A year after Kawhi Leonard's iconic buzzer-beater, seven photographers remember what it was like to document the greatest shot in Toronto Raptors history

It was a year ago that Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals immediately became one of the most iconic moments in Canadian sports history. Iconic moments demand iconic images to remember them by, and the Raptors’ playoff run highlighted not just the growth of the sport in Canada, but the embarrassment of talent that exists in this country behind the lens. Some of these basketball photographers are lovers of the game who wanted to stay close to the action after their own playing days were over. Others are highly decorated journalists tasked with shooting the events that matter most to Canadians — which, in May and June of 2019, were basketball games.

The different pictures of what is now known as “The Shot” tell a story much longer than a thousand words. None of them happened by chance. They came after years of preparation — practice for that crucial tenth-of-a-second moment.

Here, the photojournalists who so brilliantly captured every gut-wrenching bounce, explain their shots of The Shot.

Nikon D4S, 24-70mm lens
Photo shot at 1/2500 sec @ f2.8, ISO 8000.

I sit right in front of the Raptors’ bench, and in a game-winning situation most action is likely to happen around the bench — either coming to or going onto the floor. The 24-70mm is a flexible lens that allows me to cover everything close and mid-range.

I thought that Kawhi would shoot from further out or drive inside. I was really surprised that he used as much time as he did and drove deep into the corner. I shot a single frame, and I think the photo is interesting because the real tension has not yet developed. It does show how close Embiid was to getting his fingers on it.

A lot of people made fun of the fact that I was almost the only person in the building who didn’t see the shot: I was focused on Kawhi. I have seen in the video that I snuck a quick peek as it was taking an eternity to drop, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on from the players’ reactions.

I knew I’d taken good shots of a great moment. The iconic photo is Mark Blinch’s from the press box. It has all the elements captured perfectly. My photos are supporting cast. They capture slices of the moment in more detail.

Nikon D5, 24-70mm lens
Photo shot at 1/250 sec @ f6.3, ISO 250

I was sitting on the baseline on the side of the stanchion opposite the Raptors’ bench, and just thinking, “Make sure you follow the ball in case there’s a game-winning shot.” That’s what I do, I always follow the ball. You’ve got to find the ball then you’ve got to be hyper-focused in case it went in, which it I did.

It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, because I just record the moment — it’s not art. I thought I had nailed it. I looked at it on my camera and saw that Embiid was directly in front of Kawhi. Because I had strobes, flashes in the arena’s ceiling, I could only take one shot every two to three seconds — other photographers are shooting 10 frames a second. Had I taken the shot a tenth of a second earlier or later, it would have been fantastic. I was very disappointed with the end result but thrilled Kawhi made his shot.

There are still aspects of the shot I like, though. Look at Nurse. Look at Freddy. You know the other funny thing — I really liked this — look how high off the floor they are. That is freaking amazing. That’s insane. The ball is on his fingertips. It’s perfect timing on the ball.

Canon 1DX Mark II, 70-200mm lens
Photo shot at 1/800 at f5.6, ISO 3200

Coming out of the timeout, I couldn’t believe the game was coming down to this —18 years after Vince Carter missed his shot. I was behind the opposite basket and, because I wasn’t super close to the action, I needed a lens that could get me a little more into the play.

What I like most about the photo is just the fact that it’s a photo of the moment. There isn’t anything that remotely stands out other than the moment. I’ve edited a few versions of it and I’m not sold on which is best thus far, but black-and-white seems to do it justice. I don’t really rank it as one of the best shots I’ve taken, but I’ll definitely always remember the shot. I’m grateful I was there to witness it.

Canon 1DX Mark II, 70-200mm lens
Photo shot at 1/1000 sec @ f4, ISO 3200

The biggest thing on my mind during the timeout was making sure my camera was perfectly set up in case the buzzer-beater happened. I turned up the f/stop from 3.5 to 4.0 just to make sure everything was sharp and in focus. Throughout the series I had some great shots of Kawhi hitting a shot on Embiid in Game 4, and his dunk over Embiid in Game 5. I was confident in myself to capture a moment if it were to occur.

The great thing about the camera I was shooting with is that it allows for a burst of 12 to 15 photos per second. My instincts kicked in as soon as Kawhi turned the corner and I started snapping away, letting the burst do its thing. I was fortunate I was able to get the shot within the burst.

As soon as the aftermath of the shot settled down, I reviewed my shots in-camera and started to run back down to the media room. After scrolling back to the exact shot, I knew I had something special on my hands.

My favourite aspect of the photo is the anticipation on everyone’s face, moments before Kawhi achieved something no one else has done before, it is great to look at everyone’s reactions. If the shot happened in the opposite corner, I don’t think we would have gotten some of the iconic photos that came out of that Game 7.

I’ve run into people in public with it as their phone backgrounds. It’s one of my favourite pictures I’ve ever taken, along with the Fred VanVleet scream in Game 6 of the Finals. Both hold special places in my heart.

