Roller coaster

Darrell Armstrong on
Big Thunder Mountain.
(Tom Burton, 1999)

This business has its ups and downs. Sometimes it seems like a crazy ride on a roller coaster. And some assignments don’t seem like roller coaster – they ARE a roller coaster.

I recently had an assignment to shoot the cover of our preview section of the Orlando Magic’s 1999-2000 season. In the off season the team had traded away moody malcontent Penny Hardaway and in the process, also got rid of every other big name on the roster in order to save up some salary cap room for next summer’s free agent market. That leaves very few players the fans know and the prospect of a bumpy season – hence the idea for a roller coaster themed cover.

Somehow, we talked Darrell Armstrong into being in the photo. He is the only returning star having won both the Most Improved Player award and the Sixth Man awards from the NBA last year. He’s listed on the roster at 6’ 1”, but he seems to be shorter than me so he’s an inch or shy of that . But he can slam dunk and take a charge from players literally twice his size. He’s got game.

Darrell is also one of the most down-to-earth players in the NBA. He’s a genuine nice guy and a good sport which is why he agreed to this photo even though he’s rather hesitant about riding roller coasters. He says they’re too scary for him.
But Darrell also has a tremendous work ethic and when we met at the Magic’s practice court I found out that he had been preparing for the shoot. The day before he had gone out to the theme parks with some friends to one of the newest and scariest roller coasters in the world. Just like he’ll put in extra time shooting jumpers, Darrell put in extra time preparing for the photo shoot.

We went out to Walt Disney World and drove through a back gate to an entrance behind Big Thunder Mountain. It is not the most aggressive roller coaster in town, but the ride is mostly outside and it possible for a photographer to sit in the coaster while photographing another passenger. A Disney P.R. rep walked us in.

Darrell would be wearing his Magic uniform and sitting in the front car of the coaster which resembles a small train used in a mining camp. I told Darrell that I was going to take one ride by myself so I could get a feel for the timing of the ride and what I’d have to do to make a good picture. He could wait, I said. I didn’t want him to ride before I was ready because I feared I might only get one run with him since he was a little unsure.

As the coaster pulled up, I went to the front car and I saw Darrell follow me. His eyes were big and he had a nervous smile. He said he’d take a practice run too.

I was sitting sideways in the front car with the safety bar pulled down across my left hip. I twisted at the waist in order to see Darrell two rows behind me. My camera was covered with gaffer tape that was securing camera settings and more tape to hold down the camera’s flash. I’d need the extra pop of light because Darrell has very dark skin and the sky outside was a bright overcast.

We bumped and twisted through the first run and I shot out a roll before the ride was over. Darrell was a good sport, letting his arms fly upwards and flashing his engaging smile. It wasn’t an act and he seemed to enjoy it. We ended up taking took two more runs on the coaster before I was the one who had enough. I got the pictures and by that time my hip, my back, my arms were getting banged up from trying to hold the camera in a proper frame. Darrell had a good time but I think he was done too, Afterall, he had just come from a three hour NBA workout and hadn’t had dinner yet.

Walking out, I thanked Darrell again for his help in making the photo. He was bit breathless and I don’t think he will be riding many roller coasters soon. But he gave up one for the team that afternoon and helped me get a great cover.

originally published November 8, 1999 at