Cassy Athena: From Brain Tumor Survivor to Queen of NBA Photography
LOS ANGELES -- Who was the biggest star of the NBA's most viral offseason ever?
It wasn't LeBron James, who drew nearly two million likes on Instagram for balling out in Kith x Versace shorts with Ben Simmons and J.R. Smith at Chris Brickley's basketball runs in New York City.
It wasn't Russell Westbrook, whose dunk show at Rico Hines' summer pickup games at UCLA has been seen more than 67,000 times.
Nor was it Jordan Bell, who caught a mysterious body—along with more than 230,000 likes on the 'Gram—while in Westwood.
Rather, it was the woman who captured those moments and many more: photographer Cassy Athena. The three aforementioned Instagram posts, along with countless others, carry her semi-transparent watermark: CASSY ATHENA, bolded in Century Gothic font, strategically placed on each photo.
What sets Cassy apart? She’s always in the right place, snapping her lens at the right time. This summer at the UCLA runs, where scores of NBA players compete, Cassy is a regular. She can be seen scaling the sidelines, her iPhone blowing up with notifications in her back pocket as she shoots the players in action with one camera in hand, and another hanging on a strap from her shoulder.
Some players work on their pull-up game; others focus on finishing in transition. But for Cassy, perfecting her shot begins with her balance, something she once almost lost completely.
Cassy Athena at this year's Ballislife All-American Game at Cerritos College in Norwalk, California. (Cares JaRon)
One day in February 2009, long before Cassy was rubbing shoulders with the biggest ballers in the league, she was just another student at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), whose schoolwork was giving her headaches—or so she thought. Her classmates suggested that she visit the school doctor. When she did, the doctor told her the discomfort could be the result of something much worse than a headache—perhaps a brain tumor.
The pain persisted that day, prompting Cassy to ask her father to take her to the emergency room. While doctors there thought it was probably due to midterm-induced stress, a subsequent CT scan and battery of tests revealed a cause far more dire—indeed, a brain tumor.
“[The tumor] was in the balance part of my brain,” Cassy tells CloseUp360 in the Men's Gym at UCLA's Student Activities Center. “They said I shouldn't be able to walk or move.”
Without balance, Cassy would find immense challenges in the most mundane tasks. Getting out of bed every morning would become a precarious routine. At 20 years old, she faced a likely fate of losing her balance entirely.
Though the tumor was deemed benign and not cancerous, she would still have to undergo surgery to remove it from her brain.
“They said, ‘You're going to have issues with your balance because we're going to be [operating on] that part of your brain,’” she says.
If the procedure wasn't a success, Cassy might’ve had to live the rest of her life without being able to stand easily on her own two feet.
“I'd never had surgery in my entire life other than my wisdom teeth removed,” she says. “Never broken a bone, nothing, and then now I'm having brain surgery.”
The doctors told her they didn't know how fast the tumor would grow, but she and her family decided to postpone surgery until that July, after the end of the school year. Though the tumor did not physically affect her, the five-month wait for surgery and clarity about her quality of life plagued Cassy with anxiety.
“I was basically a teenager at the time," she says, "so it was a lot to go through emotionally and physically, on top of trying to graduate college and just be living normal life."
Despite the possibility of a difficult future, Cassy refused to let her ailment intimidate her. She relied on the support of her father, mother and younger brother through it all. In preparation for the surgery, Cassy also found peace in prayer and her faith, believing that her fate was in the hands of her doctors and God. She didn't waver—not when shaving her head for surgery, not when nurses poked and prodded her with needles.
“I really didn't feel like this was it for me,” she says. “I felt like there was something more that I was destined to do."
Though her surgery was scheduled to last three hours, Cassy spent more than five on the operating table at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California. During the procedure, doctors discovered that the tumor—a type commonly found in preteens—had likely been in her brain since she was 12.
After the surgery, Cassy woke up to greetings from her family and a throbbing headache. Her mother insisted on taking a photo of her lying in the hospital bed, confident that Cassy would appreciate it later in life.
“I think that's why I'm still in [photography],” she says. “My parents loved documenting my life through cameras. So I [had] just [woken] up from brain surgery and my mom took a picture of me on the bed. Now I like that I have those [photos].”
Cassy couldn't wait to go home, but couldn't secure her release from the hospital until she'd shown progress in her recovery.
But just two days after the operation, she was able to walk independently, and thus was free to leave.
Cassy's recovery, though, was far from over. She spent the next two months constantly dizzy and in discomfort. After a year of losing her balance, falling over, frequent headaches and pain, she started to get her life back and could finally focus on her future.
CloseUp to Cassy's Surgery
Cassy's brain scan revealing the tumor.
Cassy before surgery.
Cassy wakes up from surgery.
Cassy's arm after surgery.
Cassy's scar after surgery.
(Photos courtesy of Cassy Athena)
“Going through that experience made me reanalyze my whole life,” she says. “I could have died. It could have been way worse, so the fact that I'm here and alive it was, like, ‘Okay, so what do I do now? What is my bigger purpose?'"
Once recovered, Cassy returned to CSUN where she was studying animation, thinking she would pursue a career in motion graphics or visual effects.
But photography had always been a part of Cassy's life. In high school, she would snap photos of her friends with disposable cameras. And her parents, especially her mom, would document every moment—including that photo of Cassy after surgery.
