GROWING UP in Lawrence, Rich Clarkson and his friends would ride their bikes to the University of Kansas's central power plant and explore the tunnels that ran beneath the campus. The game was to guess where they would come out. One day they emerged in Robinson Gymnasium during a basketball practice. Jayhawks coach Forrest C. (Phog) Allen introduced himself to the boys and allowed them to stay and observe. Clarkson was mesmerized by the sights and sounds of the players as they passed, shot, ran—even when they took their water breaks.
A decade later, in the fall of 1951, Clarkson was a freshman at Kansas, and he asked Allen if he could ride to away games on the team bus; the coach said yes. The timing couldn't have been more fortuitous: The Jayhawks would go on to win the first of their three NCAA titles, and Clarkson would be one of only five photographers who traveled to Seattle for the championship weekend. He has been a Final Four fixture ever since, toting his cameras from courts to locker rooms to planes to shoot 59 championships, snapping photos of almost all of the game's legends. His first picture published by SI—the Wilt Chamberlain portrait on the following page—was shot in 1955 when Clarkson was a senior at Kansas; many more would follow in the 30 years he spent as a contract photographer for the magazine. "I'm always trying to do different things," the 80-year-old Clarkson says. "I'll look for a different angle for a shot or a different place on the court to photograph from. But you always have to be sure that you are ready for that signature moment in the game."
To prepare for that special moment at the Final Four, Clarkson seeks out reporters and peppers them with questions. What are the keys to the game? What big story lines are developing? What players are poised to come up big in the second half? "I try to be intelligent and understand as best I can what will make a significant picture," Clarkson says. "But you never know when the special moment will happen. It can be in the quiet of the locker room before the tip-off. Other times it can be in the huge noise of the arena in the last 20 seconds of a great game."
The hallmark of Clarkson's career is the behind-the-scenes access he has earned. He often approaches a coach in the early rounds of the tournament and asks for permission to stand quietly in the locker room. "It's a matter of a coach trusting you," Clarkson says. "Coaches know I won't cause a problem. These moments are seldom photographed and rarely witnessed by anyone not part of the team."
Gaining this trust hasn't always been easy. During the 1963--64 season he was sent by SI to Kentucky to shoot a portrait of Adolph Rupp for a feature on the nation's most colorful coaches. When he arrived in Lexington he asked the sports information director, Ken Kuhn, if he could sit on the floor next to the bench for a few minutes. The idea was immediately rejected. Undeterred, Clarkson walked into Rupp's office and took a seat. Before the coach could throw him out, Clarkson reminded Rupp that they had met 19 years earlier. Rupp's sister, Elizabeth Lawson, had lived across the street from Clarkson in Lawrence. Before a Kentucky-Kansas game, when Allen was visiting Rupp (who had played for the Jayhawks) at his sister's home, the coaches had summoned a 14-year-old Clarkson to run over with his Ansco Speedex camera to snap a picture.
Rupp remembered that day and still had the portrait Clarkson had printed for him. He promptly allowed the photographer access not just to the court but also to the Wildcats' locker room and to his own home.
Since he was in grade school, Clarkson has been striving to make unusual photographs. At 10 he borrowed a box camera from his mother, Meta Mary, and persuaded a pilot to take him for a ride in a Piper Cub so that he could get aerial shots. That powerful sense of curiosity has driven Clarkson's career. He has shot every major sporting event, but for him, nothing matches the magic of the Final Four, which is why you'll find him in Atlanta during this season's last weekend.
"There's so much drama, and you can see it in everyone's faces," Clarkson says. "The emotional aspects of the game are just as important to me as the great sports action that the Final Four always delivers."
MARCH 26, 1952
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME