Dunk of Death - Photographer Darren McNamara Recalls His Memorable Photo
On the 20th anniversary of Vince Carter's historic dunk at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, i.e. the greatest dunk of all-time or the as French media referred to it - "Dunk of Death," Trenton Miller, USA Basketball's Manager, Digital Communications, discussed the dunk with Darren McNamara, the photographer who best captured the iconic slam.
Every Sept. 25 the video and McNamara's photo of Carter's draw-dropping dunk resurfaces as basketball fans worldwide once again view the play that has lived in infamy.
In fact, the website Stack included McNamara's photo in its photo gallery of The 31 Most Perfectly Timed Sports Photos Ever Taken.
The 4-0 U.S. Olympic Men's Basketball Team was facing France in its final preliminary round game of the 2000 Olympics. With the U.S. ahead by 15 and 16:08 left in the contest, Carter made a steal of a France outlet pass on the U.S. offensive end. Driving to the basket, France's 7-foot-2 center Fredric Weis stood between Carter and the rim. Carter, who had won the NBA All-Star Slam Dunk contest earlier that winter, soared over Weis to slam home the ball and give the U.S. a 71-54 lead.
As seen above, McNamara caught Carter leaping over Weiss and Carter emotional eruption after successfully dunking the ball. Based in Melbourne, McNamara is a national award winning photographer/visual content creator with an experience base built from 20+ years in the Australian media industry, covering everything from Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, World Championships and news events both nationally and internationally for some of the world’s top agencies, newspapers and brands.
Every year on this date we look on the internet and there is the same images (of Carter’s Dunk). I wondered who took the images and I thought it would be great to talk to whoever took the one we always see.
There were so many guys down at that end of the court on that box. It was early on in the second quarter I think, and they (the U.S.) were probably 10 points up. But something was going to happen, you could tell. It was just one of those things. I shot a lot of basketball in the late 90s for the NBL (National Basketball League) here in Australia, so I was really looking forward to it.
I shot a lot of the preliminary games. But it was funny, because at the time we were still using film, and the way the Olympics worked you shot the games, a film runner came around, you put the 30 rolls of film in a bag, and you'd give it to the film courier, and it would back to the Kodak center and you just go and do your other job on the roster. You could shoot basketball in the morning, hockey in the afternoon, swimming or something. It was a pretty full-on two weeks. It happened so quick. He was always sort of clowning around. He was always great for picture in that game for some reason. Something, I don’t know what it was, but he came up, so I picked up the camera with the short lens, shot it and then just went back to shooting the game. But the best picture of all was in the background is Kevin Garnett with the surprised look on his face. That’s almost the picture itself, because he just couldn’t believe it.
I think it’s probably captured from the other end of the court, from the roof cams, from the remotes and everything, but for some reason that was the one that got the publicity, which was great. But, I don’t even have a print of it any more. No one has ever asked me about the photo. It’s gone for 20 years, it comes up on ESPN, it comes up everywhere else, but it gets run for a day and then that’s it.
How familiar were to with the USA roster? Did you know Vince’s background, that he was the slam dunk champion? Did you know what to expect?
I knew it was going to be pretty exciting, because it was kind of the next level up from the NBL was here. The Olympics are hard work, it’s a couple of weeks. The first week is all adrenalin and long days and by the end of the second week, before closing ceremonies, you’re just on survival mode. It was something I was really looking forward to. I wasn’t rostered on to do any of the finals of basketball. It was some of the other guys, but the basketball that I shot I really enjoyed. It was so good to see these guys, because they really were like another level compared the competition here. Look, you had (Andrew) Gaze and everyone here at the time, they were fantastic players, and you had a lot of imports, but to see the U.S. team and all those guys together was just incredible.
When you’re looking through your camera, and obviously it’s really fast, can you even detail what transpired there. What’s your account of the “Dunk of Death?”
I can remember that I always shot basketball with two lenses. I'd shoot a long lens, because we were down on the end of the court box, and I shoot a long lens with one camera to cover the back half of the game. And then, I had another camera with a shorter lens for the key, around the rim. He came up the side, he took a couple of steps towards me from this side, his side of the court, and I just picked up the short camera. And I suppose it was luck really, but I just shot him going up. Those cameras back then weren’t as fast as what the cameras are now. I probably got four frames. But the one frame that was any good was the one where he's right on top of Frederic. You don’t actually see it, because the mirror goes up, so if you actually see it in the camera, you haven’t got the frame. But it was so quick. If you look at the TV footage, its over in half a second, and then they’re just running back. It was a good dunk, but because the camera was up and firing, you don’t sort of see the significance of it until you saw it later on. And I didn’t see anything until the next day, until one of the Getty editors said you got a good frame at the basketball last night, and I go, “Oh really?” I was probably on my way to do another game or something and he said you better have a look, so I had a look and I said, "that's pretty good actually." So I was happy with that frame.
