Shooting hoops with legendary basketball photographer Mansoor Ahmed

You can’t look back at the modern history of basketball in Britain without Mansoor Ahmed. He has sat behind backboards, on benches and in team huddles for more than 30 years, dedicated to capturing the highs and lows of the sport in this country and around the world.

“I had dreams of being a professional basketball player back in the day,” he said, while waiting for gyms to open back up again. 

“I actually tried out with Manchester United’s basketball team back in 1984 but I wasn’t good enough. So instead of shooting hoops, I started shooting the hoops. I was at college when I had to do my GCSEs and I went down the list of subjects, and they had photography.”

Having grown up in Preston, Ahmed is the British-Muslim son of parents who had emigrated from Pakistan in 1966. One of five brothers and one sister, he represents the rich, multicultural world of British basketball, and the moments he has captured have contributed to the image of the sport in the UK. 

Catching the perfect shot in basketball can be stressful for photographers. Getting something that encapsulates the drama and the anguish of a quick-paced, physical and emotional sport is difficult, but the process was even more excruciating when Ahmed first started.

“I had to pre-focus, guess where the action was going to be, and hope when something came across the viewfinder that I got it. That’s pretty much how I did it for the first six or seven years.”

He dedicated the next 31 to shooting a sport that desperately needed exposure in the UK. But it wasn’t just the British Basketball League (BBL) and Britain’s national basketball teams that benefited from his lens, it was also fans of international leagues, including the NBA.

One of the first NBA events he covered was in 1993, and was perhaps the most challenging, as Ahmed explained: “You had Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway on the Orlando Magic, then you had Dominique Wilkins playing for the Atlanta Hawks, and I’m constantly trying to play catch up thinking, ‘how do I plan to take a picture of what happens next? What do I do?’

“It was hard because I was still using film. I was still on manual focus. And the NBA is a totally different animal compared to the BBL in terms of the speed and athleticism. It was a great learning experience.”

Seeing the quick pace of some of the most athletic players in the NBA was good practice for perhaps Ahmed’s most intimidating job: Michael Jordan at the start of The Last Dance season in 1997. “Having only covered the BBL up until that point, I was only ever exposed to small stadiums – 2,000-3,000 fans, tops – but then I go to Paris and I’m inside the stadium with 16,000 people and international media, and I’m way out of my comfort zone. 

“Up until then I’d only ever seen Michael Jordan like the rest of us, on television. I’d read about him in magazines but never seen him in flesh. It was just unbelievable. There were times where I didn’t want to be taking pictures, I just wanted to watch him play. He was just out of this world. But then obviously, I thought, ‘you’re here to do a job’.”

The memory came flooding back when the trip was highlighted on The Last Dance, especially as Ahmed followed Jordan and the Bulls everywhere. “He went to the Eiffel Tower for the photo shoot and I was there for the press conferences and obviously the games. 

“There were two shots that I wanted to get: one of him dunking and the other one was his famous fadeaway jumper. He dunked a few times when I was on the other side of the court, but in the next half, I managed to get one shot that is still one of my favorites of him hitting that fadeaway jump shot.”

In 1997, photographers didn’t have the immediate feedback of a digital screen on the camera, or the ability to link up to a laptop. Ahmed felt confident he had the shot but it would be a nervous wait to see the results. He said: “It must have been the longest few days of my life. I flew back home the next day and went straight to the lab get the pictures processed but when I saw the results I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got the shot I wanted.’”

Twenty-three years later, that shot came into good use again. When The Last Dance aired, platforms and outlets were scrambling for Michael Jordan content from the 1990s, and the Chicago Bulls’ Manager of Digital Content Joe Pinchin, formerly of the BBL’s Leicester Riders, reached out to Ahmed. Pinchin said: “Anyone will know who has met him – Mansoor is a massive Bulls and MJ fan, so we’d actually spoken about some of the events he had been to in the past. I was pretty certain, but it’s also just a natural ask to ping Mansoor a message when thinking about archive content.”

As much as Ahmed loves the Bulls, he’s also an ardent supporter of women playing the game. Last year, he followed the women’s GB Basketball team to EuroBasket – not for work, just to support the team – and he watched them finish a best-ever fourth place. 

