”
When asked what should be written on Clarkson’s epitaph one day, Mackson, a man of many words, gives a simple answer:
“I would like it to say, ‘I helped others.’”
But basketball can breathe easy because, once again, Rich Clarkson is here.
And the game has changed.
In the event Clarkson calls a “three-ring circus” the latest Final Four barely resembles Seattle. Then, he was one of seven. This year, each baseline features two rows of photographers, with more upstairs, with more applicants left without credentials.
It barely resembles Kansas City in 1957, when Clarkson had to develop film at the office of the Kansas City Star because there was no dark room at Municipal Auditorium. On Monday, his photos and thousands others from his team will instantly appear on the massive screen at AT&T Stadium, on NCAA.com, around the world.
It barely resembles the days of old when stadiums were lit from above, when shadows were cast over players’ faces, when Clarkson had to arrive hours before the game to string strobe lights to the ceiling, wires connecting his courtside seat with the rafters.
This year, each backboard will feature a camera shooting through the glass, no longer wired to Clarkson’s camera but to the hands of one of his protégés. There will be no shadows. These players are on the biggest stage, under the spotlight.
But as much as the job has changed, as much as Clarkson has adapted, the man behind the camera is very much the same as the boy who first used his mother’s box camera in a boarding house in Lawrence, Kansas.
“He hasn’t changed,” Jacobsen says. “He hasn’t really needed to change.”
Jacobsen describes a moment when Clarkson considered stepping away from a lifetime of making still images from the madness of March. It was 2008. “He told me it was the worst Final Four he’d ever had,” Jacobsen recalls. “He actually thought he might need to put an end to it.”
Then he captured the ultimate end.
The numbers 3.7 were frozen on the clock. It was happening. The Mario Chalmers shot, the unexpected overtime, the Kansas Jayhawks victory, the Memphis Tiger defeat. A moment captured, a man come full circle from Seattle, circa 1952. Clarkson had his own buzzer-beating shot, another still image that told an entire story to the people of Lawrence, Kansas. Over Chalmers’ shoulder, he let us bear witness to this notion: that the clock doesn’t have to run out on your dream.
And he knew, Jacobsen says, “You can still make the great pictures. It’s still there. He still had the desire.”
A romantic can hope that an 81-year-old Richard Clarkson will take the elevator to the press box in AT&T Stadium, looking down on a scene more than sixty years from Seattle, at the sixty-plus photographers under the bright lights, at the arena that seats 80,000.
That he’ll think of those below him, and those around the world, that he has taught. People like Jeff Jacobsen, who walked into his office as an 18-year-old kid, had a camera in his hand a week later, and never stopped.
That he’ll lift a camera with trembling fingers, fingers that have captured a tournament’s history. And framed in his viewfinder, he’ll see that some things never change. That there is still basketball, still stories to tell. That he still stands above.
And like all the greats, he’ll take the shot.