Spelling Bee champ Zaila Avant-garde wants to play in WNBA, coach in NBA

Zaila Avant-garde competes in the Scripps National Spelling Bee
Getty Images
0 Comments

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The biographical blurbs about competitors in the Scripps National Spelling Bee include a litany of other interests, from sports to musical instruments to science competitions to Indian classical dance.

Scripps’ motivation for sharing those hobbies and passions is clear: It sends the message that the spellers are normal kids, not robotic middle-schoolers with a monomaniacal devotion to memorizing the dictionary.

But even among the more well-rounded spellers who will compete Thursday in the ESPN-televised national finals, Zaila Avant-garde stands out.

The 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, has earned more recognition for her athletic prowess than her achievements in spelling. She is a basketball prodigy who has appeared in a commercial with Stephen Curry and owns three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously:

She has more than 12,000 Instagram followers — where videos of her dazzling skills have won praise from musician Michael Franti, among others:

She hopes to attend Harvard, play in the WNBA and possibly coach one day in the NBA, if she doesn’t go to work for NASA.

Competitive spelling came relatively late in life, starting at age 12.

“Basketball, I’m not just playing it. I’m really trying to go somewhere with it. Basketball is what I do,” Zaila said. “Spelling is really a side thing I do. It’s like a little hors d’ouevre. But basketball’s like the main dish.”

Don’t be mistaken: Zaila brings the same competitive fire to spelling that she shows on court. She won last year’s Kaplan-Hexco Online Spelling Bee — one of several bees that emerged during the pandemic after Scripps canceled last year — and used the $10,000 first prize to pay for study materials and $130-an-hour sessions with a private tutor, 2015 Scripps runner-up Cole Shafer-Ray.

The time commitment required to master roots, language patterns and definitions is what keeps many top spellers from seriously pursuing sports or other activities. But Zaila, who is home-schooled, claims to have it figured out.

“For spelling, I usually try to do about 13,000 words (per day), and that usually takes about seven hours or so,” she said. “We don’t let it go way too overboard, of course. I’ve got school and basketball to do.”

Seven hours a day isn’t going overboard?

“I have my suspicions. I don’t know. I have some suspicions that maybe it’s a bit less than what some spellers do,” she said.

Whether all that preparation leads to a trophy and $50,000 in cash and prizes will be determined Thursday night when Zaila faces 10 other spellers for the only in-person portion of this year’s pandemic-altered bee. Normally staged at a convention center outside Washington, the bee was moved to an ESPN campus in Florida, with attendance strictly limited and masking and distancing protocols in place.

“This is an entirely different experience. The structure of the bee is different, the location is different, so I’m really excited to see what this bee has in store,” said 14-year-old Ashrita Gandhari of Ashburn, Virginia, competing for the fourth time.

Zaila — whose father changed her last name to Avant-garde in honor of jazz musician John Coltrane — would chart a new career path for spellers if her hoop dreams come true. She could also make spelling history of a different sort, by becoming the first Black American champion. The only previous Black winner of the bee was also the only international winner: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998.

Zaila said she hopes to inspire other African-Americans who might not understand the appeal of spelling or can’t afford to pursue it.

“Maybe they don’t have the money to pay $600 for a spelling program, they don’t have access to that,” Zaila said. “With tutors and stuff, they charge, like, murder rates.”

The bee has been rightly celebrated as a showcase for students of color — a speller of South Asian descent has been the champion or co-champion of every bee since 2008 — but Zaila is not the first speller to point out issues with economic diversity.

Indian-Americans are the wealthiest U.S. ethnic group, according to Census data, and Indian professionals who immigrate to the U.S. have access to a network of bees and other academic competitions targeting their community.

J. Michael Durnil, the bee’s new executive director, said he hopes to make more resources available to spellers who can’t access elite-level training.

“It’s really important to me that a student anywhere in the country or a parent or a sponsor watches the bee on (Thursday) and says, ‘I see myself there, I want to be there and there is a clear pathway to try to get there,’” Durnil said.

