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10 questions for the photography grad who shot the famous Raptors buzzer beater

Image arts graduate Mark Blinch captured one of the most stunning photos in Toronto sports history
By: Derek Flack
June 07, 2019
Fans and Raptors players watch the game-winning shot go in the basket

A mesmerized crowd at Scotiabank Arena. Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images.

It was the shot seen around the world.

With the score deadlocked in the dying seconds of game 7 between the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers, Kawhi Leonard took an inbound pass, darted across the floor and tossed up a high altitude jump shot from the corner of the court. The ball hung in the air for what seemed like forever before it finally thudded down on the side of the rim, bounced three more times and then miraculously swished through the basket, external link as the crowd erupted.

If it’s easy to conjure the image of this incredible moment, that’s probably because it’s been immortalized in one of the most stunning photographs in Toronto sports history. The person behind the camera for this decisive buzzer beater was Mark Blinch, external link, a 2006 image arts graduate.

Since graduating, Blinch has become an established photojournalist in both the news and sports fields, garnering recognition from the News Photographers Association of Canada and the National Newspaper Awards. I caught up with Blinch in the midst of his busy shooting schedule to find out what it was like to capture such an iconic shot.

You graduated from Ryerson in 2006 with an image arts degree. Can you tell me a little bit about your career and what brought you to capturing the Raptors dramatic playoff run this year?

During my last year at Ryerson, I interned at Reuters in their photo department. From there I was able to gain experience shooting pro sports and major news for an international newswire. After the internship was finished, they kept me on as a main freelancer. I’m now the team photographer with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and I shoot for the NBA throughout the season. During the regular season, I usually shoot at Scotiabank Arena (formerly the Air Canada Centre) at least 50 nights, which includes all 41 Leafs home games and around 10 Raptors games.

Are there different challenges shooting hockey and basketball?

Both sports have their challenges, but what is similar is anticipating where the storytelling image will come from. It is impossible to predict, and more often than not, you are stuck in one spot throughout the game. I just try to do the best I can from where I am, and that's all you can expect from yourself. Some nights it will go your way, and sometimes it won't, it's just the nature of shooting sports.

Does your photojournalism background help you shoot sports with a keener eye for the human intrigue that serves as the backdrop for so many events?

A lot of people don't realize that sports photography and photojournalism sort of go hand-in-hand. In both cases you are trying to tell a story of an event unfolding that you do not have control over. Pictures that show the athletes behind the scenes, preparing, or celebrating a big moment is what I think the most interesting to people — something that shows a bit of insight to a story.

Close up of Kawhi Leonard and his teammates watch the game-winning basket go in

Kawhi Leonard and his Raptors teammates look on as the ball takes its final bounce on the rim before descending through the net.

Your photo of Kawhi Leonard’s game 7 buzzer beater versus Philadelphia is an instant classic. It has all the intrigue of a Renaissance painting. Can you tell us how you approached the composition of the image? Where were you located when you took it?

In sports photography, I was always taught for bigger moments, it's better to go a little bit looser (use a lens with less magnification), to show a little bit of atmosphere. I chose to use a 300mm lens, which is a large zoom lens normally, but since I was positioned at the very top of the arena, it still presented a wider view. I wanted to make sure I had some room for the atmosphere in the arena, should the Raptors win the game.

How much do you think your position of height aided in capturing the intrigue?

Normally I have a floor position, but the NBA had sent in a photographer from Philadelphia, so I had to find another spot. I am thankful I was positioned from a high vantage point, because you can really see a story on everyone's face as the ball drops.

Close up of Raptors team players watching the final basket go in

A huge spectrum of emotion can be seen of the faces of the players and the crowd throughout Blinch’s photo.

What was it like in the arena during the game? After the winning shot?

I think the arena was generally pretty nervous for most of the game. There was a lot riding on it. Kawhi Leonard becomes a free agent after the end of the season, meaning he can choose to sign with another team. A lot of fans hope he might stay in Toronto if he can win with the Raptors. So unbelievably, after that shot fell in the most dramatic way possible, a serious amount of tension was released and people went wild. Even Leonard, who rarely shows emotion, couldn't contain his jubilation.

Is it difficult to stay focused on the task at hand when so much drama is happening on the court?

Staying focused is the easy part. The harder part is controlling your nerves. Being prepared in your mind is the best way to combat your nerves, knowing that if the angle presents itself, you will get it.

A fan on her knees watching the final basket go in

After bouncing on the rim four times, this is the decisive moment when the ball finally dropped.  

You took a number of photos as the ball dangled and bounced above the rim. Do you have a favourite in the sequence?

My favourite image is when the ball finally finds its way between the iron. It's the moment the game was won. The ball bouncing around created so much drama, giving Leonard time to squat down, and build an enormous amount of tension for everyone in the building.

There’s an expression in photography called the decisive moment, this idea that an image can perfectly express the situation it captures. What do you think when you look at this photo?

When I think of the moment, there is a sense of relief for me, knowing that there is a picture there to tell the story. When you watch the video you can appreciate the shot in its entirety, but when you look at the photograph you can really stop and digest what is happening without distraction.

Tell me about the impact of both that winning basket and the photograph? Why has it had the impact that it has?

For me, Kawhi's shot represents an emotional release from the long, tough history for Raptors fans. The team has been so close in the past few years to reaching the championship. This is the moment the franchise changed into a legitimate championship contender. I am glad to have a great still image to represent that moment, and glad that it has been received so well online.

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