Capturing Legends: The Journey of NBA Photographer Nathaniel S. Butler

Iconic moments in the NBA often recall the athletes, triumphs, and heart-wrenching defeats. Nathaniel S. Butler is responsible for shaping the visual history of the NBA, behind many of these unforgettable memories.

After winning the NBA Finals, Jason Tatum raised his son in the air and cried joyfully, creating another moment for the ages. Nathaniel Butler was the one who captured this touching photograph, which captured the raw emotion of victory.

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A Journey Through the Lens Of A True Professional 

In the 1980s, Nathaniel Butler commenced his journey at Madison Square Garden, where he began taking photos of the New York Knicks. David Stern, the newly appointed NBA commissioner, was drawn to his work. Stern had the idea to build a comprehensive archive of NBA content and created NBA Entertainment, aiming to capture the league’s most significant moments through photography and video. He considered Butler to be crucial to this vision and hired him to cover major NBA games, including the Finals.

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Capturing NBA Legends At Pinnacle Of Their Careers 

Butler has been traveling the world for the last 40 years, photographing some of the most iconic moments in NBA history. The shot of Michael Jordan holding up six fingers while celebrating his sixth championship is one of his most well-known ones. Butler’s access enabled him to record not only the court action, but also the personal, behind-the-scenes moments that fans rarely witness.

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Michael Jordan’s Alternate Jersey With The Bulls 

On February 14, 1990, there was a moment like that. Michael Jordan’s jersey was stolen during the Chicago Bulls’ game against the Orlando Magic. Jordan was forced to wear a generic number 12 jersey because there were no other options. This rare and now legendary image was captured by Butler, which has become a part of NBA lore and is now a part of NBA history.

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Kobe Bryant’s Raw Emotions Following 2001 NBA Finals 

In 2001, Butler was there to catch a poignant moment of a young Kobe Bryant. Bryant was found alone in the shower after winning the championship, demonstrating a sense of sadness because his father was absent to share the moment with him. Butler’s picture from that night is an effective reminder of the personal sacrifices and emotional journeys of professional athletes.

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The Chalk Toss From LeBron James 

LeBron James’ pregame ritual of throwing chalk into the air is a sight to behold. The iconic image of LeBron’s ritual by Nathaniel Butler has become a symbol of his larger-than-life presence in the NBA.

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A Meeting of Sports Greats 

When Michael Jordan met Muhammad Ali, Butler captured another memorable moment. The photograph of these two legends together is more than just a picture; it’s a convergence of greatness immortalized through Butler’s lens. Butler has frequently talked about the palpable energy in the room, an electric charge that seemed to emanate from two of the best athletes in sports history.

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Shaquille O’Neal’s Dominance Throughout 2000 NBA Finals 

Butler captured the rise of Shaquille O’Neal, who was a force to be reckoned with in the NBA. Butler’s favorite stories revolve around Shaq’s playful yet intense nature. During the 2000 NBA Finals, Butler captured a candid moment of Shaq clowning around with his teammates, only to switch to a fierce, game-face expression moments later. Butler’s photographs captured Shaq’s duality of personality, which is both playful and dominant, perfectly.

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Steph Curry’s Joy

The 2022 NBA Finals are a recent example of his work.  Butler was in the locker room, capturing the Golden State Warriors’ joyful celebration after they won the title. Steph Curry’s pictures of her in champagne and holding the Larry O’Brien trophy have become instant classics.  Curry’s infectious joy and humility, which Butler has frequently mentioned, are the qualities that make his triumphs all the more compelling to capture.

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The 1992 Dream Team

In addition to the NBA, Butler’s career has intersected with other events, such as the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. As the ‘Dream Team’ was dominated by basketball legends like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and a young Michael Jordan, Butler captured iconic images of them. Not only did these photos display the individual talents of these players, but they also demonstrated the collective dominance of the greatest basketball team ever formed.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson Rivalry and FriendShip 

Butler was present to capture the fierce rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s. Bird and Magic’s series against each other in the 1984 NBA Finals was one of his most memorable photographs, as it depicted the fierce competition and mutual respect between the two legends. Butler’s pictures from this period not only captured their basketball battles, but also the moments of camaraderie and sportsmanship that shaped their relationship.

Allen Iverson’s Impact On Culture Not Just NBA 

Butler had the chance to document Allen Iverson, another legendary player, extensively. Butler was gifted with numerous iconic moments thanks to Iverson’s fearless playing style and cultural impact. Iverson’s famous “step over” of Tyronn Lue in the 2001 NBA Finals was an example of this. The defiant attitude and competitive spirit that marked Iverson’s career can be seen in Butler’s photograph of this moment.

