Life behind the lens: How Sam Tolhurst made his way to NBA courtside photography

Around a month after shooting his first basketball game, Sam Tolhurst found himself shooting in the NBA. Now, he's finding new ways to challenge himself.

Credit: Kris Saad

It’s late 2019, and Sam Tolhurst is on his way to an NBL game. The Sydney Kings are hosting the Cairns Taipans, and he has a seat right behind the visitors bench. Curiously, he has a second seat waiting for him behind the baseline. Oh, and he has a camera and spare lens, all inconspicuously hidden within his clothing.

“It was a full photo heist,” Tolhurst laughs.

That bizarre, and possibly slightly illegal, experience was all part of Tolhurst’s journey to the NBA. A photographer since high school, he was preparing for a work trip to the United States when he had a brainwave. “I wanted to go and watch the [Toronto] Raptors play because they were my team, they’d just won the championship, fandom was high,” he said, “and I thought, maybe I should try to get in and shoot a game.”

One problem: the NBA needed to see samples of his work before handing over accreditation, and Tolhurst had never shot a basketball game. With no time to seek NBL approval, he loaded up and headed to Qudos Bank Arena. “I had a lens down my pants and my camera over my arm, under my jacket,” he said. His dad tried to bring in an extra long lens, but he was quickly found out and turned away at the door by security.

“I haven’t told [the Kings] that story,” Tolhurst says sheepishly.

Credit: Sam Tolhurst

That was the final step on a journey from Wollongong to the NBA, but it was far from the only one. Tolhurst has gone from shooting for a bike magazine in high school, to half of a university degree, to filming burritos for a living and to the best basketball league in the world, and now on to even bigger and better plans for the future.

Beginning in the ‘Gong

Tolhurst’s first basketball game was a photo heist, and his first camera came from another theft in his family home in Wollongong. His dad bought one of the early Canon DSLR cameras, but it didn’t stay in his possession for long. “I basically took it and he never got much use out of it,” Tolhurst said, “then I sold his own camera, pocketed the money and then upgraded with the money I was making, flipping burgers at my Maccas job.”

That keen business sense could have made him a killing on the stock market or in sales, but Tolhurst never considered anything other than photography and videography as a career. He took his first step with one of Australia’s biggest mountain biking magazines, pitching a story on the Wollongong biking culture and offering to write and shoot it. “That’s how I got my first full page spread published, which was pretty surreal for a 15 year old,” he said. “I enjoyed the writing side of things as well, but the visual kick out of seeing my photos printed sent me down that path.”

He was hooked, and he kept working with that magazine all the way through high school while adding to his portfolio. That led him to study a Bachelor of Digital Media, a combined university and TAFE-delivered course, through the University of Wollongong. When an opportunity came to intern at a digital agency he jumped at the chance, and when a permanent job suddenly appeared there he didn’t hesitate to take it. That meant that his some of his studies fell by the wayside — while he finished the TAFE side of his course as he worked, he never graduated or got his bachelor’s degree. “It’s not like it’s a qualification as such, the end goal is to get employed so being able to do that was great.” The pay was low and the work wasn’t inspiring, but it was another step forward into the professional world.

There were still opportunities to learn and develop his skills, too, albeit in a less conventional manner. When the agency told him they were looking for a graphic designer, he assured them he could fill the role despite his experience starting and ending with editing photos. “I was googling stuff, and it was always some 13 year old kid with a Minecraft channel that was teaching me how to do things,” he said with a laugh.

Still, he held that job, later filled a handful of freelance roles that worked graphic design in with his photography, and eventually became a senior graphic designer for restaurant chain Guzman y Gomez. As Sam puts it: “There’s lot to be said for 13 year olds with Minecraft channels.”

Hoop dreams

Through all of this, Tolhurst was developing a love for hoops that started, as with many Aussie kids, with a video game. Playing NBA 2K was his introduction to basketball, but that quickly grew in the passionate basketball community of Wollongong. He grew up watching the Hawks play in the NBL and he started playing alongside his cousins, both of whom were talented local players. That love of the game meant he was always looking for the right opportunity to weave it into his work. “Any [sport] I participate in, I try to end up shooting as well because you’re surrounded by [both interests at once], and that’s what I’m really passionate about,” he said.