He was also on hand when the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream played in Manchester against the GB team in 2011. Ahmed said: “The WNBA came over for a partnership deal and some preparation games ahead of the Olympics. They did a few shooting clinics with local school kids, visited the hospital and had a tour of the City Town Hall. Atlanta won by 31 points but to see WNBA players was an eye-opener for Britain. These athletes were just in great shape, they could shoot, play defense. It was another level to aspire to. It was fantastic to see a WNBA team in the UK. I think we should have more of them.”

Atlanta left some of its best players at home. Angel McCoughtry had a sprained knee, and Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza didn’t play, but the likes of Lindsay Harding and Coco Miller made it an easy victory for the Dream.

The NBA had also started making regular trips to the UK as well, and Sophie Goldschmidt, who was the senior vice-president of NBA Europe said: “WNBA Live is a further example of the NBA’s commitment to growing the game of basketball here in the UK.”

Atlanta’s margin of victory wasn’t helped by Britain being without one of the best basketball players the country has ever produced. Johannah Leedham-Warner had been drafted by the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun the previous year, but a knee injury stopped her joining the team, especially as she wanted to get healthy ahead of the Olympics. 

Ahmed said: “The one thing I know about Joey is it doesn’t matter whether she’s playing the club or country. She wears her heart on her sleeve and that’s what I like about her. Everything means so much.”

Leedham-Warner’s passion extends to Ahmed. The GB Basketball star said: “He has photographed me from the beginning of my basketball career, at perhaps age 14. 

“We should be applauding and thanking him beyond measures, because the service he has given to basketball in our country over the last however many years is unbelievable. There aren’t enough words that anyone from the team could ever write or say about Mansoor to truly express our gratitude and how thankful we are to have him as part of our team. He will always be considered part of the group and one of the lads. We love him.”

There haven’t been many more occasions when the WNBA has made the trip to the UK in the past decade, but the NBA ran nine trips in consecutive regular seasons to grow the game in London before it moved to Paris in 2020. Ahmed was at most of them, including the earlier preseason trip that the Boston Celtics made: “It was just unreal to see Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, and, of course, Glen ‘Big Baby’ Davis – all those guys playing for the Boston Celtics. And that was the year they went on to win the title.”

He would often be working for magazines and newspapers, but some years he was also on official NBA duty, taking pictures for the league of all the sights and following celebrities and basketball legends. He said: “The one that sticks in my mind is Dikembe Motumbo. Here we have a guy, 7’2 and giving everybody the finger wag when he blocked shots. My assignment was follow him around, shaking hands with the corporate sponsors and whatnot. He was such a fun guy to be around, cracking jokes, and he’s got this deep voice as well. And it was just because I’d watched him on telly. I watched him on these documentaries. And it was exciting meeting him in real life.”

Out of all his experiences covering the NBA and the WNBA, one of Ahmed’s favourite jobs was seeing Britain’s best athletes during the London 2012 Olympics. 

“In terms of the GB team, I loved shooting Pops Mensah-Bonsu the most,” Ahmed said.

“Hands down. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The guy can just leap out of the stadium. I think I’ve got more pictures of him dunking over people more than anything else.”

But as hosts, Britain got the opportunity to play against the very best in the world.

“Anytime you got to the chance to shoot Kobe Bryant in his prime was a delight. GB played them, but I followed him throughout the whole Olympics from the preliminary round all the way to the gold medal game. Just like MJ, Kobe was on a different planet. When he switched on, there’s nothing stopping him and I could just see that in his mindset. When he took to the floor. It was all business.”

It might be business, it might be a job, but Mansoor Ahmed has taken great joy in being there for every big basketball moment that took place in the UK during the past three decades. The beauty of that is not lost on him. “I often joke with my wife,” he said. 

“if I was to write a book about my travels as a photographer, I’d call it ‘The Best Seat In The House’. That’s literally what I had: the best seat in the house. It was a seat that no amount of money could buy.”

That seat has helped find angles and tell stories that few others have done. And while the sport is on pause at the moment, when arenas are open and the first basketball is shot, Ahmed will be there, continuing to tell the story of basketball in the UK.

All images courtesy of Mansoor Ahmed