For all the sporting moments Mark Blinch has captured through his lens for nearly two decades, there is only one he has taken the trouble to hang in his home.
A photo so extraordinary, so fulsome, encompassing and slammed with every emotion imaginable, even Blinch, who is his harshest critic, can admire it.
Blinch’s iconic snap of Kawhi Leonard’s famous bounce-around-the-rim, physic- and logic-defying buzzer-beater against Philadelphia in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last May has earned him the top prize in photography.
On Friday, Blinch’s photo was named winner of the World Press 2020 photo contest in the sports category.
“This is absolutely a top honour. A World Press photo is a milestone I’ve been working toward my entire life,” Blinch told CBC Sports.
“There’s actually a little part of the photo to the left where you can see a woman’s eye pop through the bars holding up the net. You just see her one eye. That’s pretty funny,” he said.
Blinch, 37, grew up in London, Ont. before moving to Toronto in his early 20s to attend Ryerson University for photography. He’s the team photographer for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and also shoots for the NBA, Canadian Press and Globe and Mail.
Blinch had received an award from the News Photographers Association of Canada every year since 2008, and from organizations such as National Newspaper Awards and Pictures of the Year International.
But this shot, in that moment, with so much riding on a split-second frame, has catapulted Blinch into a league of his own.
Blinch’s capture beat out a photograph highlighting fans of Brazil’s Flamengo football team cheering after the team scored a goal against defending the champions from Argentina, and one of Liverpool football fans lining the streets to celebrate the team’s Champions League title.
Blinch would have normally found himself courtside during a basketball game, a familiar spot he photographs from during Raptors games.
But with the stakes so high in Game 7, the NBA brought in one of their senior photographers. That forced Blinch into a perch high above the court inside the media gondola at Scotiabank Arena.
Throughout the dramatic battle between the Raptors and Sixers, Blinch maneuvered himself above the court trying to find the best angles to shoot from. Then came the moment where he turned to his instincts to capture the now iconic photo.
With 4.2 seconds remaining a timeout was called. The Raptors were drawing up their last-second play — Blinch was also preparing his plan of attack.
“Classic basketball training shooting photography is that whenever it’s a buzzer-beater type of moment, you always want the ball, the basket and the player in the frame,” Blinch explained.
“That was my first thought.”
Classic basketball training shooting photography is that whenever it’s a buzzer-beater type of moment, you always want the ball, the basket and the player in the frame.– Mark Blinch
He decided on his position. Then he decided on what lens to use.
“During the timeout, I took a quick peek through all my lenses and decided I’d go a little looser than I had been shooting previously,” Blinch said. “I chose to shoot it with a looser lens that has less zoom. I wanted to get some of that atmosphere and try to get everything in the picture.”
Then it happened.
All of the hours in the gym and on the court leading to this moment for Kawhi Leonard to take one shot to win it all — it’s such a rare and fleeting event for any player to have that opportunity. One shot to win a series.
The enormity of the moment wasn’t lost on Blinch and just like Leonard, he leaned on the hours of training for his craft to also try to win the moment.
“I’ve been telling colleagues that photo is years of hard work, lessons, mistakes, everything. And of course, a little bit of luck in there too,” Blinch said. “Something like that is a culmination of all the life lessons and thinking about how to capture a moment. Even that doesn’t guarantee you’ll get it.”
When Blinch reflects on what led to the magic of his photo, he’s almost lost for words. He said it’s hard to dream up another scenario that could lead to a singular photo telling the story of a moment.
‘It’s the anticipation’
“It’s the anticipation. I don’t think that picture happens if it goes right in. It’s the four bounces that did it. If it’s a swish they would have been jumping all around and there would have been no squat, and everyone wouldn’t be on their toes,” Blinch said.
“That to me is what makes it a special moment.”
In the midst of the madness and hoopla all Blinch saw was Leonard launching the ball and the first bounce off the rim. He thought Leonard had missed and the game was headed to overtime but he kept shooting.
“I always go back to the first bounce. As it kept bouncing it just gave more time for that tension to build up. It gave Kawhi enough time to squat down and look at it.”
WATCH | The physics of Leonard’s amazing shot:
And that Kawhi squat, as he agonizingly watches the ball hang on the rim, is what Blinch loves most about the photo.
“I love how everyone is there. Kawhi is obviously my favourite part because he’s squatting down and waiting for the ball.”
Blinch said he’s not sure the photograph would carry the same impact it does today if the Raptors hadn’t gone on their remarkable run to a championship.
“It becomes even better after they win the championship. It grows in legend. At the time I was ecstatic,” he said.
Humble to a fault, Blinch is quick to deflect any praise regarding the photo. But he knows it’s good — it’s why it’s the only photo to hang in his house.
And yet all Blinch could do when he took a first quick glimpse on his camera screen to see what he captured in the seconds that followed the buzzer-beater shot, was breathe a deep sigh of relief that hadn’t missed it.
Both didn’t. Kawhi made it. Blinch captured it.
The rest is history.