Clarkson first began covering college basketball in earnest as a student at the University of Kansas. Jayhawks coach Phog Allen, enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, often had the photographer bunk with “some kid who was 12th man on the team” during road trips. That kid? Dean Smith, the former North Carolina coach, also a Hall of Famer. From Clarkson’s first trip to the Final Four: Allen gives instructions to the Jayhawks (including Smith, whose brow and beak give him away as he looks to the camera) in Seattle before the 1952 national-championship game.
Basketball isn’t life or death, but sometimes getting a great photo of the game requires a little risk. The overhead shot of Houston’s Akeem Olajuwon (34) and Louisville’s Rodney McCray (22) from the semifinal of the 1983 Final Four called for some pregame derring-do from one of Clarkson’s assistants, who walked out onto a catwalk high above the floor of “The Pit” in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then shimmied across a support beam before attaching a remote camera above the basket. “And we did it kind of clandestinely,” says Clarkson.
Over the years, Clarkson has run into a number of teams from Indiana schools in the NCAA tournament. Larry Bird and Indiana State tried (and failed) to stop Magic Johnson and Michigan State during the 1979 Final Four championship game in Salt Lake City.
Clarkson covered his share of Notre Dame games in the 1970s and was always impressed with coach Digger Phelps, who led Bill Hanzlik and the Irish to the 1978 Final Four in St. Louis. “Just a classy guy,” says Clarkson of Phelps.
When Texas Western (now UTEP) upset Kentucky to win the 1966 Final Four, Clarkson realized he was capturing a slice of civil rights–era history. To that point, no major college team had ever started five black players in an NCAA championship game (or, until earlier that season, in any game). Moreover, the Miners had shocked the top-ranked—and lily-white—Wildcats, a team many had ordained to win the title at the beginning of the season. But when Clarkson went to his Sports Illustrated editors with a reaction shot of the Kentucky bench and coach Adolph Rupp (holding the ball), they balked. “‘This is the one,’ I told them,” says Clarkson. But the photo didn’t even make the issue. “Crazy,” he says. The image, one of Clarkson’s most powerful, eventually ran years later when the magazine revisited the game.
When President Ronald Reagan was shot during an assassination attempt, Clarkson recalls, TV executives and NCAA officers weren’t sure whether to even play the 1981 championship game. While they debated, the Indiana Hoosiers played the waiting game in their locker room in Philadelphia. Clarkson says he was able to catch such a candid moment because he had already spent a great deal of time with the team during the season. “It was very quiet,” he says. “No one said a word.”
Indiana guard Isiah Thomas (11) and North Carolina guard Jimmy Black (21) during the 1981 Final Four in Philadelphia.
Of all the Indiana college teams, Clarkson spent the most time with Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, including Isiah Thomas, who cut down the nets after the 1981 Final Four in Philadelphia. Clarkson says he and Knight struck up a friendship in 1972, during the coach’s second season with the Hoosiers. “At that point, he was, to a degree, courting the press, and here I was, this photographer from the big New York magazine,” he says. “He had me over for dinner, we hit it off, and for the next number of years, Sports Illustrated assigned me to a lot of Indiana games. [Knight] is an extremely intelligent person, and I’m lucky to have gotten to know him over the years. For the people he likes, he’s the most loyal person you’ll ever meet. But, yes, he does have a fiery temper.” Clarkson says he remains in touch with Knight and several former Indiana players.
At the close of the 1971 Final Four in Houston, Clarkson captured an intimate moment between player and coach when UCLA’s John Wooden and Sidney Wicks shook hands following the Bruins’ win over Villanova in the championship game. Clarkson explains that Wooden and Wicks had hit a “rocky period,” and Wicks had rebelled against Wooden throughout much of the regular season. During the closing minutes of the final, when the game was in hand, Wooden took out the starters one at a time so each could get a round of applause, says Clarkson. Wicks was the last starter left on the floor, and when Wooden took the player out of the game for his curtain call, Wicks offered his hand to Wooden. “Coach, you’re something else. Thanks for everything you did for me.” Clarkson says Wooden called the photo one of his favorites. “It was one of those moments that was near and dear to his heart,” he says
Sometimes, when you stick around, good things just happen. Fans hoisted Bill Russell onto their shoulders following San Francisco’s win over La Salle in the 1955 Final Four in Kansas City, Missouri. Clarkson allows that was a pretty typical scene back then, but often his competition missed out on all of the fun. “The photographers for the newspapers and the wire services would all leave early to meet their deadlines,” he says, so getting a great celebration shot wasn’t much of a test of skill—he was often the only one left. Now, 82 and shooting his last Final Four next month, Clarkson will be crouched at one end of the floor or another, and faces a real challenge: “At halftime, it’s hard to get up.”
UCLA guard Gail Goodrich (25) hooked with his right hand over Michigan's Cazzie Russel (22) but mostly befuddled Michigan with his left-handed dirbble on moves to the basket during the 1965 Final Four in Portland.
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun celebrates his team's win over Butler in the 2011 Final Four in Houston.
A Longtime Final Four Observer’s Photo Finish
No one has taken more game-winning shots than photographer Rich Clarkson. Next month, he’ll shoot his 60th Final Four in Indianapolis.
Rich Clarkson was not a natural. When the celebrated photographer went to develop his first roll of film, he accidentally tossed it into the wastebasket. Score one for foreshadowing, because over the course of six decades, Clarkson’s work has become synonymous with college basketball, in particular the sport’s crown jewel—the Final Four.
Raised in Lawrence, Kansas, Clarkson started out shooting the humdrum events of daily life in the college town (mostly car accidents and fire runs, he says) before finding his muse on the basketball court at the University of Kansas. There, as a student photographer, he learned the ins and outs of the game by endearing himself to legendary coach Phog Allen and attending practices with Allen’s 1950s Jayhawks teams. Clarkson soon discovered that “access is everything,” and admittance into the inner sanctum gave him an opportunity to cover the game in a way others weren’t privy to. “By going to practices and hanging out, I learned there was so much more to the game—things that happen before and after the game or on the sidelines,” he says.
Though he already had a few Final Fours under his belt by 1956, Clarkson got his big break that year by taking an unorthodox photo—Wilt Chamberlain tying his shoes. He thought the pose best showed the 7-foot-1 freshman’s expanse, and, on a whim, he sent the image to Sports Illustrated. Fortunately for Clarkson, the day his photo arrived at the magazine’s offices, the editors had just commissioned a story on the player.
Though Clarkson went on to photograph presidents, Super Bowls, and the Olympics, the Final Four has remained his true love. “It’s the perfect way to end a season,” he says. It’s also a perfect way to finish a career. The Denver-based Clarkson says farewell to the Final Four early next month in Indy, but his work will be showcased at the NCAA Hall of Champions starting March 10. Here, Clarkson shares some of his favorites taken over the course of 59 Final Fours.