In that photography well, where you're all sitting, you can hear the collective oohs and aahs of the arena, how do you react? I know you’re in a professional setting and making sure everything is intact, but how did you guys in the photography well react?
You can tell there was something pretty special happened, because the crowd just went wild, the players just went, I mean the reactions on the other players’ faces was just incredible. I don’t think even Vince could believe it at the time, because it was so high. When you’re on ground looking up, and he’s jumped on top of someone 7-foot-2, he’s like 20 feet on top, it’s just incredible. I thought it was pretty special then, but it has sort of taken on its own life that photo, I think. I think Nike released some shoes at the time, dunk shoes, you know. But no one has ever asked me anything about it. You’re the first. Look, it's 20 years ago, and every now and then it comes up on my feed, and I put it up on Instagram every now and then, but I’d hate to think of how many times they’ve sold the use out of it and what’s come out of it.
Any concern on your end right then and there that you got the shot?
The strange thing was, because it was film and not digital, you can’t check straight away. So, you can’t check until the film is processed. We weren’t processing, editing or scanning any of the film, so I didn’t have any idea. But look, I thought I’d have something. I wasn’t exactly sure. If it had been digital, I would have been happy, but then everyone else probably would have got it, because the cameras are so much quicker. I didn’t realize until the next day that I had something. But at the time the atmosphere, the crowd, the players, it was just an incredible memory really.
Do you know if any of the other photographers were able to capture it?
There were probably would have been 300 photographers at the game. Sports Illustrated would have had their roof cams, the floor cams, the ring cams, all the strobes going, everything like that, so I’m sure it was covered. I’ve seen another shot from side on, up in the stands, which looks pretty good. But I think it was just the fact that mine was right under the ring. In that box in at the corner of the ring, there was probably 25 or 30 photographers, and someone must have got something. It’s sort of impossible to think no one else would have got anything, but I was happy with what I got.
This day has been kind of a landmark day for us. It’s weird to say, because it’s just a specific moment in time and people will call it the greatest dunk of all time -- the Dunk of Death, the French named it that, we didn’t name it that, so we just roll with it. How much of this day do you soak up knowing you played such a monumental part in us being able to relive it?
It’s got a life of its own. Every anniversary, it comes up somewhere or someone sends it to me in some top-10 dunks or something of the year. It’s sort of …. it’s sort of, yeah, it’s like hard to explain it. It’s definitely the best photo I shot at those Games. It’s like you didn’t take it, I suppose. It’s right place, right time and right sort of circumstance. You don’t want to say anything you’ve done is significant, but it’s a big part of Olympic basketball history, I suppose, and the fact that I took it is pretty good actually.
This is a weird question, but is there anything you would do differently in that moment if you could go back and change that moment?
To be honest, it’s become so dominant from that day or that game, I don’t remember what else I did during the day, you know? I would have shot so many other things. It took on a life of its own. When people started coming up and saying you got a good frame last night, it really … I wouldn’t have changed anything, really. It was just like a perfect storm, perfect combination of factors, really. But I wouldn't changed anything that day at all. But I would have liked to shoot it on one of the newer cameras, because then I would have eight frames instead of one, but then so would everyone else.
There were so many guys, like all the Allsport, Getty guys in the states, NBA guys, they're always shoot games like that. Not a Dream Team game, but they were shooting really heavy workloads of games all the time. There were so many great photos around then coming out. But look, you know, I was just happy to have taken that one. I still sometimes can’t believe I did, really.
You didn’t actually know that you had captured that moment until the next day?
No, because the camera we were shooting on was film, none of the Getty guys edited their own film or anything. You shot the film, gave them the film runners, went back to the press center, and in those days from the time something happened to the time the negative would come out of the machine might have been half an hour, an hour, or something like that, as opposed to like seconds now. I shot the basketball, it was in the afternoon, so I would have had probably another game after that or something, and then shoot some hockey or something at night time. It wasn’t until one of the Getty pick heads came up to me the next morning and said, "look you got a good frame at basketball last night, you better have a look," that I realized what it was, because you didn’t see any TV and there wasn’t social media around, so you didn’t see what anyone else had. At the time, it was pretty awesome to see, but it happened so quick, and then you’re on to something else after that. It’s hard to fathom really, but it was just right place at the right time.
Where does it rank in terms of your favorite photograph?
Definitely the favorite photo I’ve ever shot. I shot a lot of sport during the 90s for a couple of agencies, then went to Allsport, Getty for the 2000s and left in 2001 and just went to work for the newspaper shooting sports. So that’s 20 years ago now, so there’s a lot frames between now and then. I look back at it, and I’m pretty proud of it, because I think it’s the best sport picture I ever taken.