Photo via Liz Brunson
At some point this weekend, you probably checked your Twitter timeline. Chances are this photo of Champaign (Illinois) Central High School basketball player Walker Stillman popped up. The moment, originally captured by local photographer Liz Brunson, shows Stillman seemingly frozen in midair, as if he were in the middle of practicing a levitation spell ahead of his final test at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Posted to Brunson’s Facebook page on Friday night after the game, the photo instantly went viral. Viewers commented, wondering how a sub-6-foot-tall basketball player possessed the hops to soar through the air like a rocket ship after blastoff. And what exactly was he doing when the photo was taken?
Without seeing video of the play to understand its context, we find Stillman’s position in the photo curious. While two of his teammates fight for a rebound, he is off to the right of the hoop, looking on like a casual observer with no skin in the game. Of course, that’s far from what was actually happening.
“A shot from the corner went up and you can see Walker as he’s coming back from where we were pressuring them a little bit,” said John Woods, CCHS’s athletic director. “He goes to the weak side board as he’s been taught do and went up.”
The ball didn’t bounce his way, though, and that’s why Stillman looks on as two of his teammates snare the rebound. If the ball had bounced off the rim to the right, Brunson’s photo would have looked quite different.
“Most of the people I’ve heard from ask me, ‘What were you doing?'” Stillman told the Champaign News-Gazette. “I had jumped for a rebound and saw that it wasn’t coming my way so I kind of stopped what I was doing.”
The almost-PhotoShopped quality of the image made the rounds to every corner of the Internet, from Brunson’s Facebook page to Instagram to Twitter. It appeared on the front page of the News-Gazette and graced the homepage of the Illinois High School Association.
Brunson is still shocked by the photo’s popularity.
“I didn’t even think the photo was that remarkable because I shoot Walker all the time, and he’s a tremendous athlete,” said Brunson, a freelance photographer who has shot CHHS athletics for over a decade. “He’s always jumping up in the air. I just said, ‘Oh look at his expression on his face in his jump.'”
It was the Maroons’ last home game of the year, so it was Senior Night. Brunson said she didn’t think to post the picture on Twitter because she wanted to showcase a senior, and Stillman is still a junior. Brunson planned to shoot the swimming and diving sectionals, a much bigger event, the next day, and to promote those photos much harder. Still, she found the picture of Stillman funny, and put it on her Facebook to let people know that more photos from CHHS’s Friday night game against Danville High School would be coming soon.
But as social media is wont to do, someone took the photo off of Brunson’s Facebook page and posted it to their own Instagram, without giving credit to the original creator, and it exploded from there. Instagram user Daquan Gesese, whose bio states “Postin the funniest content from across the web” and who boasts 3.9 million followers, posted the photo of Stillman to his own account. At the time of this writing, the photo has 353,000 likes.
“Saturday night, the athletic director’s wife was texting me saying her kids were seeing it on Instagram,” Brunson said. “I was like, ‘Where are you even seeing this?’ I have an Instagram account but I have like six pictures on it.”
Eventually, when credit came back to Brunson, she got so many media requests that she had to start using her once-dormant Twitter account just to respond to the volume.
“I’ve taken pictures that have been very popular locally, but nothing at all like this,” she said. “This has just been crazy.”
But Stillman’s leaping ability is what made Brunson’s photo possible. The junior is known more for his play on the gridiron than the hardwood. As the team’s quarterback, he led CHHS to the semifinals of the Illinois state tournament last year. But according to Woods, he’s come into his own this year as a hooper, and his levitation wasn’t even his craziest play of that Friday night game.
Stillman’s game-tying 3. Photo courtesy of Liz Brunson
The Maroons had been down 19 points to Danville, and Stillman capped a furious comeback by nailing a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game to overtime, which was when his flotation moment was captured.
“Nobody wanted to talk about his game-tying 3-pointer. They wanted to talk about his Jedi prowess in that photo,” Woods said with a laugh. “But he’s just a humble kid and is taking it all in stride.”
Brunson is taking her newfound fame in stride, too. Except for Stillman’s parents requesting the photo so they can frame it in their home, Brunson has no plans to commemorate her viral sensation.
“It will just be a memory,” Brunson said. “I don’t need it on my wall. It’s just been a funny thing that I guess now I’m kind of famous for. Truthfully, Walker is the one that’s famous. I know what I’m doing with the camera, but I can’t get a good shot unless the athletes are doing what looks good.”
For now, Brunson’s floating man is living on, thanks to the internet, and the photographer can forever tell her friends of the time her work blew up on social media.
“My husband goes, ‘OK, so when are the royalty checks coming in?'” Brunson chuckled. “That doesn’t happen when you go viral.”