Cassy Athena remembers the moment her life changed.
During her junior year at Cal State Northridge, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The life-threatening obstacle forced her to reconsider her career aspirations and restart her life. After she recovered, she pursued photography full-time, emerging as one of the best and most well-connected photographers in the NBA world.
“It just kept taking me somewhere,” Athena told The Athletic of her passion for photography. “I just didn’t know where it was going to take me.”
Athena’s photography skills have taken her from covering the early days of the Drew League to China, and also to Washington, D.C., for the Warriors’ championship ceremony.
She has been a trailblazer in sports photography, particularly for women who, she believes, are still underrepresented in the space.
“I feel like the first three, four years of my career, if not more, were just proving that I was there for the right reasons,” Athena said. “And that’s just based on me being a female. At times, it would get very frustrating. There were certain brands and certain people that wanted me out of certain spaces, and they would use that against me. … And a lot of negative rumors, a lot of bad stuff. It would upset me and frustrate me so much. The one thing that I always did have, though, is the players always had my back. … I wouldn’t be here if those guys didn’t help me have the chance to do it.
“So now, I feel like I’m in a better position where I can help other women and help people enter this space and show them, like, ‘Hey, you can be here; you can shoot.’”
In Episode 1 of Season 2 of “Stargazing,” The Athletic’s NBA culture podcast, Athena spoke about her meteoric rise as a photographer, creating the famous Nick Young meme and shooting LeBron James, Stephen Curry and the game’s biggest stars. She also discussed overcoming her brain tumor, covering the Warriors’ championship ceremony at the White House and the advice given to aspiring photographers, among other topics.
Here’s parts of our conversation.
Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
You got your big break during the 2011 lockout. How did you start connecting with players and getting into the NBA space?
Around the time I was diagnosed with my tumor, like right before it, I had been working as a cashier at a sporting goods store, and I saved up. I mean, I was probably making $8 an hour. I saved up every dollar possible and bought my first intro professional camera from Costco — and it was not even that great. And then after my tumor, I kind of put the camera aside for a while.
But after I was recovering and I kind of got that passion reignited, I started trying to take pictures again and trying to see what I enjoyed taking pictures of. So, I would continue taking pictures. … Back in the day, there was a big Lakers message board I was a part of. I was a very big Lakers fan, and somebody on there had mentioned there was a league called the Drew League and that there were a bunch of NBA players (playing).
So, I drove down there by myself. Nobody ended up coming. I was the only person that showed up. I had brought my little point-and-shoot camera, and I just sat in the crowd and in the background and tried to take the best pictures I could. My first day at the Drew League, it was James Harden, O.J. Mayo, DeMar DeRozan, Nick Young, JaVale McGee. There were so many different players that, at that time, were really pretty great in the NBA. So, I think from Day 1, I was hooked, and I was trying to figure out, how can I get involved more.
One thing I did notice: There were no photographers at the Drew league. There was a couple of video guys. … So, I reached out to the Drew League on Twitter. I said, “Hey, here’s some pictures I got last week. I would love to come back again.” And they told me, “Well, we can’t pay you, but we’ll save you a seat in the front row.” To me, that’s all I wanted. I didn’t want anything else. I think that was a big reason why I had a lot more access, because a lot of photography at the time, sports photographers, they were hired by the league or by an outlet. If they’re not getting paid, why are they going to spend eight or nine hours on the weekend taking free photos for something that didn’t even make sense at the time? There was no social media other than Facebook and Twitter. Instagram hadn’t even been a thing. … So, it just kind of came out of nowhere, but it ended up taking my career and starting it off, really.
When did you come up with your watermark? You were the first person I saw doing that on social media. And then it kind of took off and became a badge of honor for NBA players to post one of your photos on their Instagram feed. How did you come up with it? Obviously, you do great work, but I think that little detail really took it to another level for you.
Yeah, I started doing that in college, actually, when it was just Facebook. I would take pictures and I’d send them to the guys, and I would put it in the bottom corner. Unfortunately, a lot of people didn’t like watermarks. They would just crop it off. To me, I was just, like, “Man, I spent all my hard-earned money on buying the camera, driving there, taking photos, editing photos for free. The least I should get is credit.” So then, I started trying to experiment with maybe putting the watermark in the middle of the photo. Then people were like, “Oh, it’s too much.” And then, “OK, maybe I’ll put it next to your face.”
