Game No. 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference semi-final, Toronto Raptors versus the Philadelphia 76ers, the waning seconds of a tie game at Scotiabank Arena. We remember the shot like it was a year ago.
After four agonizing rim-bounces and with no time left on the clock, the Spalding ball finally settled into the 76ers’ hoop. Though the home team Raptors had won the game (and with it, the series), the realization had yet to register on the faces on the court and in the crowd. It was a heck of a shot. No, not by Kawhi Leonard, but Mark Blinch.
It was the photo by the Toronto photojournalist that captured the buzzer-beating instance and won Blinch first prize in the sports-single category of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. That Leonard’s fall-away floater from the deep right corner was so noncommittal before finally dropping was what made the photo so striking.
“You can see everyone hanging on that moment,” Blinch told The Globe and Mail recently. “The ball was bouncing, which gave Kawhi enough time to squat down and create the tension I captured.”
If Leonard was on his haunches, the crowd, bench players and others were on pins and needles. Blinch’s photo caught a variety of reactions frozen in anticipation of a situation resisting its resolution. The image is somewhere between a neo-classical painting and a classic shot from the photo-journalism glory days of Sports Illustrated magazine.
“I wouldn’t have known how to shoot these kind of pictures if it wasn’t for those Sports Illustrated photographers,” said Blinch, who was working the game for the NBA. “They would shoot a little wider, because they were going for that double-page spread. It just looked so impressive.”
It did, and it still does. The iconic magazine used Blinch’s shot in its story on the game.
Blinch, 37, is the team photographer for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he worked more than a dozen regular-season Raptor games last season, and all of the playoffs. Usually he would shoot from a vantage point under one of the baskets, but he was bumped from a prime spot by a senior photographer also hired by the NBA.
So, have Canon, will travel – up to the press box in the rafters in this case. The bird’s-eye view worked out well, according to the native of Mississauga, a graduate of Ryerson University’s Image Arts program.
“It turned out to be the best place to be,” Blinch said. “From the high angle you can see the look on everyone’s face as the shot was dropping.”
The shot that dropped was a winning runner that accounted for two of Leonard’s game-leading 41 points and put the Raptors into the conference final against the Milwaukee Bucks, and eventually the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. Toronto beat the Warriors, two-time defending champions, but injury depleted, in six games.
Blinch worked the league final series, bur the last-second shot against the 76ers had already promoted the Raptors to destiny’s-team status and made the eventual win over the Warriors seem almost anti-climatic. The only tension involved was the question of which sweater hip-hop superstar Drake would be wearing courtside.
As for Blinch, his World Press Photo win is a trophy of a kind. “It’s a prestigious award and a career milestone,” the photographer said. “You never know if you’ll get back to that level again.”
Blinch also says he got “lucky” that the last-second jumper took so long to drop. “If it went straight in,” he explained, “the celebration, not Kawhi’s shot, would have been the photo.”
Maybe. But, then, that’s just the way the ball bounces.