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Zaila Avant-garde is the 2021 SportsKid of the Year

A dazzling dribbler, a spectacular speller, and a scintillating scholar: Zaila Avant-garde can do it all.
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When his daughter Zaila was around 3 years old, Jawara Spacetime changed her last name to Avant-garde. The term is used to describe art that is innovative or cutting edge. Jawara chose it to honor the late saxophonist John Coltrane, a popular musician in the 1950s and ’60s who embraced avant-garde jazz—much to the dismay of many of his fans and critics.

“There was some pretty big backlash to what he was doing,” Jawara says. “Critics said, ‘It’s just noise.’ But he loved that music. For my kids, I wanted them to be able to persevere and do what they love. Live your life to the fullest—and be passionate about whatever you’re doing.”

Now 14, Zaila has certainly embraced a wide range of passions. Such as spelling (she won the Scripps National Spelling Bee this summer). And basketball (she has set multiple world records for dribbling and is an elite-level player). And reading (she’s devoured more than 1,000 books).

She can also ride a unicycle and juggle. At the same time.

For her excellence in competition and her devotion to learning, Zaila Avant-garde is the 2021 SportsKid of the Year.

S-U-C-C-E-S-S

For many kids, being quizzed on spelling can inspire fear and dread. But Zaila doesn’t see spelling as an exercise in memorization. She sees it as a celebration of words. “Words are fun,” she says. “There are stories behind these words that make them super fun. It takes a lot of work [to be successful], but it’s really fun work.”

Zaila has been competing since only 2019, but she has been learning about words for far longer. “I’d be reading a book and be like, What’s this word?” she says. “So I’d go to look it up into the dictionary. And you know how they have like the links that lead you to the next word? Yeah. That was my downfall. Suddenly a quick run to the dictionary for a minute turns into diving through whole histories of countries.”

Her dictionary sessions often lasted for several hours, but they offered her a chance to learn about things that fascinated her. “I’m really into mythology and knowing other cultures,” Zaila says. “When I’d see these words, from Greek mythology or Indian mythology or Hindu mythology, I got to know the stories behind them. Those are my favorite words to spell and think about—words from mythology.”

Eventually her father saw the spelling bee on television and decided it would be something she might be good at. Just two months after she started she advanced to the nationals of the 2019 Scripps Bee.

Originally, her mom, Alma Heard, and her dad thought they would be able to teach her, but they realized that for her to get over the hump from great to elite, she was going to need an outside coach.

Zaila began working with Cole Shafer-Ray, a former national runner-up, in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of last year’s bee, but this year’s was held in Orlando. She outlasted 10 other finalists, winning on the word Murraya, which is a type of a tropical tree.

Her victory was historic: She became the first African-American contestant to win. (There was one other Black winner in the past, Jody-Ann Maxwell of Jamaica, who won in 1998.) “It’s kind of bittersweet for me,” Zaila says. “I’m super happy to be the first African-American girl to win. But also it’s like, this should not be happening. I should not be the only one doing it.”

After her victory, she received congratulatory tweets from First Lady Jill Biden and former President Barack Obama, and got a shout-out from LeBron James, who called her “a queen.”

Not bad for something she considers a hobby. Yes, a hobby. “Spelling is just a side thing I do,” Zaila says. “My main thing is basketball.”

Cover photograph by Jeffery A. Salter

Cover photograph by Jeffery A. Salter

Handling With Care

Zaila started playing hoops when she was 5. And like everything else she does, she dove in headfirst, doing drills for hours at a time. She would practice her ballhandling by dribbling three balls at once (often while listening to an audiobook). Gradually she started adding balls.

For her eighth birthday she received a copy of Guinness World Records, which inspired her to get her name in the book, which she did—repeatedly. (She broke the marks for most bounce juggles with both three and four balls in a minute, as well most bounces with four balls in 30 seconds. She tied the record for most balls dribbled simultaneously, with six.)

Zaila, a ninth grader who is homeschooled, is not just a novelty artist, though. The drills have helped make her quite a threat as a point guard. “I love to pass and give assists because I love to get my other teammates involved and just make them happy and make their days go better,” she says, before adding: “And, uh, I also like to score. Don’t mess with me because if you make me angry, I am definitely scoring on you the next time down.”

Since she’s pretty much mastered dribbling on the court, Zaila recently added another challenge: dribbling while riding a unicycle. It was her dad’s idea, which he came up with after seeing the popular NBA halftime act Red Panda. “A basic understanding of physics made me very wary about how in the world I was about to ride a one-wheel bike, but I learned it,” Zaila says. “I mean, the walls and I were best friends, because I did not fully trust myself on that thing, but eventually I got it.”

A clip of her performing on a unicycle can be viewed on Instagram, where her handle is @basketballasart. It’s an appropriate name; she doesn’t consider her dribbling to be a gimmick, but rather an expression of what’s possible on the court. “Basketball, at least for me, is not played just to score or something like that,” she says. “Of course you want to score in a basketball game, but you also want to do art. And my four-ball dribbling and five-ball dribbling is art.”

LeBron wasn’t the only basketball player to notice Zaila after she won. She was a guest of two WNBA teams—the Sparks and the Wings—at games. While she hopes to one day share a court with some of the players she met, she knows that a basketball career isn’t guaranteed. Suffice to say, she has plenty of other interests.

After winning the bee she was invited to tour the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where she got to meet astronauts and land a spaceship simulator. NASA is one of the many places she could see herself working. “I’d like to figure out how to help humans and other animals, of course, go and kind of do the Star Wars thing—without all the monsters and Darth Vader,” she says. “Help settle other planets, doing lunar habitats and stuff. I really feel like we are all animals on Earth. It’s an expanding species, so I feel like the natural, next place to expand to is off of Earth.”

It would be a fitting occupation for a kid who at 14 is already out of this world.