That still hadn’t happened, though, when 2019 rolled around. Tolhurst had been working with Guzman y Gomez for almost three years, and as they prepared a new restaurant in Naperville, Chicago, he was getting ready to fly to the US to run their content for the grand opening. He immediately started planning how to get to an NBA game, as any basketball fan would, and his bosses agreed to add some extra time onto his trip after the store opening.

That’s when inspiration struck, and he decided to find a way to shoot an NBA game. He followed a handful of content creators for teams in the States on Instagram and reached out to them for advice, but none responded to a DM from a stranger halfway across the world. The next attempt was a little closer to home, a Facebook message to The Pick and Roll. He offered to shoot some games for the site, free of charge and paying his own way there. “I got left on read,” Tolhurst laughs, “and I was like, man, this sucks.”

Thankfully, his boss at GYG, Lara Thom, had made earlier contact with one of The Pick and Roll’s co-founders around a story involving her basketballer son. One email and five minutes later, and Tolhurst suddenly had the ball rolling. “I was going to lunch, I walked back in and [Lara] was like, ‘you owe me’.”

That’s when the scrambling started as he tried to put together a basketball portfolio at short notice. “Kein said, great, send me your basketball portfolio so we can send through some work samples,” Tolhurst said. “[Internally] I was like, f***, what am I going to do?” A family friend, Phil Brown got talking with then-Hawks GM, Mat Campbell on getting Sam in to shoot at an Illawarra Hawks training session.

Then, came the great photo heist at Qudos Bank Arena.

There was a similar scramble internally at The Pick and Roll, as they had never sent a credentialed photographer to a basketball game, much less the NBA. The application and approval process had to be figured out via incessant emails with the league and individual teams, while Sam worked simultaneously to make this happen.

Credit: Sam Tolhurst

With two seats for different shooting angles and enough equipment stashed under his clothes, Tolhurst was able to get enough photos to fill out his folio. “Kein and Damo [P&R co-founder Damian Arsenis] looked at it and went, geez, we didn’t know you were accredited, did you want to shoot some stuff for us?” he said. “I was like, actually, I’m not accredited, I just needed to get it done.”

Despite having never shot basketball before, he picked it up pretty quickly once in the arena. With plenty of experience in shooting mountain biking and surfing, which he describes as two of the most challenging sports to capture, the learning curve wasn’t too steep. “I’d backed myself to operate the camera and shoot it so I knew I was going to be alright, just as long as I could get in the building,” he said.

Into the NBA

A little over a month after shooting his first basketball game, Tolhurst stepped into the United Centre in Chicago for his day of shooting in the NBA. He’d been to a game a few days prior as a spectator, getting a feel for the venue and meeting some of the Chicago Bulls media staff, including Nikko Tan from the Bulls’ digital team, who helped clarify the NBA content cycle somewhat.

Still, when Tolhurst arrived with his credentials as the Bulls hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers, he was feeling more than a little lost. At the Illawarra Hawks home game he had shot just before leaving for the US, he’d walked straight in and been given free rein, thanks to Campbell. Amongst the red tape of an NBA arena, he didn’t know where to look, and when the United Centre staff waved him inside he had to come clean. “I was like, cool, I actually have a confession, this is the second game of basketball I’ve shot, don’t know where to go,” he said.

They pointed him in the right direction, and suddenly he was wandering down the corridor, first past the visitor’s locker room and then the Bulls locker room. “I’m walking past, and Zach LaVine’s walking past me in the hallway,” he said. “It was like, right, this is real.”