So over the years, my watermark would evolve. I would experiment a lot. When it first started, it was a straight line. It said photography. It had plumeria flowers. And then every year, I would kind of make it a little more simplistic and not as obnoxious. I never wanted a watermark that was obnoxious because, at the time, watermarks would be all over photos. I wanted it to be very subtle, because when I was studying art in college, when an artist paints something, it’s not worth anything until they sign it. So to me, I felt like this was almost my signature on my photo.
To me, I felt, like, how can I place my watermark in a way where it kind of flows with the photo so you can still know I shot it, but it’s not taking away from the image? I had so much pushback, mainly from other photographers. They would all tell me, “This is ugly. Nobody’s going to want to post your photos because of your watermark.” To me, I just felt like it was my art. But also, I needed to protect myself because on the internet, stuff is very easily moved around and used without permission. I felt like if I had my watermark — and I’m pretty stubborn, so I feel like I’m just going to do it — I don’t care if every photographer thinks it’s ugly. The players weren’t complaining.
And then, it started to become, “Oh, who shot this? Oh, who’s Cassy? Oh, I want a photo by her.” It started turning into this thing, especially in the basketball world, where people now want my watermark. I get paid now to keep my watermark on photos. So, it’s kind of full circle how it’s all turned into my brand. But I feel like at the beginning, I wasn’t really thinking of long term. I was just like, “This is a cool idea, and I’m just going to run with it.”
I’ve always wondered if you wish you had your watermark on the Nick Young meme, which you created. When did that take off? How did that go viral?
In 2013, I realized I had this really cool opportunity having all this access to such cool NBA players. And I noticed at the time, mainstream media was not covering the things that I was covering to the point where I had companies telling me, “Nobody cares about what players are doing off the court. Nobody cares what they’re wearing.” And I was just like, “OK, let me find a way to show it and put it on my own channels.” I had been very familiar with editing video, filming video. I went to school for a lot of that stuff. So, I decided to start a web series, and I called it “Thru The Lens.” I would follow NBA players for a day in their life, and I was going to edit it and post it on YouTube — and whatever happens, happens.
The first player I decided to reach out to was Nick Young. Nick was the best person I could have thought of to start with, because he obviously has a great personality and he just gave me all access. (We) linked up for the day. His assistant was there, and the three of us just hung around L.A. At one point, he took us to his mom’s house. His mom is funnier than him. She’s just got the greatest personality. She was just telling us childhood stories about Nick. Then she mentioned this one story about how he ran into a player at a local park and how Nick was playing good, but how he needed to take the game more serious, that he was a clown back then.
When she said that, it was like the fastest look ever, if you watch the actual video, it was really quick. But then when I started editing it, going back to my motion graphics, visual effects background, I was like, “How can I add little funny graphics throughout the video?” That one moment I was like, “I have to add question marks.”
I think it probably took me a year to edit it and get it right, the whole episode, because it was my first one. Once I got it uploaded, I think within a few months I just remember going on Twitter one time, and then I saw somebody post a meme of that screenshot. I was like, “Wait a second. That’s my Nick Young meme.” And then it just went viral. I feel like the second I saw it was maybe around April 2014. By Christmastime, it was everywhere. Every single person was using it. And then when people found out it was a video clip, it went viral all over again, because now it was fun that this moment that you love actually has a video, as well. That’s why I don’t have (my) watermark, because it has a “Thru The Lens” watermark in the corner of the video. People just cropped it off.
I would have never thought a video of all things would be the most viral thing I’ve shot. … Nick has been interviewed multiple times, and he always gives me credit, too. It was a really cool moment, but I feel like a lot of people for at least two or three years were like, “She created the Nick Young meme.” And I’m like, “I have so much more work I’m doing.” But yeah, that’s my most viral, honestly. I’ve embraced it.
Is there a photo of yours that LeBron (James) posted that had a real impact on your social following or interaction?
I flew to New York for Fashion Week with Victor Oladipo, and I got there really early and I hit up (trainer) Chris Brickley. I had never been to one of his runs out there. I said, “Hey, I’m in New York; can I come to your gym today?” And he was like, “LeBron is going to be here,” and I was like, “Oh, cool.” I had shot LeBron maybe one time the year before, so LeBron was familiar with my work, but I’d never actually met him. When I went to Chris’ gym, there were, like, 10 other photographers. There was a lot of people with their iPhones. LeBron walks in, his bodyguard shuts down everything — no cameras, no cell phones, nothing — and I’m like, “Wait a second.” So, I’m trying to argue back and forth with the bodyguard like, “Hey, I’m not some random photographer.” And he was like, “I don’t care. The answer’s no.” So he goes in the corner and he’s standing in front of LeBron. I’m trying to talk to Chris. Chris is like, “Just leave it alone.” And I’m like, “No, like, I’m not.”