Cassy, who uses Sony and Canon cameras to shoot her subjects, flew to New York City this fall to capture Victor Oladipo at Fashion Week. (Courtesy of Cassy Athena)
One day in class, while determining a topic for a project, her professor at CSUN suggested that she capture the school’s basketball team. Cassy had hooped at Glendale Community College (from 2005-08), before transferring to CSUN, and pursued photography as a hobby, but hadn't considered combining the two until then. As she found out, her two passions blended together perfectly.
“I just love basketball,” she says. “I love the action of it. I love how unpredictable it is. I love that you don't know if somebody's gonna dunk on you or cross you over.”
After graduating in May 2010, Cassy reluctantly took a job at a visual effects studio. She moonlighted as a photographer, shooting any basketball game she could. One of those happened to be at the Drew League in South LA during the summer of 2011, when the NBA's lockout drove some of basketball's biggest names to play in pro-am competitions across the country.
“I showed up one day. There's no cameras up there and I started taking pictures. I would just go shoot every single day,” she remembers. “I started to make friends with a lot of players who were starting out, just how I was starting out, and they now are MVPs, superstars, All-Stars.”
Those MVPs, superstars and All-Stars included Kevin Durant, James Harden, John Wall, DeMar DeRozan and Dwyane Wade. Cassy would send her photos to players on Twitter, and from there slowly started to earn their recognition. Instagram came thereafter and would become the platform on which her photos went viral.
The Drew was also where Cassy met the rapper The Game. After establishing a close relationship with the Compton native, she started photographing his music video shoots. The Game's strong interest in basketball (he captains a team in the Drew) kept her camera close to the sport.
“He took me under his wing,” she says. “He’s big into basketball, so it was like a cool mixture of both worlds. I shot with him for a few years.”
In 2013, Cassy added to her repertoire when she photographed the Under Armour Elite 24 game at the Tobacco Warehouse in DUMBO, Brooklyn. While there, she snapped shots of Devin Booker, Stanley Johnson, D'Angelo Russell, Kelly Oubre Jr., Myles Turner and Thon Maker—all of whom went on to become lottery picks in the NBA draft.
“It was dope,” she says, “[shooting] high school guys that are now signing huge max contracts and on their way to being All-Stars.”
“She's an honest, true person,” says Stanley, who's since become close friends with Cassy. “She's a genuine person. She doesn't want to get the picture to get the most likes. She wants to get the right picture.”
Cassy's big break came not from a carefully crafted photograph of an up-and-comer, but rather a grainy screenshot of one of basketball's most polarizing players. In 2014, while filming a video for her YouTube series "Thru The Lens," she captured Nick Young and his mom reminiscing about her son acting like "a clown" at LA's Robertson Park —along with his incredulous reaction. She took a screenshot of Swaggy P's stink face and added question marks around his head in post-production.
Little did she know, that playful edit would become a meme and take the Internet by storm.
“That definitely changed the way I view everything that I produce and shoot,” Cassy says. “I realized that something I made in my living room had been seen by billions of people around the world.”
Since then, Cassy has photographed everything from Stephen Curry and his wife, Ayesha, flying over Toronto in a helicopter during All-Star Weekend in 2016; to intimate portraits of Paul George and Russell Westbrook, to scores of private soirees hosted by NBA players. With her watermark on full display, her photos have drawn more than 170,000 followers to her Instagram page. Players not only ask her to keep her watermark on photos, but also wear it proudly on t-shirts she designed herself and sells to her fans.
Today, Cassy is one of basketball’s Most Wanted, flying all over the world to shoot—and hang out with—her NBA friends. This summer, she traveled to Serbia, where her family is from, to document Bogdan Bogdanovic's basketball camp and his time back home. During the season, she spans the country following her baller buddies, capturing them everywhere from games and workouts to birthdays and social events, so they have her standout images to fill their social feeds.
“I feel like the biggest two things are trust and consistency," she says. "Consistency is with being a friend. Trust because these guys are in the spotlight all the time and people are always trying to exploit them. I'm here for the players. I'm not here to sell anybody out. And that didn't happen overnight; that took definitely years.”
"There's no other photographer that NBA players really mess with," says Jordan Bell of the Golden State Warriors. "We used to see her stuff everywhere, like LeBron and KD [Kevin Durant], me, Stanley [Johnson]. Everybody knows who Cassy is.”
Shooting the biggest stars in basketball would've seemed like pure fantasy to Cassy nearly a decade ago, in the depths of her recovery from brain surgery. Today, the tumor has no effect on her, aside from some leftover scar tissue from the operation and a routine check-up with her doctor once every five years to make sure the tumor hasn’t grown back.
At the UCLA pickup games, and at just about every basketball event she covers, Cassy is as much a presence as any of the players. She stands on the sidelines with perfect balance, snapping photos that will soon spread across social media. No matter how big the opportunity—whether shooting Steph's 30th birthday party this year or USA Basketball’s annual training camp in Las Vegas the past three years—Cassy takes nothing for granted.
“I honestly never thought I would be where I'm at now,” she says. “This wasn't a position that ever existed. So to see where I'm gonna go in the future, I really don't have any plans. I could have been dead the past 10 years and I'm here alive still. So I'm just happy to be here.”