The surprises kept coming when he made it to the media room, where he was told by a Bulls photographer, Lani Tons to check the TV on the wall with a list of names on it; if your name was on the list, you’d be shooting courtside. “I went and had a look and there it was; Sam Tolhurst, The Pick and Roll, baseline,” he said. The next ten minutes were a surreal blur, even with Tons’ stream of advice in accompaniment: from putting on the photographer’s vest, to walking with security onto the court, and then seeing some of the world’s best athletes warming up metres away. “It’s a pretty daunting experience walking through the tunnel and going, alright, where do I go now?”

Where he went next was straight underneath the basket, almost close enough to reach out and throw in a layup, watching the likes of LaVine, Darius Garland, and even fellow Australians Dante Exum and Matthew Dellavedova, coming at him head on. With that came some nerves as the gravity of the moment hit, but they quickly settled when Colin Sexton drove to the basket for a first-quarter layup and Tolhurst snapped him in frame.

Credit: Sam Tolhurst

“That was my ‘welcome to the NBA’ moment,” he said. “For me that was like, cool, I’ve got this, I know what I’m doing now.” A copy of the photo still hangs framed in his office, a constant reminder of that split second and what it represented.

Just as special in his memory, though, is a much quieter instance before the game. Hours before tip off and with the United Centre empty, he made sure to take a moment to soak everything in. “I took some time before the game just to go up to the 300 level of the United Centre and look over the empty arena and be like, this is happening,” he said. “I just sat in one of the seats and had a look at it because it was an experience that I never really thought I would have.”

Credit: Sam Tolhurst

From there, the rest of the his time in the US was a whirlwind of basketball. He flew to Phoenix as the Suns took on the Spurs, then on to Toronto for Raptors-Sixers and Cleveland for Cavaliers-Wizards. All of that happened in the space of five days— four games, thousands of photos and, unfortunately, no more courtside access. “I assumed I would be getting that level of access everywhere—turns out that was the best access I got,” he said with a laugh. The frenetic pace continued, with Tolhurst being warmly welcomed by the NBA photographer fraternity at every game, many of whom dispensed invaluable tips from their collective experience on how to approach a game.

After wrapping up that hectic schedule, Tolhurst hopped on a 5 a.m. flight from Cleveland, then on to Chicago, to San Francisco, and finally home to Sydney. Around a month later, the entire NBA season was shut down due to COVID-19.

As much as the trip was enjoyed in the moment, Tolhurst says the things he learned and took forward with him were just as important. In Chicago, he chatted with a bench assistant who had been there since before the Jordan era; in Phoenix, he met a photographer who started when the franchise was first formed, shooting on film and only getting 100 shots in a whole game. “There’s so much wisdom and so much knowledge by being in the building and in the proximity to those guys,” Tolhurst said. “The information that I got and the knowledge that I got from being there is phenomenal, it really set me up.”

Credit: Sam Tolhurst

For that, he sends a huge thank you to The Pick and Roll’s unwavering belief and trust in him, that allowed the trip to happen. While this may seem a little self-indulgent here, Tolhurst was insistent. “They trusted me from day dot, even when I didn’t have a basketball portfolio,” he said. “They’ve backed me from the start and continue to support me so I’m eternally grateful for their support.”

Back at home and branching out

After returning to Sydney Tolhurst continued to work for Guzman Y Gomez until December 2020, when he realised he needed a change. Even with great coworkers, a supportive boss and a close bond with the founder, there was one big problem. “There’s only so much time you can spend filming someone rolling a burrito or making a taco,” he laughed. “I’m more compelled to tell stories in sport, there’s just a lot more scope for storytelling with athletes and storylines that come through in sport.”

He’s certainly finding plenty of different ways to tell those stories. Since leaving GYG he has started working full-time with Cricket Australia (CA), and he’s pouring plenty of his remaining hours into a documentary about his close friend, Brett Connellan. A talented young surfer, Brett survived a shark attack at his home break in Kiama and could have lost his life. He returned to the sport less than a year later, and he is now planning a 56-kilometre paddle across the open ocean in Hawaii.

