This photograph, taken by Brian Babineau at Sunday’s game between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Boston Celtics, is elegant yet simple. In many ways it’s far more elegant and far simpler than the average sports photograph. Everyone in the photograph is in motion, but it possesses a certain stillness: The way the out-of-focus ball hovers alongside the hand of the largely unseen Memphis guard; the calm focus that pervades Rajon Rondo’s face; even Jermaine O’Neal, whose mid-jog stride puts him most clearly in motion, doesn’t look hurried or strained.
Despite that stillness, it tells an elaborate, even familiar story. The unseen guard is bringing the ball up the floor. Rondo, casually keen, begins to square himself to the ball-handler and prepares to defend the play. O’Neal is headed into the paint. Only Rondo is in focus and yet a vision of the whole floor fills our imagination. It’s not difficult to see the wings trotting towards their perches along the 3-point line, the members of Memphis’ frontcourt planting themselves on either block or the defenders bending their knees and spreading their arms, readying themselves for what’s ahead.
It’s unclear which play this moment precedes, and yet it so resembles any old play that it brings a vivid picture of what’s beyond the edges of the photograph to mind. Rondo is looking in the direction of the camera, but it’s almost as if the viewer can see the court with the sets of eyes he has in the front and on the back of his head.
The elaborate story told by this simple photograph is largely due to the near perfect manner in which Babineau has framed the shot. He manages to clearly distinguish between the main subject, foreground and background, yet he obscures the latter two in a way that sparks our curiosity. In part we’re curious because, unlike much of sports photography, it’s a moment we’ve not merely seen countless times but lived as well.
Anyone who has ever played full court basketball even a handful of times has experienced this moment. Bringing the ball up the floor uncontested early in the shot clock is as unremarkable a moment as occurs in the game of basketball. That’s exactly what draws the observer so deeply into the shot.
Most sports photography imposes what David Foster Wallace, in his now canonical essay “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” called a moment of “reconciliation.” We are watching someone perform an act we are incapable of performing, and that forces us to reconcile ourselves with the fact of having a body and the physical limitations of that body. No such reconciliation is imposed here. Calmly bracing yourself as your opponent brings the ball up the floor is as ho-hum as it comes. But although one might expect an image of such a moment to seem boring, our personal knowledge of Rondo’s position, both spatially and mentally, fuels our imagination.
The other reason I love this photograph is because it captures the image of Rajon Rondo that lives in my mind. I always imagine him to be somewhat expressionless. Although he’d only been given a black eye the preceding Friday when he caught a stray elbow from Iman Shumpert, something about him always strikes me as battered. Battered, but not wounded. He will speak his mind — all the technical fouls he’s accrued prove that — but there’s something understated about the way he processes physical pain, no matter how grizzly the injury. More simply put, Rondo will play hurt.
Lastly, I imagine him on defense. His long arms and spindly fingers probing the empty air, waiting patiently for a ball that mistakenly comes to close. He’s like a desert spider, burrowed into the sand, waiting for an unsuspecting rodent to wander by. But in this image we can’t see his hands, or make out the true length of his arms. Again, what the photograph has obscured or forgone altogether is what gives life to our imagination.