Over the lifetime of two downtown Atlanta arenas, photographer Scott Cunningham has trained his lens on thousands of sports stars and performers. Today, a 40-year retrospective that is sure to bring back memories.
Photos by Scott Cunningham | Words by Tim Turner
Once Scott Cunningham realized his athletic abilities would max out in high school, he had to do something to stay close to the games he loved. So after he put away his hockey stick and baseball bat, he picked up a camera.
For 40 years, photojournalist Cunningham has been on sidelines, behind plexiglass or high above on a catwalk capturing most important moments in Atlanta sports history. And over his four decades in photojournalism, the place where Cunningham has spent more time than anywhere else is that plot of real estate that once occupied the Omni Arena and now holds Philips Arena.
The Omni, pictured here after its final Hawks game, was replaced in 1999 by the 18,118-seat, $213 million Philips Arena, a multipurpose facility also known as "The Highlight Factory."
That sports fans have flocked for four decades to this part of downtown Atlanta is a testament to the will of an Atlanta developer named Tom Cousins. He was looking for a way to turn a buck on a parking garage he built in a rundown, industrial area of downtown. To fill those parking spaces, Cousins bought the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks and moved them to Atlanta, convinced the National Hockey League to put an expansion team, the Flames, in the city, and then built an arena. It turned out not only fruitful for Cousins, but also a winner for the center of the South’s largest city, where explosive development remains underway.
Considered at the time an architectural marvel for its innovative roof, seating, and structural design, the Omni is where the Hawks played from 1972 through 1997.
Cunningham will begin his 41st year of photojournalism in that space as Philips undergoes a $192.5 million renovation. Scheduled to be completed in time for the 2018-19 Atlanta Hawks season, arena patrons will be surrounded by radically new surroundings and fan experiences. Among them more premium seating distributed throughout the arena, including upscale in amenities suites modeled after the stately homes of the South. A center-hung video board triple the size of the previous one. A full 360-degree open concourse, inspired by the BeltLine. Killer Mike’s S.W.A.G Shop barber shop, Topgolf Swing Suite simulators, Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Social Club and other amenities to make Philips the envy of professional arenas everywhere.
And somewhere down low, or up high will be Cunningham, shooting away in a profession that, after arriving in Atlanta, would have never happened had he listened to a college instructor.
“I was discouraged from getting into sports,” Cunningham said. “They (instructors) said nobody makes any money in sports. You need to learn how to do portraits, how to shoot weddings. They made me take art history. It was a nightmare. I thought it was a total waste of money.
“My main teacher was the official photographer for the KKK. He would bring in some pictures that you wouldn't believe. It was a shock to me because, you know, I came from this little idyllic life where life was perfect. Then I moved down here, and my first teacher is this guy. He didn't sugarcoat it, you know. And we had black guys in our class. They just had to laugh at him. I mean, what could you say?”
Cunningham endured the shortsighted career counseling and seemingly pointless instruction for three quarters largely because its assets allowed him to better his craft.
“The best thing about that school was I was able to use the dark rooms, you know, whenever I wanted up until like 11:00 at night. I took advantage of that. But it was not an enjoyable experience.”
In one of the best trades in Atlanta's history, in 1982 the Hawks acquired Dominique Wilkins from Utah Jazz and "The Human Highlight Reel" went on to fashion a Hall of Fame career.
Apart from his unintended run-in with a Kluxer, Cunningham rarely has a bad thing to say about his experience in the South’s largest city. It’s been a fantastic ride since he arrived in Atlanta from southwest Virginia in September 1977, after building a portfolio from shooting minor league hockey in Roanoke, Virginia, and Virginia Tech football and basketball.
Once in Atlanta, Cunningham contacted the Falcons, Braves, Flames, and Hawks for work. The latter three agreed to allow him to shoot games for free for media credentials.
“A poor man’s internship,” Cunningham said. “The Hawks were very good to me. The PR guy was John Marshall. I think he felt sorry for me because he knew this was going to be my life's work, and I wasn't very good. That was just shocking to me that I was doing all the Hawks games the first year out of high school. I was 19.”
Ilya Kovalchuk, heading to the ice, and Jeff Odgers, he of the perpetual broken nose, thrilled Thrashers fans during Atlanta's second attempt in the NHL.
Cunningham got much better and has been a mainstay at Hawks games since, besides his work with other sports franchises both in and out of the city and for national and international outlets. But it has his images from inside at first the Omni (which stood where Philips is now from 1972 to 1997), the Georgia Dome (where events took place during Philips’ construction) and now Philips Arena where his work has shone brightest.
It is impossible to overstate the value of such a state-of-the-art venue in the heart of the city that becomes the pulse of the area once offices have closed for the day. The Hawks realized that by their decision to remain part of the community and even expand on that with Philips’ renovation.
Cunningham captured action from this 2002 WrestleMania match featuring "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair and WWE boss Vince McMahon.
Along with his Hawks work, Cunningham lensed the Flames and concerts and Olympics. We look at images he has selected to tell his 40-year as the Hawks prepare to write another chapter in their history in the overhauled Philips Arena beginning with the 2018-2019 season.
“It’s been a dream life. A dream life,” Cunningham said. “I mean the odds of (Cunningham's career) happening exactly the way I wanted. I don't even know what the odds would be. A one in a million isn't doing it right. Just blessed, you know. Someone has been looking out for me.”
Lil Jon, here with announcer Ryan Cameron, is among the Hawks' biggest fans. The city's hip-hop community is faithfully the team's most ardent supporters.
Christopher Bridges, aka Ludacris, here performing at a game, is a Philips Arena fixture. Celebrities in town working on film and music projects routinely ring the court.
Ted Turner, the iconic businessman and one-time owner of the Hawks, Braves, and Thrashers, was the city's greatest cheerleader.
Not limited to professional sports, Cunningham lensed events such as ice shows featuring Olympian Michelle Kwan, and Wrestlemania wrestler The Rock — now known as the actor Dwayne Johnson.
Fresh off his gold medal performance in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, Jim Craig assumed the role of the Flames No. 1 goalie. The Flames were the city's first NHL franchise.
Shooting down from the Philips catwalk, Cunningham captured play from the city's women's professional team, the Atlanta Dream, which joined the WNBA in 2008.
For each of his nine seasons in a Hawks uniform, University of Florida alum Al Horford, a 2007 lottery pick, led the team into the postseason.
Dominik Hasek, the Buffalo Sabres' Hall of Fame goalie, denies Thrasher Patrik Stefan, the first-ever player selected by the team in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, in action at Philips Arena.
Trae Young, the University of Oklahoma rookie the Hawks are looking to bring excitement and more cheers in the re-imagined Philips Arena this fall, displays personality at the team's photo shoot for first round picks from this year's NBA draft.
Cunningham has a lot of experience shooting NBA playoff celebrations at Philips — like this one after a win against the Orlando Magic — as the franchise put together a 10-year playoff run.
Scenes from the late 2000s edition of the Hawks.
Before he became the greatest NBA player of all time, Michael Jordan tongue-wagged for North Carolina in the 1980s when playing against Georgia Tech.
When superstar acts like Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Tom Petty brought their sold-out shows downtown, Cunningham was there.
Excellence on the sidelines. Former Hawk head coaches Mike Fratello and Lenny Wilkens, both former NBA Coach of the Year winners, congratulate former head coach Mike Budenholzer for also winning the honor. Wilkins is surrounded by peers and former teammates at the unveiling of his statue.
Always one to get the best shot at the right time, Cunningham gets this posterworthy shot of Atlanta native Josh Smith slamming home a dunk against Houston.