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NBA Through The Lens, Part 2 – Nathaniel S. Butler

Photographer Nat Butler has captured enough basketball to sink an Instagram server. In our previous convo, he relayed attending Shaq’s college graduation, being friends with Patrick Ewing, hitting up Larry Bird’s house and spotting his work on Lebron’s wall. For round two, Butler continues chatting with Jimmy Ness and drops more dimes than a slot machine. 

Within the NBA’s airtight bubble, Mr Butler is one of the few to eyeball this year’s playoffs. Joining a handpicked roster, Nat shoots from a delegated corner. Typically, he’d pace the hardwood like Frank Vogel after a bad foul. This year is different. Butler’s visuals of Tyler Herro overlooked by disembodied avatars are peak 2020. After four decades; Nat has officially seen it all. 

It’s difficult to appreciate everything the New Yorker has witnessed. Magic’s 1987 game-winning skyhook looks like a museum artifact. Nat’s Slam 1996 cover was one of my first magazines. 

Butler shot early games in monochrome because some newspapers didn’t run colour. He’d develop film rolls hoping his single button press captured a nanosecond of action. Nowadays, his visuals are available to a team of editors within seconds. In minutes, they can reach millions. 

Nat typically spends at least eight months with athletes. He’s in the locker room, at the medical centre, in the gym and on the floor. Players don’t censor their conversations because they know Butler. He’s not thirsty. Clout-chasing isn’t in his consciousness. He knows when to put the camera down and when to immortalize the scene. 

“It starts at the top. If you were good with MJ then you were good with the rest of the team. If you’re good with Lebron, then you’re good with everybody else,” he says. 

“There’s always a fine line where I don’t want to insert myself into things. Going back to that ‘92 Dream Team, my job was to document that. My first tendency is to not be too aggressive and to not insert myself. But then you look at that particular photo and it’s Magic, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, all in the same photo, all on the bus. So I gotta get a quick shot and then get out and let them enjoy the moment. That’s always a little bit of a judgement call because I never want to, you know… you never want to piss someone off or change the direction of a conversation or something but you do have the job to do.”

While travelling, Nat loves observing player kinship. Athletes briefly step back from the competitive grindstone. They run pranks in hotel hallways, exchange jabs over flops and bro down on the global podium.  

We discuss shooting Magic and James Worthy’s tour of Paris. But not just because of the pastries and cheese. 

“During that trip was when Magic wasn’t feeling well. So he went home a couple of days early. And that’s when he was tested and that’s when his HIV diagnosis came out. That made the sports world stop and miss a few beats. That was 92, but this was prior to that – the preseason trip and he just wasn’t feeling well. He couldn’t get his wind. So that was a crazy story for sure,” Butler attests. 

“I think people just thought he had the flu or something. No one really knew the extent of it but when he got back to the States, he was tested and that’s when that announcement came out.”

Doctors initially told Magic he had three years to live. Commissioner Stern and the NBA stood by their man regardless. During the explosive affair, they educated the public rather than let Johnson catch a misguided PR missile.

Events like this solidify Nat’s respect for the league. He observed Stern’s ethical prowess for decades. Currently, he’s witnessing Adam Silver navigate Black Lives Matter with the same ethos. 

Butler also thinks highly of the NBA’s Sub-Saharan exploits. He built a friendship with Kyrie during a South African stint and can’t speak highly enough of him. Irving even invited Nat to a fish-fry at his pad. 

Border-hopping with all-stars would be memorable for anyone but Nat’s standout tale comes from meeting Nelson Mandela.

“It was an awe-inspiring time. He invited us to the residence [in Johannesburg] for dinner. It was a very small contingent of NBA people, maybe ten or twelve. He was very generous and wanted to line up some pictures. So I said ‘okay, you stand here, a picture here and then, you know, stand here.’ And then someone came over and whispered and said ‘he couldn’t stand there because it was too close to a window and there were perhaps snipers.’ I was like… ‘oh wow.'” 

