The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is the most idiosyncratic of the major sports halls of fame, in part because its mission is to celebrate the game of basketball in its many incarnations, as opposed to just the NBA. That independent spirit is readily apparent this weekend, when Springfield welcomes its 2015 class of players, coaches, and referees. Among the inductees are “Little Louie” Dampier, a star guard from the ABA, and big man Spencer Haywood, whose accomplishments off the court often overshadowed his remarkable career on it. Lisa Leslie joins a lengthy list of women inductees.

The true outlier among this year’s honorees, however, is someone you’ve never heard of, unless you happen to be a photographer or you read the agate-sized credit lines that are printed alongside the pictures in magazines and newspapers.

Rich Clarkson is the first photographer to receive the Basketball Hall of Fame’s Curt Gowdy Award for excellence in print media. That also makes him the first photographer to be honored with a lifetime media award by any of the four major sports halls of fame, including baseball in Cooperstown, football in Canton, and hockey in Toronto.

“I know so many photographers that are as intelligent and astute at understanding what they’re doing and what their picture is saying as some really fine writers,” Clarkson told me from Denver, where the walls of his office are covered with signed prints by Ansel Adams, Cornell Capa, Eddie Adams, and Gjon Mili. “I look back at some other people – like John Zimmerman – that should have been so acknowledged. It was overdue.”

Clarkson grew up in Kansas at a time when Phog Allen was turning Lawrence into one of the country’s basketball hubs, and he’s old enough to have met James A. Naismith himself. Clarkson was a college student when he shot Wilt Chamberlain at the University of Kansas; his black-and-white image of the elongated Chamberlain lacing up his high-top sneakers was his first picture to be published in Sports Illustrated.

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“I had big strobes set up and I’d made several pictures of him dunking the ball,” he said, “but you couldn’t tell how tall he really was. Between those action pictures he sat down in this folding chair to re-tie his shoes. I said, ‘Hold on a minute.’ I took the chair and moved it right underneath the basket and he continued tying his shoe. That wasn’t posed.”

The image launched Clarkson’s decades-long association with Sports Illustrated. (His first SI cover was an action shot of UCLA’s Walt Hazzard during the 1964 title game.) His lengthy resume includes stints as photo editor at the Topeka Capital-Journal, where he mentored photojournalists who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, and at the Denver Post, and as director of photography at National Geographic. He shot several Olympic Games, including in Mexico City in 1968, when Haywood and fellow Naismith inductee Jo Jo White helped the United States win the gold medal. With former student Brian Lanker, he collaborated on two outstanding books: I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America and Track Town, USA, about the University of Oregon’s storied track program. His company, Clarkson Creative, runs photography workshops that draw experts and novices alike.

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But always, he’s returned to cover college basketball; he shot his 60th consecutive Final Four this past March. His photo of a glum-looking Adolph Rupp and his downcast Kentucky team (below) after their defeat against the all-black starting five of Texas Western in the stirring 1966 NCAA title game is a classic, as is his shot of John Wooden shaking hands with star forward Sidney Wicks after UCLA wrapped up yet another championship in 1971.

Even as he moved from film to digital, his philosophy has always been straightforward. “I look at myself more as a journalist than a photographer,” he said. “A good picture is one that has significance to it. It tells something important. It has something to say, and it’s also well presented: well composed, well organized, technically good.”

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Clarkson’s contemporaries have nothing but raves.

“There are photographers that take one picture in their lives that everyone remembers, and there are other photographers that do consistently excellent work,” said his close friend and colleague Neil Leifer. “Rich is one of the latter. When you sent Rich to the Final Four, you knew you were going to get a damn good set of pictures. He never was married. He never had children. His love was photography and still is.”

“Rich has been a groundbreaker in photojournalism,” said Andrew Bernstein, director of photography for the NBA. “The real trailblazers were Rich Clarkson, Neil Leifer, and John Zimmerman. As a young photographer coming up, they were the gold standard.”

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In conversations with Leifer, Bernstein and other photographers, it’s apparent that Clarkson’s watershed award is also a bittersweet moment for them. Not because of any professional jealousy, but because Clarkson’s landmark inclusion makes the exclusion of so many other worthy photographers that much more glaring.

“When you think of Joe Namath, what do you think of?” Bernstein said. “You think of Neil’s famous shot of him running off the field after the Super Bowl holding up his finger number-one. With Wayne Gretzky, you think of Bruce Bennett and how many shots he’s taken in his career. Every athlete in every hall of fame has an iconic photo attached to him.”

