With prime courtside positions at a premium, photographer Mark Blinch was saddled with a perch way up in the press box for the deciding game of the Toronto Raptors’ Eastern Conference semifinal last spring.
It turned out to be the ideal spot to capture the first Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history.
Blinch’s picture of Kawhi Leonard’s dramatic series-winning jump shot told a complete story in one incredible image. The Toronto-based sports photographer was rewarded for his efforts this week by winning the prestigious World Press Photo sports singles top prize.
“The whole look of the photo is just people waiting,” Blinch said Friday. ”Just 25 years of Raptors basketball, it almost comes down to that moment.”
On the play, Leonard dribbled to the corner of the court and let an arching shot fly over the outstretched fingertips of defender Joel Embiid.
Leonard took a few steps backward before squatting in front of the Toronto bench as the ball hit the rim. The tension was palpable as three more bounces followed.
Blinch clicked at just the right time. He captured a wide mix of facial expressions and unusual body positions from Leonard, his teammates, opponents and fans just as the ball was falling into the basket.
“That’s what I like about the picture is just that anticipation and all of the buildup,” Blinch said. “You could just see it on everybody’s face.”
The euphoric celebration began a split-second later as the sellout crowd at Scotiabank Arena erupted. The Raptors went on to win the next two series to claim their first-ever NBA championship.
Blinch, the team photographer for the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, was working for the NBA on this occasion. He has also done freelance work for The Canadian Press and other outlets.
Shooting from the gondola is not usually ideal for a photographer due to the distance from the action. In this case, everything happened to set up perfectly.
Blinch explained that for any potential game-winner, his goal is to try to get the shooter, the ball and the basket in the frame.
He zoomed out a little bit more than usual and was ready when Leonard made his move.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to shoot overhead like that,” Blinch said. “There’s no other angle where you’re going to see all those reactions.”
Amid the hysteria below, Blinch quickly checked the thumbnail image on his camera. He thought it was good, but didn’t realize it was special until he displayed the image on his computer.
“That’s when I could really see it,” he said. ”The picture went viral and it got all sorts of attention. And yeah, it was celebrated.”
The basket completed Leonard’s 41-point night and gave Toronto a 92-90 Game 7 victory. The Raptors went on to beat Milwaukee for the conference title before topping Golden State in the NBA Finals.
“As a sports photographer, you might only ever see this kind of moment once in your life,” Blinch said. “You might get lucky and see a bunch of moments like this. But for me, this is probably the biggest moment of my entire career.
“So to have a picture that represents that is what makes me the most proud about it. To come away with that is the most important thing as a sports photographer.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press