An Interview With the Photographer Behind the Iconic Photo of Kawhi Leonard’s Buzzer-Beater

Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid watch to see if Leonard's shot will go in.
Joel Embiid watches from the corner as Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard squats down and sticks out his tongue waiting for the ball to drop at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. Toronto Star/Rick Madonik via Getty Images

Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 buzzer-beater against the Philadelphia 76ers is the most famous Toronto Raptors moment ever, but it took a few seconds—and four bounces—for it to go down in history. As the ball danced on the rim, Toronto Star photographer Rick Madonik captured an instantly iconic photograph of Leonard crouched in anticipation during this period of uncertainty.

The shot is full of emotion, and it soon went viral. Drake, the Raptors’ most famous fan, posted Madonik’s photo to his Instagram page after the game, and ESPN’s Twitter account noted that the shot should be the rapper’s next album cover. (Neither party credited the photographer who took it.)

I talked to Madonik over the phone to get the story behind his dramatic photo. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Nick Greene: Are you surprised at how much the photo has blown up?

Rick Madonik: Actually, I am. But maybe that’s my old jaded self. To me, yeah, it was a hell of a shot and a hell of a moment, but there’s still a lot of basketball to be played. They’ve been to the Eastern Conference finals before, and that’s not the goal. But it was certainly dramatic. It was the most dramatic 1.5 seconds I’ve seen in basketball.

Where were you stationed to get that angle?

Normally we have a court position for the whole year, and so does the Toronto Sun, but when the playoffs start, TV takes over and the NBA brings in photographers and the spots that get lost are generally the ones that go to the local papers. When it gets jammed up like that for the second round, we share a spot. We’re only on the court for half the game, so we look for other places to shoot from.

A few years ago my colleague Steve Russell went way up to the media gondola, which, I don’t know if it physically hangs off the roof but it’s up near the roof. It’s above all the 600-level seats. When you’re looking down at the court, it’s at least a 45-degree angle and you’re about 200 feet up. During the season it’s empty, but during the playoffs it can get pretty full. The Raptors make it available to about 10 photographers who no longer have spots on the court or are looking for something different.

Generally, it’s a low-percentage place to be. It produces nice, clean images, but usually only at one end. That far end [by the Raptors bench] is kind of ugly, visually. Pictures from there usually are not very good, but obviously, this one was a little different.

Did you know it was a special photo as soon as you saw it?

For a change, I did. Usually you’re kind of skeptical, but I knew from the faces.

With four seconds left, I knew Kawhi would take the shot, so I just stayed on him. I followed him, and I’m like, “Dude, you’re still dribbling, you got four seconds.” He worked his way into the corner, and I’m waiting for the buzzer to go off. It gets out of his hands, and then he stands there, and then he starts crouching down. I see Embiid kind of lean into it, and then I see [Leonard] stick his tongue out, and all I could think was, “What the hell is taking so long?” It was going on forever, and at a point I thought I should recompose and go look at where the ball actually is.

You were just looking right at Kawhi?

I never watched the ball. I waited for reactions because when you get to a deciding game, for us in print, it’s all about either the celebration or the dejection. Game action doesn’t generally mean much. So he’s in the corner where the whole bench is, and I don’t know which way this is going. Once the crowd erupted, it was like, OK, it went in. It wasn’t until 10 minutes later when I saw some video and I’m counting bounces going, “Oh, my God.”

I can only imagine what the crowd sounded like.

I’m now reading and hearing that it went quiet when he took the shot, but I don’t remember that. It was loud as hell when the ball came inbounds. I was just watching their faces, especially the tongue coming out. Usually you don’t see it that clear and clean, and so I knew it was bang-on focus. I wasn’t about to move my camera because it’s a long lens with poor light from a high angle. I wasn’t about to start changing things then and there.

Was this the most emotion you’ve ever seen from Kawhi?

Definitely. When he was in that crouch screaming, that was like—OK, this is not normal Kawhi.

When you have a photo like this become so immediately famous, what’s it like when you see it keep popping up online? I saw ESPN tweeted it and Drake posted it to his Instagram, neither with credit. That must have been frustrating.

I’ve always believed in copyright. Not to throw too much dirt on Drake, but when an artist does it and they’re not acknowledging a copyright, it’s like, you’re not paying for it. At least put the damn name or source on it. It would be really nice, but it’s also the age of social media where everybody rips everything. It’s one of the reasons I only put low-res pictures up on Twitter. I know people will take it. It would be nice, especially if media outlets and celebrities did exactly what they hoped would be done with their own material. But what are you gonna do?