I walked over and I start going back and forth with the bodyguard, like, in a respectful way: “Hey, I didn’t come here with the intent to just shoot LeBron. I came to shoot all these other guys.” There were still, like, 20 other NBA players there. LeBron saw me going back and forth with the bodyguard, and he stands up, walks over, gives me a big hug and says, “Thanks for coming out” and walks away. And I’m in my head, like, “What just happened?” Like, this is wild. But on the outside, I got to remain calm, you know? And then I was like, “We good?” And (the bodyguard is) like, “You’re good.” So, I was the only person allowed to shoot that run.
And then, I got this photo of LeBron dunking, and I posted everything on Instagram, because I still didn’t talk to LeBron. He screenshotted them, reposted them and then gave me photo credit. I wasn’t aware he was wearing a Kith x Versace shorts collaboration; it was Fashion Week and he was out there doing an event with his shoes. So, it just went super viral. I remember Tom Brady was commenting, (as were) all these superstars. And then every media outlet picked it up, and everybody who picked it up, all you see is in the caption, the photo credit, “Cassy Athena photo.” I was already more established in my career, but I feel like getting respect from somebody that is, honestly, one of the greatest players of all time … to me, that felt like a really cool stamp of approval.
Since then, I’ve gotten cooler with him. He moved to L.A. I get to shoot his family a lot. I got to build a cool friendship with the whole family and also get credit. I’m a huge fan of LeBron as a person and a player.
You recently covered the Warriors’ championship ceremony at the White House. How did that come about? What was that experience like?
I was in Washington, D.C., shooting a boxing fight with Gervonta Davis. Then I flew back to L.A., and I got this email, and it said it was from the White House. It said, “The president invites you to come to the Warriors’ ceremony.” I was like, “I was just in D.C.; this has to be some spam email.” I figured somebody knew I was out there and was trying to mess with me. For the invitation, you have to give your Social Security number. I’m like, “This seems like a crazy scam.” So I tried to double-check my facts as much as I could: “It seems legit, you know?” So, I RSVP’d, and I bought a ticket and went back to D.C. a few days later.
It was really cool because the Warriors were playing a game against the Wizards on Monday, which was Martin Luther King Day, and then on Tuesday was the White House. I had no idea what to expect because I wasn’t with the Warriors, I wasn’t with the NBA. I was invited by the White House. There was a girl who had reached out to me from the White House, and she is in charge of working with their brand partnerships and social media. She was the one, I guess, that knew who I was. So me and her connected, and they had to ask for special approval so I could bring my camera in and take pictures.
It was the most surreal, cool experience to be invited to the White House of all places — but not as a photographer for a team, to be invited as a guest by the actual White House. I got to go through a bunch of layers of security, and once I got in, there was a lot of people there that don’t know the Warriors, that maybe had connections to just be at the event. Because of that — and me being really the only person with a camera that could move around, and then being friends with Steph and Draymond (Green) and all the wives and everything — I was able to capture the coolest moments, even though I wasn’t necessarily the photographer for the day. I think I got more access than anybody because I was able to go back to having that trust from everybody and people knowing I was going to take some really cool photos. To me, that was one of the coolest experiences.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring photographer coming up in 2023?
It’s tough now because 2023 is a whole different world than when I started. But I would say, the main thing is to have a good attitude and to be consistent and to fall in love with photography. A lot of problems with photographers over the years that have come and gone (are), they get so caught up in trying to shoot the people that have the most followers or who can get them the most attention or who’s the most popular, instead of trying to actually enjoy editing and taking photos and the grind, the process part of it. It’s always exciting when you post a photo and it goes viral and people love it, but (the) process it takes to get to that point of even posting the photo, I think a lot of people don’t realize how much work is involved behind the scenes. I think that’s the biggest part, really falling in love with it and finding what makes you unique.
Don’t try to just copy every other photographer. Find your own style that’s going to make you stand out more. Being a good person, networking and relationships are everything. I mean, I would never make it to this point in my career if it wasn’t for other people that have reached out their hand and helped me, and vice versa, you know? So, relationships are huge.
(Photo of Dwyane Wade and Cassy Athena: Cassy Athena / Getty Images)