Indeed, how can we discuss Willie Mays and his career without acknowledging Frank Hurley’s magnificent, multi-frame sequence of “The Catch” at the 1954 World Series that first appeared in the New York Daily News? How can we think of Joe Montana’s greatness in the clutch without referring to Walter Iooss Jr.’s SI cover of that other “Catch,” by Dwight Clark in the 1982 NFC championship game, which propelled Montana and the 49ers to iconic status? And, who doesn’t think of Ray Lussier’s image of Bobby Orr’s dive when divining Orr’s brilliance?

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“The fact that sports photojournalism has lagged so severely behind every other form of journalism in being recognized is mind-boggling to me,” Bernstein said. “This is no knock on columnists or beat writers or broadcasters, who are all recognized by the halls of fame. That’s wonderful, that’s great. But I feel that we photographers have contributed as much as they have. We’ve told the story as well as they have.”

Why have the four major sports halls of fame been so laggard in honoring photographers even as they display their images for public consumption and preserve these same images in their research sanctuaries? Why hasn’t Cooperstown honored Charles Conlon, Louis Van Oeyen, Ernest Withers, and Ozzie Sweet and why hasn’t Canton honored Robert Riger and Walter Iooss, Jr.? What about the all-rounders who were versatile enough to shoot multiple sports – a group that includes Leifer, Iooss, Zimmerman, George Kalinsky, and Barton Silverman, among others? And, what of photographers like Barney Stein and Jon SooHoo with the Dodgers, or Wen Roberts with the Lakers, who embedded themselves with one team for years? (Not to stray too far from the topic, but any discussion about honoring photographers should include artists, illustrators and cartoonists, including Willard Mullin and Bill Gallo.)

First, to clear up a couple of misconceptions: Despite many references to “media wings” within the various halls, these do not physically exist. Fans come to Cooperstown to see the golden plaques of Roberto Clemente and Babe Ruth, not statues of esteemed writers Roger Angell (New Yorker) and Gordon Cobbledick (Cleveland Plain Dealer). And, contrary to popular belief, writers and broadcasters are not actually inducted into the halls of fame. Rather, they are honored with lifetime awards bestowed under the halls’ purview.

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Photographers face their first obstacle here: the language that spells out the guidelines for the media awards all but excludes them. Cooperstown grants the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing” – Angell and Cobbledick won this one – while the Ford Frick award goes exclusively to broadcasters.

The Baseball Hall of Fame recently inaugurated the Buck O’Neil Award for lifetime achievement in broadening the game’s appeal. This is given out every three years and, potentially, could be awarded to a photographer. So far, it has gone to O’Neil himself, executive Roland Hemond, and catcher-turned-broadcaster Joe Garagiola (the recipient of the Frick award in 1991). In other words, don’t hold your breath.

Canton has the Pete Rozelle Award that salutes “longtime exceptional contributions to radio and television in professional football” and the Dick McCann Award for a reporter who has made “a long and distinguished contribution to pro football through coverage.” The latter is voted on by the Pro Football Writers of America.

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The only official acknowledgement of photographers’ work in Canton is ephemeral, courtesy of the late Dave Boss, who started out as a photographer but is best known for his graphic design work for the NFL (including the “shield” logo). The Dave Boss Award of Excellence is given to the photographer who takes the “picture of the year.”

Bottom line: portraits and action pictures decorate the walls of these halls, chronicling the characters and moments that have defined each sport, but the photographers themselves have no place in a process controlled by writers and broadcasters and the halls of fame themselves.

“It’s kind of like, sports photographers were never considered as full-blooded journalists as writers,” Clarkson said. “Maybe that’s because photography itself was looked down upon as an art form for so long.”

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And perhaps it’s also because photography sneers at sports. None of the inductees in the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in St. Louis are sports photographers (although many of them have taken pictures of sports).

“Sports photographers have never had a strong voice – a strong guild — to represent us and to be our agent,” Bernstein said, “unlike the baseball writers association, which is a very powerful and well respected organization.”

Photographers have fared slightly better outside of the “major” sports. The International Boxing Hall of Fame in upstate New York inducted Leifer in 2014 in its “Observer” category, which includes “print and media journalists, publishers, writers, historians, photographers and artists.” The Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach, Calif., includes lensmen LeRoy Grannis and John “Doc” Ball as well as many filmmakers.

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The list ends there. The photographers I spoke to do not want to be put in the awkward position of personally lobbying the halls to recognize their achievements. They can only hope that Clarkson’s award will, as Bernstein suggested, “open the doors for others who have dedicated their lives and their careers and their talent and their craft to their sports.”

That’s no small feat at a time when every fan comes equipped with a personal camera phone. Meanwhile, as Rich Clarkson prepared to be feted this weekend and allowed that he might sip a celebratory martini or three, he sought to define the role sports photography still plays in contemporary media culture. “We attend events today on television and at the stadium,” Clarkson said. “We remember events with a great photograph.”


David Davis is the author of Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku (Univ. of Nebraska Press).