The white-haired man on the front row is in charge of making memories. Been doing it nearly six decades.
Rich Clarkson sat cross-legged on the playing surface, photographing the action during a wild finish Saturday at the Superdome. He has been a sports photographer since 1952. This is his 57th Final Four.
“It never really gets old,” Clarkson, 78, said before Kansas’ 64-62 win against Ohio State. The Jayhawks will play Kentucky on Monday for a shot at their second national championship in five seasons.
There comes a time in each game, particularly one played on a stage as large as this, that’s remembered not only as important, but as iconic. Clarkson’s job is to capture that moment, the marriage of timing, angles and luck. Mario Chalmers’ three-pointer in 2008. David Thompson’s drive to the basket in ’74. Lew Alcindor’s famous hook shot against Houston in ’68. Clarkson and his camera were there.
On Saturday, that moment happened with 1:18 to play, when Jayhawks center Jeff Withey blocked a shot, allowing Elijah Johnson to run upcourt for a layup and a three-point lead that was enough to beat the Buckeyes.
Clarkson’s shutter was snapping, a thousand frames shot throughout a game to capture that single one.
“Not just the most dramatic picture,” he said, “but what the most significant picture is.”
After a mostly forgettable first half, this shot didn’t seem possible. During halftime, former Jayhawks great Wayne Simien sat in a section with other former KU players, looking nervous. Larry Brown, the former Jayhawks coach, stood and sipped a Coke, a hopeful look on his face. Danny Manning, working his next-to-last game as Jayhawks coach Bill Self’s assistant before moving on to become the head coach at Tulsa, stood at the team’s locker-room doorway, fist-bumping each player as they exited, and repeating a rallying cry for effort.
“Every possession,” Manning kept saying.
And when one player walked past the coach without responding, Manning made certain the message was absorbed.
“Hey!” said Manning, who Clarkson remembered as a favorite and whom he captured for a Sports Illustrated cover in 1988. “Every possession.”
The Jayhawks needed to play with more energy, and most anyone in the Superdome could’ve appreciated that. Earlier Saturday, as Kentucky held off Louisville 69-61 and advanced to the championship game, fans threw confetti made from torn newspaper and flung orange seat cushions from the dome’s top section. The arena, packed with 73,361 people, was loud and mostly wearing Wildcats blue. But that changed when KU snoozed through most of the first half. It was quiet on the bayou, except for Self’s frequent outbursts toward his players.
“What are wedoing
?” Self shouted early in the first half.
A few moments later …
“We talked about being who we are,” Self said. “We haven’t been who we are yet.”
Self is an interesting photography subject. His mannerisms change by the possession, by the result. Angst gives way to that confident smirk, and back to anguish. He gave photographers plenty of material Saturday, and their shutters snapped.
Clarkson’s parents gave him a Kodak when he was 9, and he became a professional in 1952, his freshman year at KU. He was on the team plane to Seattle, and he watched Phog Allen — “Doc,” Clarkson calls the legendary Jayhawks coach — and Clyde Lovellette bring a tournament championship back to Lawrence.
He was in love. With the movement and beauty and grace. With sports and the way you can click a button and give life to a moment. Photography and basketball aren’t so dissimilar: The purpose in both is to make sense of chaos.
“You’re trying to figure out all the things that could go wrong,” Clarkson said, “and control as many of them as you can. There’s so much you don’t have control over.”
He eventually worked for newspapers in Lawrence and Topeka, and later his photographs ran in magazines. Some of his images ran in The Kansas City Star. He documented history and more unmemorable times, those frames thrown out or forgotten. Some, though, were unforgettable. His shutter captured Texas Western winning the championship in 1966 during the teeth of the Civil Rights Movement, when the nation’s first all-black starting five outlasted the all-white Kentucky Wildcats. Clarkson saw the stunned expression on Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp’s face; his camera preserved it. He said he likes those kinds of pictures: a still that comes alive to tell a story.
“Sometimes you have a feeling,” he said, describing what it’s like to recognize a watershed moment.
In the final minutes Saturday, there was a feeling growing at the Superdome.
Those in the student section were screaming, one waving an oversized cutout of Self’s head. Someone held a sign that suggested Self should run for president.
They smiled and high-fived, blue Mardi Gras beads bouncing as they jumped.
During a ferocious final minute, the Jayhawks held off the Buckeyes’ comeback attempt, and after a steal by Tyshawn Taylor with 6 seconds left, it was done. KU would be playing for a championship. Self’s expression was worthy of a photograph: He smiled as if he’d just gotten away with something.
When the final buzzer sounded, Simien raised his left arm and smiled, bouncing with a beat that must’ve been in his head. Brown, who coached Manning to a championship two dozen years ago, screamed and raised his arms, shaking hands with passersby.
The cushions flew again. The noise was back — and deafening.
“It’s on!” Johnson shouted as he left the floor, a moment before Travis Releford threw his wristbands into the crowd.
As the dome buzzed, the KU band playing the school’s alma mater, the white-haired photographer turned away from the floor and looked toward the student section. He had his shot: a good one, he would say later, of Withey’s block. He smiled.
“The string will come to an end one of these days,” Clarkson had said earlier.
Then he raised his camera, pointed it toward the students, and clicked the shutter.