“He Gives Kids Hope”: Johnnie Izquierdo Documents NBA Prospect Aidan Igiehon’s Homecoming

Oct 21, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

No one thinks of Ireland and basketball. Ireland’s not supposed to have hoopers, so Aidan’s always had that chip on his shoulder.

Aidan ee-GHEE-hahn

Aidan Igiehon (pronounced ee-GHEE-hahn) has a chance to do something special. Only one person from Ireland, Pat Burke, has ever played in the NBA, and no Irishman has ever been drafted into the league. That may very well change in a few years, however. Aidan, 19, will begin his college basketball career at Louisville this fall. With some seasoning, the 6-10, 230-pound Dubliner, who first picked up a basketball in 2012, could be in the NBA before he can legally buy a drink in America.

Double pump

Two years after he started hooping, Aidan moved to New York to play basketball at Lawrence Woodmere Academy on Long Island. At Woodmere Aidan met Johnnie Izquierdo, then a fledgling sports photographer looking to turn a passion into a profession.  

Like any kid, I always had aspirations to play sports. When you get older, you realize you can’t play forever. I always wanted to get into sports regardless, whether it was broadcasting, publicity, or being an agent. I wanted to be in sports in some capacity.

Johnnie’s career path took numerous twists and turns before he finally carved out a niche in photography. A PR/communications double-major in school, Johnnie was greeted with a barren job market upon graduation.

I kind of fell into photography maybe six years after college. I just picked up a camera because I was looking for a hobby. I started with landscapes and long exposures and a small event here and there. Small stuff, nothing crazy.

As Johnnie developed his photography skills, he tended bar to pay the bills. One day, a friend from high school came into the bar and offered Johnnie a chance to apply his newfound abilities.  

We were catching up, and I told him ‘I take pictures on the side, just trying to figure out what my niche is and get my feet wet.’ And he’s like ‘I coach this AAU team here in New Jersey. We have a couple games next week in New York. If you’re free and you’ve ever done sports and want to come by, please do.’ I had never done sports, so I’ll never forget Googling ‘how to shoot sports stuff.’

So, off went Johnnie to shoot the games — unpaid, mind you. He took action shots of the players and texted them the images after the tournament. The kids, many of whom were headed to bigger and better things in basketball, shared the pictures on their Instagram pages, which helped Johnnie cultivate an audience. 

At the time, I didn’t realize the strength of social media for these athletes. The kids on this team were all like D-1 prospects and three of them are in the NBA right now. Their social engagement was so high. People started coming to my page like ‘oh, who’s this guy shooting [these games]?’ So, I scrapped my Insta page and made a whole new sports photography Instagram page.

Eventually, Johnnie met Aidan and the two struck up a friendship. Johnnie did some lifestyle shoots with Aidan and other high school basketball players — still unpaid — to “show their personalities off the court” and expand his portfolio. 

Aidan and I got close through the process, and he was like ‘hey man, do you want to come out to Ireland? It’s going to be my 18th birthday’ and I was like ‘you know what? Let’s do it.’

This was a special homecoming for Aidan, who only gets the chance to go home about once a year. He hadn’t seen his mother in nearly 16 months by the time he got back to Dublin. The trip home gave him the opportunity to not only catch up with her, but also to reconnect with a community which idolizes him.

When we went to Ireland, it was unbelievable. I documented everything, like when his mom picked him up from the airport.

Dublin airport

We were there for eight or nine days. He’s a rock star over there. When he’s walking the street, people stop and come take pictures. The whole experience was just about how much the kids in Ireland look up to him and essentially almost need him. He’s given hope to that country and that community because he can be the first Ireland-born player to get drafted in the NBA.

Rock star

During Aidan’s week-plus visit, his former club, the Dublin Lions, put on a basketball camp for the children in the community, giving them a chance to get up-close and personal with a local legend.

[The Lions] had a few exhibition games for the community, so guys like Aidan came back and played against other pro teams in Ireland. But the camp itself was geared around Aidan. 

Love this picture

It was crazy because this is a soccer country that’s predominantly white. Like, very white. But they look to him as this hero.

For the most part, though, basketball took a back seat to the homecoming aspect of Aidan’s visit. Johnnie spent tons of time with Aidan’s family, including his mother, Nibo, and his brother, Brandon.

Reunited and it feels so good

His mother is very sweet. She misses her boy, but you could tell she’s all invested in him going and doing his thing. She let a 14-year old come to America to pursue his dream, which is crazy when you think about it. 

One of the coolest anecdotes from the trip came about when Johnnie and Aidan were driving to the latter's housing complex. As they entered the neighborhood, Aidan spotted his best friend from childhood.

Childhood besties

They hadn’t seen each other since he left for America. We were driving past Aidan’s complex, and he’s like ‘oh, that’s my best friend!’ We stopped the car, he ran over, and they started talking.

It’s this ability to tap into the human element of a story that’s helped Johnnie make waves in the field of sports photography. As someone who started out taking pictures of high school basketball players and giving the images to the kids for free, he’s gained the trust of many top-tier young athletes who are trained to be wary of outside influences. There is a sinister undercurrent within high-level amateur athletics, the product of predatory would-be agents trying to identify — and, in many cases, exploit — uptapped potential. Because Johnnie’s intentions are pure, these future professional athletes know he has their best interests at heart.

I can step into both worlds. I can have one foot in the corporate world and am able to professionally email, speak to clients, handle all that. But I also have one foot in [the athletes'] world in that I can connect with them about life.

More important than basketball

That’s why Aidan and I got so close. It wasn’t always about photos. I was never like ‘yo post my stuff, post my stuff’ or ‘can I do this, can I do that?’ I don’t need these kids for anything. I just want to connect with them. 

Aidan's cousin

Not only is Johnnie a trustworthy individual, he’s also something of a pioneer. When the now-established sports photographer was starting out shooting AAU tournaments, he was often the only non-parent doing it. These days? Not so much.  

I was flying myself to tournaments in places like Florida and Delaware. No one was doing this. The kids would be like ‘oh man, can you send me that photo?’ So, I’d connect with these kids and send them their images. At the time, I was the only one going. Now, if you go in my area, it’s like an NBA game with how many cameras are there. It’ll look like the NBA Finals — a row of media there, which is crazy. In a sense, I got kind of lucky with the timing, to be honest.

Johnnie uses the word “luck,” but I’ll use the word fortunate. He worked diligently for years to expand his photographic scope and skillset, honing his abilities in the fields of lifestyle and action photography for next-to-nothing pay. Now, Johnnie counts sporting luminaries like Nike and Adidas as clients. When you can produce work like this, it’s easy to see why ...

Devastating levitating

That’s high school-aged Zion Williamson, the number one pick of the 2019 NBA Draft and one of the league’s bright young stars. Look at the awe on the faces of the kids (and adults) witnessing Zion throw down a between-the-legs dunk. It’s these moments that make Johnnie’s work so captivating. Yeah, dunks are cool, but the reaction to the dunk is cooler.

You can't get complacent. You can leave your settings at what you normally would and just fire away, but you should challenge yourself. It’s not just about the dunks, it’s about the emotion before and after it as well.

This sentiment is what Johnnie tried to convey during his trip to Ireland with Aidan. Most of the images from the project don’t feature a basketball; they focus instead on the people who have been brought together by the sport and see Aidan as an inspiration.

Community leader

More kids are starting to want to play basketball because they’re like ‘oh man, if Aidan can get out of here and make it, then we have a shot.’ It was nothing but positivity and love. It was almost like their king was coming home, in a sense. 

A king and his court

You can tell he gives the kids hope. It was special to see.

Check out more of Johnnie's work at johnnieizquierdo.com.

Check out our other great photographers on our Find Photographers page!