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NBA Through The Lens: Nathaniel S. Butler

Exploring NBA excellence with vet shooter Nathaniel S. Butler. From Shaq’s college graduation to being pals with Patrick Ewing, Nat shares world-class visuals and the captivating insight behind them. Join us for part one as he regales Jimmy Ness with four decades in the game.

Nathaniel S. Butler’s career is as biblical as his first-name. The phrase G.O.A.T gets flung around more than a street-court basketball but Nat’s earned his nomination. The forty-year pro has spent a lifetime surrounded by champions. He’s captured the NBA Playoffs every year since ‘84. Butler’s pictures convey every heart-clenching, buzzer-beating moment you can imagine.   

“Gold mine” isn’t a vast enough metaphor to describe Butler’s archives. We’re talking 100,000 files of NBA prestige. The Dream Team tour bus. Rookie Carmelo in a suit baggier than an insomniac’s eye-lid. Jeremy Lin’s Time magazine cover. MJ dunking in monochrome. LeBron studying the 2012 finals like a uni exam. Prince and Dave Chappelle at MSG. Allen Iverson with enough stars and stripes to make Juelz Santana blush. A young Rodman, a fresh-faced KD, an even younger Ben Simmons. You get the gist. Nat has seen it all. And there’s a story behind every image.      

Growing up, Butler was either playing, watching or reading about ball. As a student, he hooped at NY college St John’s. Unfortunately, his skills never matched his fascination. Nat was never a great athlete. But that didn’t defer his passion. 

In the late ‘60s, Butler’s alumni played at Madison Square Garden. He was friendly with the squad and began documenting games for the school paper. Armed with a vintage camera and a pocketful of film, Nat found himself shooting the world’s most iconic venue.

At MSG sidelines, he’d encounter Sports Illustrated staff – icons of their era. Before the internet, S.I ruled sports. Butler spent his childhood reading the magazine obsessively. Shooting at The Garden gave him access to names he knew only as a fan. Nat ran into visionaries like Walter Iooss Jr, a maestro who shot Muhammed Ali. 

Butler began interning with S.I and eventually went solo. His career launched during Magic and Bird’s ballistic rivalry. The sweat-soaked Celtics and Lakers clash was an era-defining event. Championship titles got traded more than pawn shop jewellery. This period was a career tipping-point. Nat learnt never to be distracted by a moment’s historical value. He’d be so focused on each second that the importance of snapping Kareem’s gracious skyhook wouldn’t sink in until it appeared in the next day’s paper.

In the following years, Patrick Ewing’s Goliath frame took flight. The defensive titan climbed into Knicks chronicles like Godzilla on Empire State. Nat witnessed P.E’s basketball dominion at MSG night after night.

Butler knew Patrick’s capabilities years before the NBA. Ewing was considered an elite college player. Georgetown duelled Nat’s alma mater St John’s and pummelled them three times, a fact they later laughed about. 

“We developed a great friendship over the years. It took a long time because he was kind of a quiet guy and I’m kind of a quiet guy, to be honest. But we’ve been great friends now and I’ve always loved his work ethic. He was a hell of a player every night. It’s one of my true NBA friendships,” Butler reflects. 

Ewing now coaches his old college. Nat also saw Patrick’s son pass through the Knicks. He considers Ewing one of his favourite players. 

“The thing I respected most about Patrick – he was all about the business. He was all about working and improving. People could say the same thing about Tim Duncan. A lot of the media people didn’t like Tim Duncan. I love Tim Duncan. It was just his personality. Not a flashy guy, not a showy guy. He was all about playing basketball and being a great teammate and leader.” 

Surprisingly, Butler can’t select a favourite NBA memory. Yes, he’s shot Jordan treating basketball like his personal kingdom. Nat vividly recalls the Bulls winning 72 games in one season. His photos appear throughout The Last Dance. But Butler maintains each era, and each championship is different. Whether Kobe on a celebratory phone call or a ski-goggled Kawhi drenched in champagne, he’s just elated to be there. 

Nat often spends more hours with players than their own family. Of course, he’s seen the pinnacle of physical performance. An even rarer insight is the humanity behind the star. The challenges of raising a child remotely or dealing with the expectations of an entire city. Butler states these factors are another reason he admires players so much. 

“They’re under a tremendous amount of pressure day in and day out. 

“Being around them, I do know the grind that they go through. What they have to deal with off the court before the game, answering questions. In this day and age, you just make one mistake or make one snide comment that’s misinterpreted and you can get hammered for that. It’s just the way they approach it and how professional they are. How much time and effort they put into it. It definitely is still inspiring for me.”

It’s no surprise that athletes often request Nat’s photos. Whether as mementos or for social media, NBA stars want to remember their greatest moments too. Butler frequently spots his images framed at player’s houses.

“It’s cool for me because I am a fan, he admits. 

“Whether it’s a shot of them getting drafted, shaking the hand. Or when I did a shoot with Lebron years ago and he had a picture of him and his mum, when he won the NBA Rookie of the Year, hanging up and stuff like that.”

Nat’s decades of experience also unlock invites only available to a chosen few. In the late ‘80s, he visited Larry Bird’s hometown French Lick. With a minuscule population of 2000; the leafy streets were dominated by billboards in favour of their native son. Businesses like towing companies, hotels and restaurants were named after the Celtics legend. 

“[It was a] very small town and obviously they were proud of one of their own. [Larry] played on the local softball team in those days. I want to say that I think his brother had like a liquor store in town. Very cool because I was a huge, huge Bird fan growing up.

“One of the coolest things I remember from that trip is his mailbox. It was just a normal house, but on his mailbox, it said like ‘L. Bird.’ And every so often, a car would just pull up, people hop out of the car, take a photo with the mailbox. It was like when I was a kid, I remember going to Graceland. I was an Elvis fan, you know. I took a picture in front of the gates of Graceland, but that’s what the basketball fans were like posing with his mailbox. It was kind of awesome.” 

Shaquille O’Neal also welcomed Butler to his inner sanctum.

“Shaq had promised his mom that he would graduate college. So [fellow photographer] Andy [Berstein] and I went down and shot Shaq when he graduated, and that was a big deal. That was quite an honour for Shaq to have invited us. He wanted a professional. ‘He didn’t want someone to screw up, he said.’” 

“I was more nervous about him, you know, doing the handshake with the diploma than being at the NBA Finals. But, it’s cool. And to my point of what I said earlier, players are human beings too. It was a huge deal for him to get his college degree. And he wanted that documented. Those types of memories are super special to me.”

Butler has documented much of O’Neal’s career. You’ll find candid snaps of Shaq whispering a joke to a scandalized Pippen. Diesel sharing a Cuban with Kobe (in full MJ attire) or late-career excellence with Lebron. Nat even snagged the baby-behemoth receiving his first jersey, number #33. 

The NY shooter says Shaq is exactly who you imagine. 

“You know what, Shaq is one of the, like, crazy, nicest guys of all time and he just so happens to have been like one of the greatest basketball players of all time. There are so many great stories about Shaq just being a good person, a good human, a good teammate. From him taking the rookies out and buying them all suits so they look nice when they’re travelling and, you know, things like that. You realize now, I don’t know if they’re over there [in Australia], but he has so many advertisements and ads and promotional things going on now, still, and it’s because of his personality, who he is. He’s smiling, he’s laughing, everyone loves Shaq. Yeah, just a good dude all the way around.” 

Peep round two of our chat with Nathaniel S Butler in the coming weeks.