A very personal account in the world of sports photography:
I barely landed in Budapest after a 21 hours flight from Los Angeles, but by the afternoon I was already walking across the main bridge of my old high-school town with my six-year old nephew, Zeteny. My brother and his family settled in the small town of Jaszbereny some time back. With a little over 27,000 inhabitants, its slow-moving river and its weeping willows the town was everything but buzzing. It was only me and Zeteny crossing the bridge on the gloomy December day. With Christmas just around the corner, and the sun already hidden behind the horizon by 4:00 pm, the city resembled a ghost town. There was not one soul around just some distant dogs howling through the early evening. We walked by a few withering homes, approaching a dark alley. That’s when I saw him. His hood covering his face and his jacket silhouetting his powerful frame, he was walking towards us. The faint street -light finally gave him the glow.
“What are YOU doing here?”- I asked in a curious tone, referring to his African appearance in a very “white” town. “What are YOU doing here?” came his sass for he was surprised to hear my decent English in the middle of the small Hungarian town. “I just arrived from L.A. to visit my family for Christmas. But really, where did you come from?” “ I am from Birmingham, Alabama. My name is Orlando Coleman and I play for the JKSE, Jaszbereny’s baskeball team”, he said and reached out to shake my hand. My nephew stood there with his deep blue, inquiring eyes. “ We have a big game tonight in the tournament, and you and your nephew should come”. Zeteny had never been to a basketball game before, as for me, aside from playing a few games in high-school and subsequently tearing several ligaments in my ankle- I didn’t have much connection to the game. Yet, I was excited about the possibility to introduce my nephew - who I hadn’t seen since he was an infant- to the world of basketball and to spend quality time with him. I told Orlando we would come to the game. There was only one hurdle. To convince my family to let me take Zeteny with me. In my family, when it’s Christmas, we stay at home and watch the candle burn and marvel at our oversized Christmas tree which I mourn each time they cut down.
“I am taking Zeteny to the basketball game” I announced to my family upon entering the house”. “No, you are not. Basketball is for losers.” Said my disgruntled brother, and my mother agreed. I wasn’t surprised at his response. Introducing new things to my family isn’t the easiest. I pointed out the fact that we all waited 6 years for me to come home, that the greatest gift would be for me to spend time with Zeteny, to take him to a game. I looked down at my little sidekick, he had tears in his eyes because of the argument. When suddenly, my brother picked up his jacket. “Let’s go”- he said. I grabbed my camera and although I never shot sporting events before, I looked forward to the challenge.
I wasn’t used to the bone chilling cold, or the dark streets, but all that dissolved when my brother and I, with the little man of a being slogged through the melted snow. The town’s gymnasium was pulsing with excitement. The crowd, with their rhythmic chant, honored the players during their pre-game warm up. I saw Orlando focused and committed to win the game and as such, I didn’t try to distract him.
Once the game started, I positioned myself by the sidelines with my camera. The game was incredible. Orlando with his superhuman build and skill along with his teammate, Damier Pitts, from North Carolina ruled the game. At times, I would look up at the bleachers and see my brother in complete ecstasy surrendering to the magic of basketball, along with his son, my nephew, screaming his little heart out together with the close to 500 people in the audience. Apparently, basketball wasn’t for "losers”. During halftime, I caught up with Orlando and thanked him for inviting us. I knew that our chance-encounter was for a reason. Then the guys began their skilled hussle again. As for me, my photography skills failed me. Sports photography is a whole different ball game Literally. The speed, the quick focus, the burst mode, the unpredictability of players, and not having the right lens produced images I was not proud of. Yet, I was hooked. I wanted to produce quality images. I wanted to learn and master sports photography.
At the end of the game, I watched my brother not wanting to leave the bleachers for he had so much fun and I watched Zeteny run to the court with the other children. It was the first time he held a basketball. He was beside himself. With his lanky arms, he threw the ball and wanted to get that “bucket” so bad. I told my brother I would meet them at the house as I had to catch up with Orlando after the game. When Orlando finally exited the gymnasium, his eyes were shining with the winner's light. We decided to meet after their team dinner held at the very restaurant I had my prom dinner some 23 years back, by the old bridge.
It was late and I didn’t want to stay out too long. Eventually, Orlando and Damier met me outside the restaurant and we headed back to their apartment to view the pictures. Even though I took about 200 images there wasn’t much to see. The majority of them were out of focus, the colors off and I missed the highlight moments. I sat on the sofa embarrassed and couldn’t wait to leave. There was not one image that the guys wanted for their social media. It was perfect timing when a few of their friends and teammates showed up for some post-game celebration. Defeated in my craft, I left Orlando’s home.
