On Thursday, July 8, the Louisiana teenager won the Scripps Spelling National Spelling Bee, an annual event televised nationally on ESPN’s family of networks. After her victory, Avant-Garde smiled wide and twirled happily about the stage under a cascade of celebratory confetti.
Afterwards, she got a shout out from Curry on social media.
“Keep changing the game Zaila!!!!!” Curry posted to Twitter the day following her victory.
But it wasn’t the first time Avant-Garde had occasion to interact with the Warriors superstar point guard, and the Spelling Bee victory is only guaranteed to make the top-5 list on the prodigy’s already impressive slate of accomplishments.
Zaila’s Curry Connection Started With Basketball
Avant-Garde first met Curry when she appeared in an Under Armour commercial with the Warriors’ star advertising his “Curry 5” basketball sneaker.
The Instagram post she made following the filming of the commercial indicates that Avant-Garde, an impressive basketball player in her own right, has always been a fan of Curry’s. In fact, he is her favorite NBA player. And when you look into her personal basketball history, that makes a lot of sense.
The 8th grader first rose to prominence by setting three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple basketballs simultaneously. Her handle is already ridiculously advanced, a trait she shares with Curry, whose ability to control the basketball is arguably second among his advanced skill set behind only how well he shoots the rock.
“Basketball, I’m not just playing it. I’m really trying to go somewhere with it,” Avant-Garde told the Associated Press in an interview after becoming the first African-American winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. “Basketball is what I do. Spelling is really a side thing I do. It’s like a little hors d’oeuvre. But basketball’s like the main dish.”
Basketball is Avant-Garde’s future. She said she hopes to one day play in the WNBA, or perhaps become a coach in the NBA, where women have already achieved high-ranking assistant coach positions and are beginning to get interviews for head coaching jobs.
Avant-Garde spent little time basking in her victory Thursday, telling the Associated Press immediately after that she was, in a sense, retiring from spelling.
“I kind of thought I would never be into spelling again, but I’m also happy that I’m going to make a clean break from it,” she said. “I can go out, like my Guinness world records, just leave it right there and walk off.”
Her brief spelling career, which started only three years ago, shows the depth and breadth of talent Avant-Garde possesses. After losing in the early rounds of the national competition in 2019, she said she began to take spelling more seriously. She started training with a Yale student, Cole Shafer-Ray, who recognized her genius immediately.
“Usually to be as good as Zaila, you have to be well-connected in the spelling community. You have to have been doing it for many years,” Shafer-Ray said in an interview with ESPN. “It was like a mystery, like, ‘Is this person even real?'”
“She really just had a much different approach than any speller I’ve ever seen. She basically knew the definition of every word that we did, like pretty much verbatim,” Shafer-Ray continued. “She knew not just the word, but the story behind the word, why every letter had to be that letter and couldn’t be anything else.”
Avant-Garde appears to possess the same inherent acumen and dedicated work ethic where her primary passion, basketball, is concerned. And if that continues to prove the case, then while her spelling career may be winding down, her accomplishments on the court are only just beginning.