Growing up on Long Island, George Kalinsky always wanted to be Hall of Fame center fielder Willie Mays or Harlem Globetrotter Marques Haynes. Instead, he went to art school and became the official photographer at Madison Square Garden in 1966 — a job he still holds today — capturing some of the most legendary moments in sports and entertainment history.
(Kalinsky sat out last season because of the risk of COVID-19, but he did shoot one playoff game. And he intends to return to photograph the Knicks this season.)
Ironically, the 85-year-old’s camera and artwork has ensured he’ll be recognized alongside some of his heroes. This weekend, Kalinsky will be honored by the Basketball Hall of Fame as he is awarded the Curt Gowdy Media Award.
When Hall of Fame President John Doleva called the Upper East Sider to break the news, Kalinsky called it a “powerful” moment. “I couldn’t believe it when he said I was going to be enshrined there. I went back to when I played in the schoolyard. I never thought I would be in the Hall of Fame, but I made it as an artist,” he told The Post.
Here, the legendary lensman shares the stories behind his most iconic shots from the hoops universe.
The making of “Clyde” Frazier
Basketball fans know Walt “Clyde” Frazier for his flashy suits and gregarious personality. When Kalinsky met him, he was a ballplayer trying to come out of his shell. “He came in one day and said, ‘We gotta come up with something where I have an alter ego. I am really nervous when I get into a big crowd,’” Kalinsky recalled.
One day Frazier was wearing a green hat, green suit and green alligator boots. Kalinsky thought he looked sharp and shot his portrait. The Knick then started showing up to Madison Square Garden in flamboyant duds, prompting the team trainer to say he was like Clyde from “Bonnie and Clyde” — and the persona stuck. This later snap, taken in 1969, was Walt’s debut as “Clyde,” with the ballplayer wearing a belt emblazoned with his new nickname.
“He always says ‘George made me,’ but the pieces just fit together,” Kalinsky said. “The Knicks started winning and magazines started asking me for pictures of him. I certainly feel lucky to have been part of that team.”
Willis Reed’s grit walk
During Game 5 of the 1970 NBA finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knick Willis Reed tore a muscle in his thigh and was forced to sit in Game 6, leaving fans — and Lakers players — with one great question: Would Reed play in Game 7?
Over lunch at Horn & Hardart in Penn Station, Kalinksy told his friend he could injure himself for life if he took the court. “He told me, ‘You know, George, if I have one opportunity in my life to win a championship, then I am going to take advantage of it. Even if I have to crawl out onto the court on my hands and knees, I have to play.’” Kalinsky followed him as he hobbled onto the hardwood and the moment, thanks to Reed’s grit and Kalinksy’s eye, would be woven into both NBA and MSG lore.
“It was the most electric I had ever seen Madison Square Garden. It was the most amazing sound,” said Kalinsky, noting that Reed made the first two baskets, thus setting the tone for the entire match. “Basically by walking out there, he inspired the Knicks to win that game and their first championship.”
Bill Russell’s art in motion
In February 1968, the Boston Celtics played the Detroit Pistons in a double-header in the first game of the then-new Madison Square Garden. Sure, it was a notable night in the building’s history, but it was Celtic Bill Russell’s form and athleticism, along with perfect timing on the photographer’s part, that made this outing so special.
“You can’t believe his foot could be that high. His build looks so perfect. There’s a beauty in how he played and a beauty in his athleticism,” Kalinsky said.
Kalinsky said the image is Russell’s favorite picture of himself. About 10 years ago, the NBA made a doll of him and he insisted the photo be used as inspiration.
“It’s also my favorite basketball photo I ever took,” said Kalinsky, who has the picture on the wall of his apartment. He’d also like to see the photo, which celebrates movement and the human form, in another medium. “I think it would be a beautiful sculpture. I could see this in the Museum of Modern Art.”
Last call for Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt Chamberlain and Kalinsky had a friendship stretching back to Kutsher’s Hotel in the Catskills, where Chamberlain was famously a bellhop — and their relationship would continue while the 7-foot-1 center dominated in the league.
When the Knicks defeated Chamberlain’s Lakers in the 1973 championship, Kalinsky shot the celebration in the New York locker room. But then he went to see his old pal. “I always go into the losing locker room, too, because sometimes there’s more emotion there. I think Wilt was happy I was there. I felt he needed support and, with the friendship we had, I owed it to him.”
Kalinsky’s picture would be even more impactful than he could have imagined. It would be the last time the legendary rebounder would take off his NBA uniform. Despite being courted by other teams, he retired after the season to pursue other interests.
“Like many photos, I didn’t realize the real elements of it until maybe a few years later, and you realize how important that moment was.”
The sartorial showdown
In February 1985, St. John’s was ranked No. 1 and on a 13-game winning streak. And coach Lou Carnesecca was sporting an “ugly” brown sweater with a chevron pattern that famously became his lucky charm. When they went up against their nemesis Georgetown, coach John Thompson approached Carnesecca and opened his jacket to reveal the same sweater. It was a moment of humor and humanity in the long-simmering rivalry between the Big East institutions.
“I was trying to capture Louie in that sweater for weeks. It was a big deal. Thompson pulled such a great p.r. move,” said Kalinksy. The sartorial showdown, which No. 2 Georgetown won handily, became known as “the Sweater Game” as an iconic part of college hoops history. Kalinsky had another reason to love the photo.
“As a photographer, this picture is important to me because my best friend [St. John’s team] Dr. Irving Glick was smack in the middle of it.”
It’s gotta be the shoes
“Luck has been very good to me. I find myself being in the right place on so many occasions, I don’t understand it,” Kalinksy said.
For example, he was at the 1985 slam-dunk contest in Indianapolis when a rookie by the name of Michael Jordan took the stage with a pair of shoes that would change the game on and off the court.
“I believe this was the first time he was photographed in Air Jordans,” Kalinsky said. “Nike was pushing this new designer concept sneakers, and it was very important to get them on full display.”
When Jordan retired the for first time in ’93, Newsweek reprinted the photo, and it has also been used frequently by Nike. While Kalinksy made some money, he said it’s never about the dough.
“It was special because it made a mark,” he said of the photograph.