Kalinsky Is Madison Square Garden’s Eye

George Kalinsky Interviewed by Ralph Gardner 

There are all kinds of photography: art, fashion and, to my mind the most captivating of all, news photography. There’s nothing quite as evocative as an image taken when history is breaking. And there’s a subset of news photography that’s particularly appealing: sports photography. 

George Kalinsky has been one of its most adept practitioners for almost half a century, and has taken the majority of his images in a single building: Madison Square Garden. He’s been the Garden’s chief photographer since 1966. His work includes the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971; the moment on May 8, 1970, when injured Knicks center Willis Reed hobbled onto the court during warm-ups for the final game of the championship series against the Lakers, spurring them to victory; and the visit of Pope John Paul II on Oct. 3, 1979, when, after signaling Mr. Kalinsky to ready his camera, the pontiff swept 6-year-old Geralyn Smith into his arms and lifted her on top of the Popemobile for the world to see.

When I met Mr. Kalinsky last week in his Penn Plaza office, decorated with his photographs and artwork, I decided to test his knowledge of Garden history. Or rather, I decided to test his knowledge of one of the only moments of Garden history for which I happened to be present. (Another was the Rev. Sun Myung Moon marrying 2,000 couples in 1982, but that’s a whole other story.)

George Kalinsky, the Madison Square Garden's official photographer since 1966, in his office studio with a photo of Walt Frazier to which he added paint.

It was the first round of the 1970 playoff series between the Knicks and the Baltimore Bullets. The game I’m thinking of went into double overtime. As each overtime ticked down, the members of both teams in effect took their seats, ordered beer and hot dogs and turned into fans themselves as they watched the Knicks’ Walt Frazier and the Bullets’ Earl Monroe, two of the greatest guards of all time, go one-on-one playground style with the game on the line and 19,000 fans chanting “defense” whenever Mr. Monroe handled the ball.

“Classic matchup,” Mr. Kalinsky remembered. “Each team was a mirror image of the other. One of my favorite pictures I ever took was in that series.”

He reached for a pile of photographs on his desk and handed me a blurred image that was more evocative than anything in focus. It showed Frazier guarding Monroe and it captured perfectly the frenzy of the moment—Monroe, the magical ball handler, the ball seemingly glued to his fingers, trying to penetrate to the basket, while Frazier stuck to him as closely as Monroe’s own shadow.

One of the perks of being the Garden’s in-house photographer is that you have full backstage access. That’s how he got that iconic image of the wounded Willis Reed surprising everyone as he stepped onto the court. “Wilt Chamberlin was constantly asking me if Willis is coming out,” Mr. Kalinsky remembered, referring to the Lakers center. “I kept going to the locker room to see how Willis was doing. I followed him out the door. As we got close to the court, I heard the crowd. It was one of the most electric sounds from a crowd I ever heard. That’s how I got the shot from the back. No one else really realized photography-wise what was happening.”

The Garden unveiled the first 10 of those "20 Defining Moments" last fall, as part of the arena's renovation; the second 10 will be revealed this month. Most of the photos were taken by Mr. Kalinsky.

A five-minute photography lesson for Frank Sinatra—after Life magazine had hired the entertainer to shoot the Ali-Frazier fight—turned into a 30-year friendship. But perhaps the most important celebrity relationship of Mr. Kalinsky’s career was with Mr. Ali. In fact, the fighter was indirectly responsible for getting Mr. Kalinsky his job at the Garden.

After graduating from Pratt Institute, Mr. Kalinsky, who grew up in Hempstead on Long Island, was in Miami in 1966 trying to land a job as a sports cartoonist. While there, he spotted Mr. Ali and sportscaster Howard Cosell entering the 5th Street Gym, where the fighter was training for an upcoming bout. “I tried to follow them into the gym,” Mr. Kalinsky remembered, “and Angelo Dundee [Mr. Ali’s trainer] said, ‘You can’t come in unless you pay your buck.’ “

“I had a camera around my shoulder,” though he’d only used it to take family pictures. “I said, ‘I’m the photographer for Madison Square Garden.’ I was not the photographer for Madison Square Garden. It just came out of my mouth. Angelo said, ‘OK, comedian. Come on in.'”

The next week, Mr. Kalinsky returned to New York and took the roll of film he’d shot of Mr. Ali to John Condon, the Garden’s publicity director and the Knicks’ announcer. “Condon looks at the pictures and says, ‘If you have the chutzpah to come to me with one roll of film, I have the chutzpah to hire you.'”

Mr. Kalinsky, who described Mr. Ali as the most charismatic athlete he ever shot, takes credit for the boxer’s “Rope-a-Dope” strategy against undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman in their “Rumble in the Jungle.” “Ali called me up one day in 1974 and said, ‘Can I meet you and Condon at 6:30 at the Garden?’ ” Mr. Kalinsky remembered. “Condon was like a father to Ali. I was like a brother to him.”

The photographer said the three of them sat in the empty pressroom. “Ali said, ‘My problem is he’s too big, too fast, too strong, too young. I can’t beat him.’ I said, ‘You know, Muhammad, you’ve been training for this fight all your life.’ “

Mr. Ali had an unusual way of conducting his sparring sessions, according to Mr. Kalinsky. He had his sparring partner hit him, rather than the other way around. “He felt it was his way of being able to take punishment in the belly,” Mr. Kalinsky explained. “He always protected his face as best he could.

“I said, ‘Do what you do in a training session: Act like a dope on the ropes. That’s the words that came out of me. He said, ‘So, you want me to be a rope-a-dope?’ “

Mr. Ali took the advice and beat Mr. Foreman in the eighth round.

There are all kinds of photography: art, fashion and, to my mind the most captivating of all, news photography. There’s nothing quite as evocative as an image taken when history is breaking. And there’s a subset of news photography that’s particularly appealing: sports photography…

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