“It’s pretty rare that you come across someone that survives a shark attack, number one,” Tolhurst said, “and then two, survives a shark attack and lives the way that Brett is living.” What started as a five-minute clip for Brett to use before his mental health speaking gigs has now ballooned into a full-length feature that is currently in production. “I’m hoping it’s the project that puts me a little bit more on the map,” Tolhurst said.

Even with all of that, basketball still remains the pinnacle. “Basketball is probably the most photogenic sport, in my opinion,” he said. That’s why, even with a full working schedule and plenty of projects on the side, he still shoots at every NBL game that he can. “It makes it easy to keep coming back to that and pursuing improvements and unique stuff.”

Credit: Sam Tolhurst

One particularly unique experience was last season’s NBL Grand Final series, which tipped off in Sydney. Tolhurst was at game one at Qudos Bank Arena, and when he found out Game 2 would be going ahead without crowds due to COVID-19, he knew he wanted to be there. “To come back to Sydney with no one in there and to be unsure about what was going to happen, I knew I wanted to shoot that empty arena,” he said. “At the time it was so surreal to be one of maybe five people shooting the game.”

He also had the chance to help out an Australian basketball legend, San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills, and film for his Indigenous Community Basketball League (ICBL) and Indigenous Basketball Australia in Alice Springs. When the opportunity surfaced via Mills Corps’ head of media, Matthew Adekponya, it was one that he couldn’t possibly turn down. “It’s easy to be really passionate about that as an initiative, it’s really easy to get behind Patty, it’s easy to want to help expand the profile of the ICBL and make a bit of a difference,” he said.

IBA formed to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to overcome the hurdles they face in Australian basketball, and the ICBL gives those kids a chance to shine. “Being able to basically provide that coverage is great and something that you don’t get every day, that’s for sure,” Tolhurst said.

If that schedule sounds a little bit crazy, that’s probably because it is. Still, there’s a reason he finds ways to make everything fit. “The freelance stuff I do on the side, it’s my passion and it’s what I love to do,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for me to do my eight hour day of CA [work] and then be at home working on the doco or NBL.”

Growing & improving

Even with so much on his plate, Tolhurst is still looking for ways to improve and diversify his work. It’s easy to think that photography is as simple as pointing a good camera with the right settings and clicking away, but that’s a trap that he’s wary of falling into. “You know it’s reliable and you know you’re going to get good results, but then your work ends up just looking all the same,” he said.

That’s why he has been experimenting while shooting NBL games — mounting a strobe in the gantry at a Hawks home game, posting photos with movement blurs and in black and white, along with plans to shoot a game with backboard-mounted cameras — some of which have been made possible thanks to the current Hawks front office’s support. “It’s all experimentation and it’s all pretty subjective, so you’re guided by your own internal meter of what’s good and what’s not,” he said. “If you can be different from the Getty or the guy that’s shooting for the team… then that’s kind of the end goal.”

Credit: Sam Tolhurst

That constant desire to grow is what he feels has separated him from the pack in one of the most competitive and challenging professions in sport. Any time his work has started to feel stale or his career has started to stagnate, he has found a way to move onto something newer, bigger and better. “I’m really proud of putting myself into situations where I’m uncomfortable to pursue something that I really want,” he said. “I went to uni and studied with people that were as talented, if not more talented, than me that just didn’t have the drive for it.”

The documentary is his biggest project in the immediate future, and both he and Brett have signed with a talent agency to help manage that load and their work moving forward. Looking further ahead, though, he’s hoping to capture plenty more basketball moments to frame on his office wall. “I would love to find myself working in basketball full-time, that would be the ultimate dream for me,” he said.

That’s a dream that has been forced to evolve after his whirlwind NBA adventure. “If you would have asked me three years ago ‘what’s your ultimate’, it would have been shooting an NBA game,” he said. “I was kind of like, f***, have I peaked at 26?” With a full-length feature on the way, a strong desire to experiment and grow, and the work ethic to match, it’s hard to imagine that being the case.

Tolhurst may have already summitted the peak one of his professional dreams, but it looks like the sky above is the real limit.