Knicks’ Obi Toppin out at least 2-3 weeks with knee fracture

0 Comments

Obi Toppin is a fan favorite and Knicks faithful were hoping to see more of him as the season progresses.

However, they are not going to see any of him for at least the next 2-3 weeks due to a fractured knee, the team announced.

Toppin suffered the injury in New York’s win Wednesday over Atlanta, the same game that saw Dejounte Murray sprain his ankle leading him to be out for a few weeks.

Toppin — the reigning All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest champion — is averaging 7.7 points in 25 games off the bench. With him out, coach Tom Thibodeau suggested he could lean more on RJ Barrett, asking him to play up at the four.

Report: Zach LaVine not available for trade from Bulls

0 Comments

Front offices of potential contenders from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have their eyes on the Chicago Bulls — will the struggling Bulls pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama and the top of the lottery, making them sellers at the trade deadline? Teams have interest in Chicago’s three stars: Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic.

Except just-extended LaVine isn’t currently available, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday on his network’s pregame show discussing the Knicks.

“The Knicks will be watching Chicago. Is Zach LaVine a player who before the deadline possibly can become available? He certainly isn’t now.”

Chicago is not yet ready to pivot to tanking, so none of its stars are truly available. That said, the Bulls don’t look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even if things do come together where do they stand in the East hierarchy? If the Bulls do become sellers, they aren’t going to tear this team down to the studs, it would likely be trading just one star. Possibly a second if the offer was strong enough.

LaVine — who signed a five-year, $215 million extension this past summer — is the least likely to be available, league sources have told NBC Sports. The expectation is that Vucevic would be the Bull first made available if the Bulls decide to start seriously listening to offers. And that remains an “if.”

That said, front offices around the league have their eyes trained on Chicago.

Dejounte Murray added to growing Hawks injury report, out 2-3 weeks with sprained ankle

0 Comments

John Collins is out for at least another week with a sprained ankle. DeAndre Hunter has been out with a strained hip flexor.

Now you can add Dejounte Murray to the Hawks’ growing injury report, he is out at least 2-3 weeks with a sprained ankle, Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic report.

The injury happened on a closeout from RJ Barrett of the Knicks.

The Hawks have already had chemistry and fit issues this season, and missing key players for an extended period only exacerbates the problem. Atlanta looked flat getting their doors blown off by the Knicks Wednesday night, 113-89, a game that added to a string where they have lost 5-of-7. Now they will have to find a way to right the ship without their second-best playmaker.

There also is an update on the Hawks’ play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun.

NBA, WNBA players react to news Brittney Griner coming home

0 Comments

Brittney Griner is finally coming home.

The WNBA and USA Basketball star has spent 10 months in Russian prisons — including being convicted and sent to a Russian penal colony — for having vape canisters with small amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage as she went through Russian airport security back in February. She became a political pawn in the tensions between the United States and Russia, mostly surrounding Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and was freed via a prisoner swap announced Thursday.

The basketball world — WNBA players in particular — had worked to keep her name front and not let Griner be forgotten during this ordeal, pushing President Joe Biden and the government to reach a deal. With the news Griner was freed, NBA and WNBA players took to social media to react.

“Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances.”

“We are overwhelmed with relief and gratitude that our sister Brittney Griner is finally coming home,” the NBPA said in a statement. “Her strength and courage throughout this last year have been truly remarkable, as have the efforts of her wife Cherelle, our WNBPA sisters, Terri Jackson and the WNBPA staff, who have been relentless in their call to bring Brittney home. We know this homecoming would not have been possible without their unwavering support and continued work to keep BG always top of mind, and our players are honored to have contributed to those efforts. While this is a celebratory moment for our sisters and us, we must not forget the other political prisoners who remain in dire circumstances all over the world. These individuals must be remembered and fought for every single day as BG was so that they too can have this moment. Welcome home Brittney, we are so happy to have you back! #WeAreBG”