Second chances are one of the most undervalued opportunities that life has to offer. Time after time, those that don’t understand the difficulty in attaining such opportunities, squander them not realizing the detriment in their actions until afterward.
Cassy Athena however, is one of the few that realized there was something to be gained once life gave her another shot in the summer of 2009. During her junior year of college, the San Fernando Valley native was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required immediate removal due to its specific location in her brain. Though the tumor was not cancerous, it was an eye-opening experience for the acclaimed photographer. “God saved me and gave me a second chance at life so I knew I needed to not only find my purpose I needed to fulfill it, because tomorrow is not promised,” Athena says.
Cassy Athena grew up around a rich basketball culture in the “Valley” of Northern California. Just 35 minutes from Los Angeles, Athena was an avid Lakers fan as a kid, even though she spent more time at Clippers games, due to cheaper ticket prices. Her love for the game resulted in the pursuit of a playing career of her own during her sophomore year of high school. At six feet tall, she was often the tallest player on her team, making her the easy choice for who would be on the low block. “I used to want to expand my game and work on my shooting and all that kind of stuff, but since I was so tall my coaches always forced me to play the five,” Athena says.
Along with her love for hoops, Athena possessed a passion for the arts which included drawing, painting, and taking photographs. Raised in a household that was heavily engaged in technology, Cassy was encouraged to pick up a camera at a young age. “My dad bought one of the first digital cameras that came out when I was in high school and I would take photos of people at school. I started to notice that I was drawn to capturing action moments and that’s when I started to develop more interest in photography.” However, it wasn’t until college when she truly realized how much she loved shooting basketball specifically. According to Athena, it was a junior college professor of hers that was instrumental in combining the worlds of sports and visuals for her.
During a winter session of courses, Athena decided to take a Photoshop course. The professor teaching the course was also the visuals coordinator for the Los Angeles Lakers. He took an immediate liking to Athena as he was aware that she also played on the women’s basketball team. “He knew that I was on the team and suggested that I take his after effects class that next semester. So I decided to try it out and I fell in love. From there I began getting into filming the men’s basketball team and highlights which then transitioned into taking pictures of basketball,” Athena says. And that’s how it all began. Athena discovered that the purpose granted within her aforementioned second shot, lived in the glass of a camera lens. What started out as casual photos of her friends that happened to be athletes, eventually evolved into her shooting in NBA arenas and being around some of the game’s biggest and brightest stars.
The first stop on her journey was the California-based Drew League in 2011, a place that Athena views as a launching pad for her career. Amidst the drama of the NBA lockout, many of the L’s finest including James Harden, Nick Young, and Javale McGee took their talents to Southern California to compete in the Drew. College classmates would inform the aspiring photographer about the games taking place in the Watts section of California, and suggested she attended with her camera. Initially, there was a level of skepticism when she was told NBA players were playing in this league which only took place on the weekends. However, once she discovered that it was true, she knew this was a unique opportunity.
“I got there the first day and there were NO cameras! I thought to myself, this is a gold mine!” That was it, as Athena would take pictures at the league every weekend and send the photos to their respective subjects via email and social media. Once the Drew League saw the quality of her work, they immediately asked if she would like to be their official photographer.
Through the Drew League, Athena was able to foster some high-level relationships, some of which are her best friends today. Nick Young, Rudy Gay, Harrison Barnes, Jordan Crawford, and Brandon Jennings are just a few of the names that can be found in Athena’s rolodex. These relationships have been a catalyst to several of her appearances at various events as well as her popular web series titled “Through The Lens,” which takes a peek into the personal lives of some of the NBA’s brightest stars.
Athena also attributes a considerable amount of her networking and branding success to Compton-based rapper The Game. “Game would play down at the Drew League and he knew I was struggling to find more jobs and get credentials to places. So one day he just told me ‘You know what, I’m gonna bring you into the music world.’ ” Before she knew it, Athena was on the set of music videos, in clubs, and high-profile parties. She admits it originally took her out of her comfort zone, but galvanized her to try new things with her photography. “It just exposed me to a whole different world of people, like rappers, publicists, and actors. From that, I was able to start learning how to build myself as a brand.” It seems as if the tutelage she has received has paid dividends thus far, as her work has appeared in SLAM Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Billboard Magazine, and countless other major outlets.
Athena serves as an inspiration to the world as she shows just how far a second chance can take you if you work hard enough. When asked what advice she’d give to all the up-and-coming photographers Athena says,“keep God first. After that I would say practicing all the time. A lot of people see me around celebrities and want to do what I do because of that, when there’s really much more to it than that. I work all the time and there isn’t a week that goes by where I’m not taking pictures. Practicing your craft is so important because there are hundreds of other photographers out there and you have to find a way to stand out. The final thing I’d say is don’t ever give up, don’t get discouraged and build as many good relationships as possible.”