I woke up late. Jet lag got the best of me. By the time I walked downstairs, Zeteny was already playing geologist with the set I brought for him from NatGeo. I loved everything about that boy, his purity, his inquiring and beyond bright mind and I knew we were going to have the best Christmas we never had. Zeteny told me he wanted to be Orlando and Damier when he grew up and that he wanted to learn to play basketball. I smiled “ Basketball is for losers” I remembered my brother saying the day before.
I knew from Orlando that during my short 10 day stay, there would be two more games played and I wanted to make sure Zeteny got to go to all of them. And I wanted to practice my photography skills. By mid-day the two staff photographers for the team connected with me on social media. I was the new girl in town with the camera without the appropriate lens for basketball and they agreed - I needed different lenses.
As green as I was in the world of sports photography, I wanted to show Orlando my skills as a portrait photographer. And off we went that afternoon into the sleepy winter town taking the most beautiful and raw pictures. As tough and powerful as Orlando was on the court as vulnerable he became in front of my lens. He has never modeled before and I loved that. I loved that he paid attention to the light, that he understood that being vulnerable during a shoot would make for a great image. He shared with me how he missed his family and how he and Damier would be alone for Christmas. That didn’t sit well with me, so I made a plan.
Announcing to my racially “conservative” family that the two basketball players would be joining us for our 20 person family Christmas dinner came as a shock to them. My mother, with her usual “how could you even?” my brother with his “no, no, no” and my sister in law with her familiar "not a chance" expression gave me a sizable challenge. I sat quietly for a while and - although I had abandoned Christian faith some time back - I still remembered some things from Sunday school. “If it wasn’t for the inn-keeper guy who allowed the pregnant Mary and her man, Joseph, two complete strangers to stay at his stable, the Jesus story would be different, ma'. Look at how that kind man took in those stranger and gave them a safe place, why then can’t we have Orlando and Damier here with us for Christmas?”- I asked.
You could bite the thick silence in the room in front of our oversized Christmas tree. “What do you think the guys would like to eat?” asked my mom eventually, and the deal was sealed. I knew that some family members would probably have their own views and opinions, but the final words belonged to my sister in law, Ildiko, my brother and Mom.
When Orlando and Damier showed up the next day for Christmas dinner, everyone in my family froze around the dinner table the moment the guys walked through the door. With a little delay, it was my brother who welcomed them in with some good old Hungarian booze. I watched two family members excuse themselves and leave at the sight of my guests. Then within twenty minutes the somber Christmas dinner turned into a mega party with my brother proposing an array of liqueur to the guys and my mom offering bizarre foods to them. My nephew, Zeteny was overjoyed to see his heroes from the court in our home. As for me, I watched from the sidelines what true Christmas was about: all-encompassing love and community and giving without any agenda. I knew there and then that my nephew’s life would forever change.
I showed up to he next game having read some articles about sports photography. My brother, Zeteny and Ildiko were gleaming from the bleachers. The two staff -photographers Balazs and Gyuri greeted me and I told them how I wasn’t really prepared as my 70-200 mm zoom lens was in the U.S. Gyuri loaned me his 200mm $5000 prime lens. I was humbled by his kindness and for once, I got some decent pictures from that game, but still a lot more to learn.
When I returned to the U.S. I embarked on a mission to become a skilled sport photographer. I took a couple of courses, was long-distance mentored by Balazs and Gyuri, my Hungarian super talented colleagues and eventually stepped onto the courts in Venice.
At first, everyone was eyeing me like fresh blood with the fancy camera. After my third time there, the players started to come up to me to see the pictures “ You good!” they would say. I would show up to the courts every Sunday. They say you need to put in 10,000 hours of shooting to become a great photographer. I was unstoppable. I just kept shooting and getting better with each Sunday, each memory card filled, with each dunk. And soon the players started to know my name and respect me, I was no longer just “fresh blood”. I was “the Queen of Venice” they would call me. I shot the whole season at the Veniceball tournament, I shot portraits, action shots, behind the scenes and eventually I got to shoot Dwight Howard from the L.A. Lakers. And I learned so much. I learned that hard work pays off, I learned to stay quiet and let my work prove my skills, I learned to walk away from situations that didn’t serve me or the whole, I learned that people either see my value or they don’t, I learned that it’s not a good idea to mix romance with work, I learned and I learned and I learned.
As for my nephew, Zeteny- he became the best in his age group on the local basketball team,. My brother bought him a hoop and he is always out putting in work. Sometimes Damier would drop in to show him how to dribble. He turned from a bullied, shy boy into a confident, strong, seven-year old who feels and is invincible. My family shook their racially “conservative” views. Last I heard, my brother took Orlando and Damier sailing on bro's 46 feet sailboat. All that happened because some invisible force put Orlando and I together in that alley on the cold winter day. Till this day, we still joke with my brother about his famous line and watching his own son throw bucket after bucket, he now sees that basketball isn’t for losers.
For more on Damier Pitts, you can visit his Instagram
Photos of Zeteny Vari, courtesy of Ildiko Nagy and Zoltan Vari.