“How was it?” My fiancée excitedly asked. I had just arrived back in Phoenix after spending the past week in Seattle and Los Angeles with the Phoenix Mercury, 2009 WNBA Champions. Being a lifelong fan of the WNBA, she was excited to hear the intricacies and behind the scenes scoop of life on the road for a professional athlete.Reminds me of when Michelle Agins (who, interestingly enough, I just blogged about) followed the Lib in 1998. I don't think her photos are online anywhere (help, someone?) but I still have that Sunday New York Times Magazine on my shelf.
“Umm…,” I poetically replied. If I’m honest, I had no clue how to articulate the extent to which the previous week impacted me; it was that profound. I thought for a moment, took a deep breath, and continued.
“My faith and admiration for professional athletes has been renewed.”
Bold? Yep. Exaggerated? Not at all.
When the WNBA started in 1997, Agins knew it was her time. The memory of walking into the Garden for the first time is still vivid. “I got chills. I had no idea it was going to be like this – all those people.” She distinctly remembers not wanting to let the players down – of needing to capture the game in a powerful and evocative way to earn the women press coverage.
Agins admits she feels an “unprofessional” closeness with the New York Liberty. It’s not surprising, especially considering her experiences with the team in 1998. Assigned to do a short photo essay, she was to travel with the Liberty for 10 days. But things started off poorly — the team was losing, the mood was poor and Cathy Ryan, the Times Sunday Magazine photo editor, phoned Agins to kill the piece. Agins pleaded for one more day.
After the call, and trapped on a plane with the team, Agins vividly recalls her desperate attempt to keep her composure. Then Kym Hampton, the Liberty center, tipped up her sleeping mask to look at her “What’s the matter?” Hampton asked. “Your coach mad at you?“
“Well,” explained Agins to Hampton “they thought I’d have better access and you guys are shutting me down. It’s been kind of embarrassing. This was my shot, and I’ve blown it.”
Hampton paused. “Well, what do you want?” Before Agins knew it, once closed doors flew open.
“It was like the team came together for me,” recalls Agins. “It was incredible. That was the one time I felt like I was no longer a photographer, I was a team member. The camera disappeared. I had this invisible ball. I had my own play I had to run in order to tell the story for the team, and that was what I did.” When she returned to the Times’ offices, Ryan had filled a room with blowups of all the photographs she’d taken in a 72-hour period. A three-page essay had expanded into a 10-page story and a Sunday Magazine cover.