Many will remember the 1996 Olympics for the bombing in Centennial Park (it actually broke up a dinner my wife and I were having), but perhaps my most memorable moments from those Games were of a 7-foot-tall monster making fun of me and a powerful leader bouncing down a basketball court.
As a sports photographer in Charleston, S.C., I saw the Olympics coming to Atlanta as the equivalent of having Bruce Springsteen perform in your friend’s backyard down the block: You should probably find a way to get there.
My sports director, Dean Stephens, and I were one of the few crews that showed up to cover a Team USA basketball practice. Our access to players was amazing and we concluded our player interviews with Shaquille O’Neal.
Shaq easily has a foot and a half on me, so I was shooting the exchange from atop a pretty tall chair. When Dean was done with his real questions, he asked Shaq, “Have you ever been interviewed from atop a chair before?”
Without hesitation, the big guy looked at the camera with a smile and said, “It’s not my fault WCIV sent their midget cameraman Chris Kerwin down to interview me.”
He added another couple of lines but I forget them as I struggled to keep my shot framed as my jaw dropped. O’Neal had taken a quick glance at my credential at the beginning of the interview and probably planned something before our anchor even gave him the opportunity.
Whatever else we had shot that day would become an angle for another sportscast as we played up Shaq making fun of me and the light-hearted nature of the team going into the Games. We actually had a phone call from a viewer asking us to tell Shaq “that wasn’t nice” and he shouldn’t make fun of short people.
The bizarre went to another level after we were done with player interviews. Security folks quickly crawled out of the woodwork as Archbishop Desmond Tutu walked across the court to have an impromptu meet-and-greet with the team. The biggest stars of the NBA became fans as they posed for pictures with the South African leader. One of the greatest human rights activists instantly reduced huge people like Charles Barkley and Karl Malone to groupies in search of an autograph.
We were granted a couple of questions with The Most Reverend, and Dean asked if the team had a nickname for him, like “Air Tutu.”
The diminutive leader, who had helped crush apartheid, laughed and said, “I cannot get air, but I can hop.” He then hopped five or six pounces down the court, like the most powerful Easter Bunny ever, much to the delight of the team.
I’m not sure if anything from the 2012 Games can top that, but we’ll be in search of it!