“He had crazy knowledge; like I read some of the books where I know he boxed when he was in prison to stay in shape, but he knew basketball. He knew players. He knew, like a lot, about basketball. We’re all done [shooting] and he goes now you come and he pointed to me and I’m like, looking around, and he said ‘it’s time to have your picture taken.’ I was like ‘oh my god.’ Like I just handed the camera off praying that the picture would come out. I’ve never asked for a picture with you know; Michael, Magic, Lebron. I don’t have pictures with anyone. But I do have a photo of myself with Nelson Mandela and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m good. I don’t need a picture with anyone else.'” 

Cognizant of the NBA’s global potential, Mandela knew the league was something special. He was a fan too. 

“He knew the healing that sport, in general, could do. But then he [specifically] knew what the NBA and what basketball could do in terms of the growth of people and business opportunities on the continent. So it was really remarkable. 

“Dikembe [Mutombo] was on that trip and [Nelson] had been watching Dikembe a little. Like he knew about Dikembe’s finger wag and so stuff like that was awesome.”

Back stateside, Nat’s shot Madison Square Garden since he was a teen. His images of the MSG sidelines are a snapshot of celebrity culture. Late 90s Seinfeld and Diddy, peak tycoon-Trump or bucket list dinner guests Dave Chappelle and Prince are among a few stars he’s snagged.

Of course, celebs switch sides more than flipped coins. Many have worn more team jerseys than storefront mannequins. But two fans are unyielding in their devotion. In LA, there’s human-grin Jack Nicholson. And in the Big Apple, it’s honorary Knickerbocker Spike Lee. 

“Spike and I go way back. He’s a fan. He’s been a loyal fan for a lot of years. He used to bring his kids and they would sit on his lap. Now his kids are like mid-twenties. His son is actually in film school. You see the changes over the years and all of that stuff. So it’s been fun to be a part of that.”

As player’s stack payola, they tap their famous buddies for financial savvy. Gone are the days of chocolate fondue fountains and cash machines in the foyer. Side hustles are in. Bankruptcy is out. 

Ninety-nine per cent of ballers follow the paper-chasing footsteps of Jay-Z. When King James runs into Hov, Nat makes sure his shutter button remains pressed. He’s shot Jay meeting with numerous players. Nat describes this as “game respects game.”

“[This London photo] was with Jay and Vince when Vince Carter was on the Nets. They were friends and Jay was part of the Nets ownership group for a while. So we were over at the O2 [Stadium]. 

“It’s just cool because the guys, the musicians… they respect the talent that the basketball players have, and the basketball players respect their talent. I think the common denominator that has evolved is the off the court business acumen for all these guys. It’s really remarkable.”

Nat loves seeing the evolution of talent – the journey from hopeful apprentice to master. An aspiring rookie becoming a hardwood messiah. A benchwarmer hitting the starting five. 

Butler recalls Kobe’s initial draft to the Hornets or Steph Curry’s unforeseen three-point mastery. He mentions local favourite Spencer Dinwiddie grinding from the G League to the Nets. Nat even shouts out Team Australia’s Brett Brown, who came to the NBA as a Spurs assistant.

“I have so much respect for these guys or anyone who is at the top of their field. Whether you’re the best teacher, the best coach, the best whatever. I have a lot of respect for them. And I’m learning from them, you know? I like being a fly on the wall listening to what they’re they’re talking about and how they approach their daily routines and what they’re doing – juggling work and family just like everyone else. I like seeing other people’s reactions. I’m used to being with Lebron, but if you walk out with him somewhere, then you see everyone else’s reaction. Then it’s like, wow, it’s kind of a big deal.”

With athletic genius as a lifelong companion, you’d assume Nat would be immune to excellence. The opposite is true. He adores basketball with a young man’s intensity. Butler’s passion illuminates every sentence. He never fails to convey his admiration for the players, the teams, the staff and the league. 

He’s a fan like the rest of us.