The way he tells it, Kevin C. Cox has just been “a guy with a camera for a very long time.”
And on Friday night in Columbia, South Carolina, his camera was pointing in the right direction at the right time.
Remaining in the second half of the first round NCAA tournament game were 13 minutes and 40 seconds. The No. 1 Duke Blue Devils were on a 21-5 run, and were looking to extend it after Tre Jones hauled in a defensive rebound off a missed three-pointer from No. 16 North Dakota State’s Vinnie Shahid.
Jones fed the ball to RJ Barrett, who threw down a reverse slam dunk that was graceful and thunderous.
And behind Barrett, Zion Williamson could not contain his excitement. Trailing his teammate, the only way Williamson could let out that energy was to jump with him.
Cox captured that moment perfectly.
Much of the 85-62 Duke victory was forgettable, but Cox’s photo will live forever. As soon as it was posted to Getty Images on Friday night, it started going viral on Twitter. In one frame, the athleticism and dominance of Duke, Barrett and Williamson are on full display. It also showed that these Blue Devils are having a ton of fun in March.
“You had RJ in this beautiful dunk and Zion in the background just flying high,” Cox said. “It’s a great frame, all the way across.”
Cox, 42, has been working for Getty Images for about 14 years. He’s been capturing moments of basketball since 2003.
He’s based in Atlanta, but if big events like the NCAA tournament are nearby – Columbia is about a three-hour drive – he’ll hit the road.
For Friday night’s games, Cox and a Getty Images colleague, Streeter Lecka, teamed up. Each was positioned on opposite ends of the court at Colonial Life Arena. Cox was on the same side of the court as the Duke bench, sitting on the floor behind the baseline.
When taking photos from that angle, you have to worry about two things: players falling into you and getting your lens blocked by a referee.
“I typically like to shoot from under the basket. You run into the issue a lot of times of a referee standing in front of you, because they stand right around the same area, but I just like the angle,” Cox said. “A lot of times, if you’re sitting under the basket and you’re allowed to put in a remote floor camera right in front of you, then we always do that. And that’s what I had in front of me.”
Remote cameras can be synced up to the camera the photographer is manually using. So when Cox hits the button on his point-and-shoot, the remote fires too.
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Cox says he always uses Canon cameras. On this night, his remote was set up with a Canon 1D Mark II with a 16-35mm lens.
“So, when that play happens, they’re coming to my side of the court, and I saw (Jones) toss it over toward RJ Barrett, and I immediately went to RJ,” Cox said. “I never even saw Zion coming up in the back.”
Cox was shooting tight on the basket and captured a few frames of Barrett’s impressive jam. As the players were jogging to the other end of the court for North Dakota State’s next possession, he realized no one was blocking his view on that play. He decided to take a peak at what the remote captured.
“So, I look down at the remote thinking, ‘This should be nice.’ I click on it, look, see the dunk and think ‘This is perfect,’” Cox said.
Then: “And all of sudden I notice Zion in the background and he literally looks like he’s levitating like 20 feet off the floor. It looks absolutely unreal. I knew immediately that was going to be a great frame, but I didn’t realize it was going to be this big.”
Cox shipped the images off to an editor back at Getty, who cropped them a bunch of different ways and dispersed them to the website’s database and social media accounts. That’s when the photos caught fire on Twitter.
By now, many Duke fans probably have the image saved as a background on their phones.
Cox likely won’t be one of them. He’s a Tar Heel.
A native of North Carolina, Cox was born and raised as UNC fan, and then ended up going to school there. He was in North Carolina’s marching band when Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison were ruling the court in the Dean Dome.
When he first enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cox wanted to get into broadcasting. But at one point during his college days, he won third place in a photography contest. That’s when he realized, “Oh, I can do this for a living.”
“When I realized I wanted to do sports photography, I was about halfway through college,” Cox said. “If you live up in that area and you want to be a photographer, you got to shoot basketball – Duke, UNC, N.C. State, men’s and women’s.”
Vince Carter and Cox both started at Chapel Hill and both have ended up in the same place. The veteran NBA player is now with the Atlanta Hawks, a team Cox covers extensively for Getty.
Cox hasn’t been able to cover much college basketball this season. According to his Getty archives, his last college game was on Dec. 22, 2018, when Ja Morant and Murray State played at Auburn. But he’s covered a ton of other awesome events, including the MLS Cup, the College Football Playoff, the Super Bowl, many Hawks games, pro golf and the Alliance of American Football.
Duke didn’t play at Georgia Tech this year during the ACC slate, so Friday was Cox’s first time covering the Blue Devils. However, it wasn’t his first-time snapping photos of Williamson. Cox was along the baseline at the 2018 McDonald’s All-American game that the 6-foot-8 basketball behemoth starred in.
“I’ve been watching him play on TV, and that’s one thing, but to watch him now in-person, it’s unbelievable,” Cox said. “Tremendous athlete, tremendous player, tremendous kid. I was extremely impressed, and also scared.”
In this game, Cox had to make sure he didn’t just follow Williamson around all night, despite how flashy and how good the freshman phenom is. It was important to capture other portions of the game too.
“With top athletes – and he’s No. 1 – it’s very important to pay attention to those guys, top to bottom. So, sometimes you’re on him, sometimes you’re on the game. You have to cover both teams. North Dakota State was playing a great game,” Cox said. “But you definitely find yourself trying to get every angle and look of him, while also covering the rest of the game. You don’t want to miss a play. For instance, if I had just been looking at Zion, I would’ve missed RJ’s beautiful dunk.”
Cox will get to cover Duke and Williamson for a second time on Sunday when the Blue Devils take on UCF and 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall. After that, he’s on to Louisville for the tournament’s Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games in the South Region.
There, and wherever he goes, he’s a guy with a camera.
And now, he’s also the guy who took that Zion photo.
Mitchell Northam is a graduate of Salisbury University. His work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, SB Nation, FanSided, USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times. He grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and is now based in Durham, N.C.