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Dirk Nowitzki Finally Wins First Championship

Butler’s career was highlighted once again in 2011 when Dirk Nowitzki led the Dallas Mavericks to an NBA championship. After years of near misses and playoff heartbreaks, Nowitzki finally reached the pinnacle of success. Butler’s photographs from the 2011 Finals show Nowitzki holding the championship trophy with joy and relief, a testament to his perseverance and dedication.

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Kobe Bryant’s Fifth Championship With Lakers 

Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers experienced a pivotal moment during the 2010 NBA Finals. Butler captured Kobe’s happiness as he celebrated his fifth championship, a triumph that confirmed his place in history. Bryant’s image of holding the Larry O’Brien trophy while his teammates surround him is a powerful illustration of his determination and competitive spirit. One of the most unforgettable photos in NBA history was made possible by Butler’s ability to capture the raw emotion of that moment.

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Michael Jordan in 1988 Dunk Contest

The legendary performance of Michael Jordan in the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest was captured by Butler. Jordan’s iconic photo of him soaring through the air from the free-throw line with legs extended and tongue out exemplifies the sheer athleticism and charisma he brought to the game. Jordan’s legacy has been linked to this image, which is still one of the most recognizable sports photographs of all time.

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NBA All-Star Games over the years 

Butler has documented numerous NBA All-Star Games over the years, capturing the league’s top players as they come together to showcase their skills. The camaraderie and competitive spirit of the game’s greatest players are reflected in his photographs taken at these events. From Magic Johnson’s emotional MVP performance in the 1992 All-Star Game to LeBron James’ dazzling displays in recent years, Butler’s images have documented the evolution of the NBA’s mid-season spectacle.

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Bill Russell with His 11 Rings With the Boston Celtics 

Bill Russell proudly displays his 11 NBA championship rings in one of Butler’s most iconic portraits. Russell’s unprecedented success on the court is celebrated in this photo, as well as his impact on both the game and society. The fact that Butler can capture Russell’s pride and dignity in this image proves his skill in conveying the essence of his subjects.

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Kobe Bryant Playfully Punching His Idol Michael Jordan

Butler captured a playful interaction between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan at a lighter point in time. Kobe’s playful punch at Jordan during a game revealed the mutual respect and friendly rivalry between the two greats. The candid shot is a reminder of the human side of these legendary athletes, as it showcases their camaraderie and the excitement they felt while competing against each other.

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Michael Jordan Winning His 6th Championship With Chicago 

On June 14, 1998, the Chicago Bulls secured their sixth championship by defeating the Utah Jazz. This was the final game played by Michael Jordan for the Bulls. He made the final shot and won the MVP award. The photos Butler took that night, particularly of Jordan’s game-winning shot, are widely recognized in sports history, representing the end of an era in NBA basketball.

LeBron Passing Kareem On All-Time Scoring List 

LeBron James became the NBA’s new career scoring leader in a loss against the OKC Thunder on February 7, 2023. With a step-back jump shot with 10.9 seconds left in the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder, James pushed his career total to 38,388 points and broke the record that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar held for nearly four decades. The historic moment captured by Butler in his photograph of this milestone will be remembered for generations.

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The Man Behind the Camera

Nathaniel Butler’s legendary status doesn’t change his humble demeanor and he often avoids the spotlight. His priority has always been capturing the moment, not being the center of attention. The fact that he is dedicated to his craft is shown in the hours he spends perfecting his shots and the relationships he has established with players, coaches, and league officials.

A Storied Career For a Legend In His Own Right 

Butler’s work transcends multiple eras and connects the past and present of the NBA. From photographing the 2024 NBA Finals to covering the legendary Bird-Magic rivalry and Michael Jordan era, Butler’s career longevity is unparalleled. History is preserved in every photograph as a story frozen in time.

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Nathaniel S. Butler’s Legacy

Nathaniel S. Butler’s impact on the NBA is incalculable. His lens has allowed fans worldwide to experience the highs and lows, triumphs and tribulations of the sport. His photographs are more than mere images; they are stories, emotions, and memories that will be treasured for generations. When we commemorate the athletes who make history, let’s also recognize the person who captures it: Nathaniel S. Butler is the person responsible for creating the most iconic NBA photos.


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