CLEVELAND — The frozen moment happened with just under 3 minutes remaining in the third quarter of Game 3 of The 2016 NBA Finals. After knocking loose a pass from Golden State’s Stephen Curry to Festus Ezeli, Cleveland’s LeBron James grabbed the basketball and raced the other way to start a fast break.
Just past halfcourt, James collided with Curry and stumbled, his right knee and hand going to the floor to help him retain his balance, while James used his left hand to slap at the ball and keep his dribble alive. One second later, his bearing renewed, James resumed his dash to the hoop.
Curry was the lone defender between James and the basket, and as James neared the rim, Curry slid one step to his left, to truncate James’s angle of attack. LeBron quickly fired the ball to his left, where his teammate Kyrie Irving was streaking toward the rim. Curry and the basketball reached Irving at nearly the same time, and just as quickly as Irving caught the ball, he sprang off his right foot and immediately flipped the ball back up and over Curry, in the general vicinity of the hoop, where it figured that James would be arriving shortly.
“I knew he was going to throw it up there,” James said later. “And I had to go get it. He threw it, I had to go get it.”
It was not a perfect pass, but it was good enough. It was up to James, then, to do his part. And did he ever.
During the ball’s brief dalliance with Irving, James took five steps in the direction of the basket and then, leveraging his left foot against the court, James launched himself skyward, soaring up and at least equal to the rim.
As he flew, James twisted his torso and reached back with his right hand past the edge of the backboard, corralling the ball, and then he fired it though the hoop with a breathtaking combination of equal parts improbability, power, force and grace.
It was the play of The 2016 Finals thus far, a moment tailor-made to immediately go viral and embed itself in our brains for posterity as one of the signature plays of the 2016 postseason, if not James’ career.
But James and Irving weren’t the only one who did great work on the possession. As LeBron stole the ball and turned toward his basket, sitting a few hundred feet away and a couple of rows up in an arena seat in Quicken Loans Arena’s Section 106, Jesse Garrabrant was also preparing to try and create a different type of NBA Finals history.
A photographer for NBA Photos since 1994, Garrabrant lives on the New Jersey shore and shoots every Philadelphia 76ers home game. As the playoffs build toward an ultimate finish, NBA Photos brings all hands on deck to cover every game from every angle. In Cleveland for Game 3, Garrabrant rigged multiple remote controlled cameras around Quicken Loans Arena, which he could control from a button in his seat in Section 106. While Garrabrant could make the cameras click, he wasn’t actually looking down the viewfinders as the shutter snapped. So Garrabrant was, quite literally, firing blind.
“You want to take chances and if it works, there’s a big bonus,” said Garrabrant a day later. “You get a guy like LeBron who can create an incredible play, and if he’s in the exact right spot, it can totally work. At the same time, it could have also completely struck out, especially when you’re doing directional lighting like that.”
The lighting Garrabrant referred to is a special technique known as “spotlighting.” Garrabrant’s remote cameras for Game 3 were geared to take advantage of this method, which can give action photos a dramatic flair, adding depth and richness. But again, with the reward came a risk. “The lighting covers the paint,” Garrabrant explained, “because that’s where the majority of the action happens. LeBron is going to go to the hole sometime, and you just hope the lighting is going to cover it.”
For Game 3, Garrabrant had a camera clamped to the edge of the set ESPN uses for their live pre-and postgame broadcasts, which is assembled on a platform in a corner of The Q, near Section 113. Unless you looked closely, you wouldn’t notice Garrabrant’s camera. Luckily for the rest of us, this camera saw everything. As it turned out, this was the ultimate angle, from which Garrabrant captured the photo you see at the top of this post.
Within seconds of James’ dunk, Garrabrant’s picture was made available for download via NBA Photos on Getty Images, and it quickly started popping up all over social media. It was tweeted and re-tweeted and shared tens of thousands of times, as fans and other media members expressed their amazement. ESPN’s Don Van Natta tweeted that it was the picture of the year. It “belongs in the damn Louvre,” noted Mashable’s Sam Laird.
While the rest of us marveled over Garrabrant’s image of James’ Game 3 dunk, Garrabrant’s mind drifted back to 2008. As it turned out, Garrabrant may have been the perfect person to capture this dunk from this player from this angle, particularly when you consider he’d done almost exactly the same thing before.
“[James] had almost the same dunk in the ’08 Conference semifinals against Kevin Garnett, in the same spot on the court,” recalled Garrabrant. “Same angle, he threw it the same way, everything, except this was an alley-oop and that one was just him driving to the basket. I shot that game and I got the same angle on that particular dunk.”
We may live in an age where video is increasingly available, streaming at us almost inexorably every time we open a browser window. But there’s still something magical about the perfect photo, which freezes a moment in time in a way that we never want to forget.
Following Game 3, Kyrie Irving was asked about his pass to James on the play. “I wanted to see something great,” Irving said. “I threw it very, very… you know, some people may say it’s a bad pass, but I wanted to see something great.”
At least on this night, we all got to see something great.