Canon 1DX Mark II, 300mm lens
Photo shot at 1/320 sec @ f5.6, ISO 250

Since I was positioned in the press box at the top of the arena, I needed to use a longer lens. I was switching between the 400mm and 300mm throughout the game but the 400mm looked a little too tight if the shot ended up coming from outside the key. I decided to use the 300mm to try and show a bit more atmosphere. Normally, a 300mm lens is considered a focal length with a lot of zoom, but since I was so far away, it becomes a wider view positioned in the press box. For buzzer-beater situations, I have always been trained to try and get the player, the ball, and the basket in the photo — the 300mm turned out to be a good choice.

I was using stadium strobes, which are giant flashes in the roof of the arena. The strobes take about a quarter of a second to recharge, so I had to wait between shots, instead of keeping the shutter pressed. I got about two frames per second, instead of the typical 12-20.

I knew I had something good when I took a quick look on the back of my camera. When cycling back on the camera, I was relieved there was something there, and that it was in focus. When I put it in the computer, I was ecstatic to have a shot where the ball is going through the iron.

I always come back to the tension in the photo. If the ball had gone straight in, without the bounces, the picture wouldn’t have been the same. The second it took for the ball to bounce around the rim, created enough time for tension to build. Kawhi had time to squat down, and it gave enough time for everyone in the arena — players, coaches, staff, court attendants, security guards and fans — to pause and wait for the result. I love looking at the all the reactions.

The response to the photo has been amazing. It had a great run on social media, that night, and the following days. I had received all sorts of messages and comments about it.

So far, it’s been the biggest sports moment I have seen in my career. The picture recently took first place in the sports category at the World Press Photo contest, so I am happy to have it recognized, and it’s a major career milestone for me.

Canon 1DX Mark II, 300mm lens
Photo shot at 1/500 sec @ f5, ISO 4000

Sun Media had one camera position on the floor, which is usually the best for game action, but certainly risky when it comes to end-of-game reaction. There are so many variables out of our control that can ruin a great photo opportunity: officials moving across the court, other players, TV people and photographers all rushing to capture the same images. For all of those reasons, an elevated position is far less risky.

I chose a position roughly 25 rows up above a walkway. It was unlikely to be blocked by the arms of celebrating fans, but not too high that I would be capturing the tops of the players’ heads. I wanted to both freeze the action and have a certain amount of depth of field; to have in-focus both the reaction of the players on the bench as well as whatever was transpiring on the court.

I shot Kawhi releasing the ball and then followed him under the basket and waited for his reaction. Anticipating a burst of emotion, I waited to see where the ball was going and then shot a burst of five frames. Of the multiple images I captured, only the one frame had all eyes open wide as the ball bounced for the fourth time and headed through the net. I immediately knew my timing was perfect but was not sure until I had ingested my images into my laptop that I knew I was perfectly sharp on Kawhi and the Raptors bench.

The colour temperature and the lighting at Scotiabank Arena changes with the colour of the advertisements projected on the screens surrounding the court. Shooting with only the available light means constantly having to make adjustments to achieve more natural flesh tones. The raw images at Raptors games tend to be too warm and flat, so I would have brightened the image marginally and bumped up the contrast — but it was more important to get the photo out quickly to make our deadline than to take too much time on adjustments.

It was such an incredible moment in time for the city, and to be one of a few photographers to capture the defining image is incredibly gratifying.

Canon 1DX Mark II, 200-400mm lens
Photo shot at 1/2500 sec @ f4, ISO 5000

I thought, “There are 4.2 seconds. Kawhi will shoot. Don’t lose focus on Kawhi. This either wins it or we go to OT in a Game 7.” My major concern was keeping tack-sharp focus on Kawhi as the ball was inbounded and he started to dribble.

I shot a burst, but it was a thought-about burst. I shot a frame as he took the shot and then waited. The wait seemed to go on forever. Then he crouched down and I was still thinking, “This is taking too long.” I remember hearing the buzzer go. When the tongue came out, I started shooting frames. And I could see Embid leaning in and looking. Honestly, I never even noticed Jordan Lloyd as he starts to celebrate. I was clearly focused on Kawhi.

It was one of those rare moments that as I shot the frames, I knew they were good — as long as it went in, that is.

Nothing was done in post, except running it through our automated software which corrects for color balance of the printing presses. There was no dodging or burning. The exposure was pretty good and there wasn’t time to do anything to it unless it absolutely needed it.

That night I tweeted it out pretty quick and within 20 minutes I had a blogger asking for an interview. Once Drake put it out, it took on a different life.

I think this picture will be with me for a long time.

Nikon D4S, 24-70mm lens
Photo shot at 1/2500 sec @ f2.8, ISO 8000

The celebration included some bursts. I was getting jostled around in the middle of the crowd and couldn’t always look through my camera properly.

The photo is interesting because Kawhi is not an outwardly emotional player, so this was unique. It’s also unusual because I got pushed into the middle of the celebration with a wide-angle lens. That odd circumstance is why Kawhi’s reaction really jumps out.

Photo Credits

Frank Gunn/CP; Kishan Mistry/Yahoo Sports; Ron Turenne/Toronto Raptors; Stan Behal/Toronto Sun; Frank Gunn/CP; Ron Turenne/Toronto Raptors; Charlie Lindsay/Toronto Raptors; Kishan Mistry/Yahoo Sports; Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images; Stan Behal/Toronto Sun; Rick Madonik/Toronto Star; Frank Gunn/CP.