Wen Roberts, 1936-2007

Wen Roberts, who passed away earlier this week, was one of L.A.'s ground-breaking sports photographers. He was the Lakers' team photographer from about the time they moved here from Minneapolis in 1960. He later served in the same capacity for the Kings. Here's the link to the Times' obit.

In those early years, as they struggled to fill the Sports Arena, the Lakers weren't that popular. The Rams and the Dodgers had beaten them to the West Coast and to the hearts of L.A. sports fans; the NBA wasn't yet a world-wide marketing empire. John Wooden and his UCLA teams dominated all discussion about hoops in town.

Of course, that began to change. Elgin Baylor and Jerry West kept willing the Lakers to the NBA Finals; Chick Hearn's simulcasts -- and his vivid "word pictures" -- helped to forge the team's identity. Meanwhile, Roberts' images, in color and black-and-white, gave visual evidence of the soaring, action-packed sport that would enthrall L.A. sports fans.

Full disclosure: I got to know Wen after I began to pitch, on his behalf, a photo-essay of his remarkable celebrity photographs from the L.A. airport in the 1950s and early 1960s: Marlon Brando smirking; Audrey Hepburn with her pet dog; Cassius Clay en route from the 1960 Rome Olympics; Richard Nixon looking awkward. These photos were essentially p.r. shots for the burgeoning airline industry: they made air travel glamorous at a time when people dressed up for the trip and when the airlines treated their customers as, well, human beings.

I pitched Roberts' photos to umpteen local and national magazines, to no avail (and you ignoramus editors know who you are). After each rejection, I'd dutifully call Roberts at his home in El Segundo. After a while, we didn't talk much about the project; instead, he told me about his early days working for Sid Avery, the challenge of shooting the Lakers and the Kings every night (he said that ice hockey was the most difficult sport to shoot), the commercial photography that he was doing (primarily for Ford) and, sadly, his failing health.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a long story about the identity of the player in the NBA logo. I'd always assumed it was Jerry West, but the NBA refused to confirm this. So, I tracked down Alan Siegel, who designed the logo to complement the Major League Baseball logo that Jerry Dior had designed in 1968. Siegel confirmed that West was his model; he said that he had found a photo of West driving to the hoop in the files of the now-shuttered Sport Magazine and that he had tweaked the image when he created the NBA logo.

Wen Roberts believed that he took the photo of West that was used for the NBA logo; West himself told me that he thought the image came from a Roberts photograph. I don't know whether that can ever be confirmed, but Roberts' legacy in sports photography remains huge: all those visual images we have of the Lakers - Elgin hanging in the air, Wilt's dominance, Goodrich squaring to shoot, and, yes, Mr. Logo himself, Jerry West, driving to the basket - speaks to the exquisite artistry of Wen Roberts.

July 28, 2007 8:40 AM • Native Intelligence • Email the editor

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