Like a Pro

By Rachel Stern

DETROIT—It’s hard to catch Jimmy Lafakis.

The first time, his phone goes straight to voicemail. The next, after about two rings, it goes to voicemail again. But this time, Lafakis follows up with a text message.  “I’m on the court shooting Michigan State-Bucknell, can we talk after the game?” he writes. “The atmosphere is insane.”

He steals a few minutes to talk during a media timeout, in the bowels of Little Caesars Arena. It’s fitting. Most of Lafakis’ college career has been spent dotting the country, following the Butler men’s basketball team from arena to arena, squatting on baselines, documenting the action for The Collegian, Butler’s student newspaper.

Then, there are games like Michigan State-Bucknell. The Butler junior has no real reason to shoot photos of this game. But that’s not how he sees it at all. In Lafakis’ eyes, it’s impossible to count all the reasons. He has a media pass, he is a basketball fanatic, he loves photography, it’s March. The list goes on.

Take Friday for example.

He rose at about 4:00 AM, drove from Indianapolis to Detroit with his parents. Went straight to Little Caesars Arena. Arrived in time to shoot the Purdue-Cal State Fullerton game at noon. Then shot the Butler-Arkansas game (a perfect game, he says). And when he takes a quick break to chat, it is about 9:00 PM and he is in the midst of shooting the Michigan State-Bucknell game (he’s running on adrenaline, he says. He isn’t even tired, he says).

March is his favorite time of the year. According to Jimmy, the tournament “is unlike anything else in the universe.” Which is no surprise, considering what a basketball junkie he is. But what is a surprise, if you talk to him for just five minutes, is that he had never even heard of Butler University until he was in eighth grade.

A lot has changed since then.

 

A Student of the Game

Lafakis is from Schererville, Indiana. Hoops country. But, believe it or not, he grew up without a favorite college basketball team. How did a hoops-obsessed kid from Indiana grow up teamless?  “Well, my dad went to IU and everyone I knew had a team, but I was waiting for a reason to really fall in love, you know?” Lafakis says.

Lafakis played basketball in middle school, but was just OK, he says. However, he was always a student of the game. And then there’s his memory. Jimmy Lafakis remembers everything. He says this carries over to most things in life. But when it comes to basketball, well, his memory is extra sharp. He likes to play a game with his friends where they name a professional basketball player, and Lafakis fires back with the college he went to. Lafakis is rarely stumped.

So, when he started to get really into hoops, he, of course, remembered everything. Every game he watched, every player he saw, most stats. There was that day in seventh grade when he was watching SportsCenter and saw highlights of A.J. Graves and Butler. Naturally, it stuck and he was instantly hooked, he says.

“A.J. Graves was getting buckets,” Lafakis says, recalling specific highlights from a clip he saw in seventh grade. “I remember thinking, wow, he is good and Butler is good. I have to go to Hinkle. It was perfect timing because they were on the brink of bursting onto the national scene.”

 

A Butler Love Affair is Born

Obviously, Lafakis can reel off the first time he went to Hinkle Fieldhouse. He was in eighth grade, it was Halloween, and the Bulldogs were playing an exhibition game against Florida Southern. “I instantly fell in love with Hinkle,” he says. “That was the moment I knew I had to go to Butler.”

I instantly fell in love with Hinkle,” he says. “That was the moment I knew I had to go to Butler.

Jimmy’s parents, John and Kathy, toured the campus with Jimmy that day. They walked into the bookstore and walked out “with basically the entire store,” Jimmy says. Most notably? A blue sweatshirt that Jimmy still wears. Holes and all. “My mom and I still wear it. My dad tells me it is time to throw it out, but it means way too much,” Jimmy says. “There is too much history in that sweatshirt.”

The game against Florida Southern was just the beginning that year. The crew then went to Valparaiso in January (they lost in overtime, Jimmy says). Then it was onto New Orleans for the Sweet 16, where the Lafakis family watched Butler beat Wisconsin. After that game, the family headed back to Indianapolis, but made a pitstop at Butler, specifically Atherton Union, to watch Butler beat Florida in the Elite Eight. The game was projected on a wall inside the Reilly Room and Jimmy recalls the feeling of jubilation when the buzzer sounded (Shelvin Mack scored 27, he says), and he and about 200 Butler students ran onto the lawn outside Atherton to celebrate.

Now, a junior journalism major, Jimmy cannot believe how lucky he is. Instead of Atherton Union, he takes in most games from the baseline, Canon Rebel T6S camera, the same one he got June 1, 2015 for a graduation present around his neck. Snapping away. Posting to Twitter, Instagram, and publishing for The Collegian.

 

Experiences  

It’s hard to believe, Lafakis says, with a chuckle. But the first Butler game he ever shot photos for was exactly five years to the day after the first one he saw as an eighth grader with his parents. Halloween, 2015. And of course, he starts getting into the details of the game. An exhibition game. From 2015.

Lafakis first got into photography when he was a sophomore in high school. The girls basketball team was really good, and he started shooting their games. He saw this as a perfect way to blend his love of sports with journalism. Butler has allowed him to grow that passion, on a much larger scale, he says.

“I have worked for The Collegian since my freshman year and I really thank my lucky stars everyday,” says Jimmy. “It is really so special and unique. I don’t think too many other folks have the opportunity to do what they love, on this level, all over the country, while they are still in college. It’s really special.”

Following the team for the better part of his college career has sent Lafakis to Memphis, Portland, Detroit, Cincinnati, and West Lafayette, to name a few. Since he takes full advantage of these trips and snaps as many games as possible, he has captured some of basketballs biggest names. There has been Lonzo Ball, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, and Russell Westbrook (that was a selfie, he notes). NFL and NBA players have retweeted his photos.

But being around fellow journalists has been one of the most impactful parts, Lafakis says. It has given him a unique opportunity to seek out advice and learn from the best in the business. Jeff Goodman, of ESPN, for example, has offered words of encouragement. And he has developed a close relationship with the Indianapolis Star’s Gregg Doyel.

“There’s so much you learn in the classroom that prepares you, which I have been so fortunate at Butler to have some awesome professors. To mix that with the opportunities I have had in the field is irreplaceable. In the field, you really get thrown into the fire, which is where the real-world experience that I wouldn’t normally have so much of at this point in my life is so helpful. I am so lucky for that,” he says.

 

Making his Mark

Gregg Doyel remembers Lafakis’ presence in his inbox before actually meeting him in person. And he wasn’t exactly impressed. Lafakis would email Doyel some stories when he first got to Butler and ask for advice.

“I thought, ‘you are not very good,’” Doyel says. “Two years later, he is fabulous. Jimmy is like a basketball player who gets to college and cannot walk and dribble and then by the time he is a sophomore, he is an All-American.”

Doyel says Jimmy has become a regular at Butler men’s basketball games. Lafakis sends Doyel photos all the time. For example, Doyel recently published a story about Trevon Bluiett and Kelan Martin. Later that day, Lafakis pops up in his inbox, an email with photos of Bluiett and Martin together.

“Jimmy is the sweetest kid,” Doyel says. “He’s really smart. The thing about Jimmy is, and very few people have this, and I am not exaggerating, he is sincere. He’s got this thing where he embeds himself into your heart. He is not just a guy who takes pictures and writes stories, the entire team loves him. He is part of the team.”

A few weeks ago, Doyel was speaking to a College of Education class at Butler. He referenced a story he wrote and brought up Jimmy Lafakis, as he was mentioned in the story. He asked the class, about 20 women, if any of them knew Lafakis. “I’m telling you about 18 of them were nodding and smiling at me,” Doyel says. “I blurt out, ‘Why do you all know Jimmy?’ And someone says, ‘Well, everyone follows his Instagram because he is always taking beautiful pictures of Butler, and we want to see Butler through his eyes’…He is everywhere. He deserves everything. He is happy and humble, and all he does is bring happiness to everyone.”

 

Documenting in Detroit

It’s 9:30 AM on Sunday morning and Jimmy arrives at Little Caesars Arena. He likes to get to the arena on game day “as early as possible. Every time.”

Tip off against Purdue is over two-and-a-half hours away, the court is nearly empty, but Jimmy heads to his usual spot on the baseline. Questions swirl around the health of Butler’s Paul Jorgensen and Purdue’s Isaac Haas, and Jimmy wants to make sure he sees how each look during warmups. And of course, document it.

Minutes later, Jorgensen emerges from the tunnel to test his ankle. At seemingly the same time as Jorgensen hits the court in real life, images of him running up and down the court appear on Jimmy’s Twitter account.

“This school literally means everything to me,” he says. “These guys on the court are some of my good friends. I love basketball, trust me, but it is about so much more than being able to do what I love while I watch what I love. It is about being at a place that means so much to me with lifelong friends and memories that I will have forever.”

It is about being at a place that means so much to me with lifelong friends and memories that I will have forever.

See, that is what Jimmy loves about photography so much. That is why he gets to the arena on Sunday morning around 9:30 AM. That is why he shoots as many games as he can. And that is why, he estimates, he has shot hundreds of thousands of photos since he stepped onto Butler’s campus nearly three years ago, only missing a handful of Butler basketball games.

“It’s fun capturing moments. I love catching the emotion. It’s really cool to look back on. I love looking back at all of my pictures and seeing all the emotion and the memories,” he says.

If Jimmy has it his way, he will get a job in sports journalism after he graduates in 2019. Ideally, doing both writing and photography. But for now, he doesn’t want to even think about graduating from the place that has been “life changing,” he says.

“Being a senior will be extremely emotional. I don’t even want to talk about it,” Jimmy says. “Butler is such a special place. I am really nervous to be a senior. I want to savior every morsel of junior year.” But, when the time comes to graduate, Gregg Doyel, of the Indianapolis Star, thinks Jimmy is more than ready. Maybe a little too ready. “I’m not sure what he does better, write or take photos. He can really do both. He could write for any paper in America tomorrow, but he might be an even better photographer. And that is sincere,” Doyel says. “I just hope that little sucker doesn’t take my job someday.”