Fifteen days before Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi tragically died in a helicopter crash that killed nine in total, he landed via private jet in East Wenatchee, Washington, to watch a girls' high school basketball game.
He was there to watch a budding star at Cashmere High School. Her name? Hailey Van Lith.
One of the top-ranked recruits in her class, Van Lith was committed to the University of Louisville. Bryant had gotten in contact with Van Lith and her dad, Corey, to learn about how her father trained her, according to the Los Angeles Times. He was interested in Van Lith's ability and work ethic, something he wanted to instill in Gigi Bryant, who was considered a young star herself before passing away at 13.
Bryant spoke to the team at halftime and met with fans. Meanwhile, Hailey was busy dropping 35 points in front of one of the greatest NBA players to ever grace a court. Her "Mamba Mentality" was in full effect that night.
Just two weeks ago yesterday, Kobe Bryant took his daughter, Gianna, to watch @UofLWBB recruit Hailey Van Lith to play in Washington. Life is precious and fleeting. pic.twitter.com/8gYDEUywWF
— Eric Crawford (@ericcrawford) January 26, 2020
On January 26, 2020, both Bryant and Gigi passed away in the accident. Van Lith wrote on Instagram that "never have I seen a passion for life burn so bright in two individuals" and "thank you for changing my life."
More than two years later, Hailey Van Lith and that same "Mamba Mentality" are shining brighter than ever as her 1-seeded Louisville Cardinals women's basketball team is in the Final Four of the NCAA Women's Tournament looking for a national championship.
Hailey Van Lith's Basketball Career
Van Lith took her talents to Louisville after high school and hasn't looked back.
Using a step-back move and a sweet left-handed stroke that have caused some to dub her the "female James Harden," Van Lith has come into her own since last year.
The All-ACC First Team selectee turned up her play in last year's NCAA Tournament. She scored 20 against Albany in the first round, 21 against Gonzaga in the following game and 23 against Tennessee in the Sweet 16. Van Lith and the Cardinals are in the Elite 8, the same round that former President Barack Obama predicted Louisville to lose.
The ultra-competitive Van Lith even had words for Obama and other famous people's brackets:
"I mean, we're kind of like the Bad News Bears," Van Lith said in a press conference. "We upset everyone's bracket. We piss people off that we're good. Everyone gets mad when we beat teams...
"We don't need the people picking the brackets. We don't need Barack Obama's bracket, we don't need Jimmy Fallon. We don't need none of that, OK? Look, we are still here. That is what it is. We're going to keep playing Louisville basketball and do us. If you match up with us, you better be ready to play. That's all I'm going to say because we're coming to win. I'm going to get mad if I keep talking, so I'll stop."
She's undoubtedly one women's college basketball's brightest stars alongside names like Iowa's Caitlin Clark, UConn's Paige Bueckers and South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, and it's not just because she can drive the hoop or pull up for three.
Hailey Van Lith's Social Media Stardom
Fans can't get enough of Hailey Van Lith off the court, either. The Louisville guard has 650,000+ followers on Instagram, and it isn't uncommon for her posts to get more than 100,000 likes.
That sort of fame has translated into good money via name, image and likeness deals. According to Swish Appeal, she has sponsorships from companies like Dick's Sporting Goods, Twitch, Adidas and Ready Nutrition, to name a few. It's estimated she earns more than $44,000 for each sponsored social media post she makes.
Van Lith is a great player on a great team, but part of the reason she has the following she does is because she's a white blonde woman whom many would consider attractive. That's fine, and it's the reason the majority of her followers on Instagram — 83 percent — are men.
But Van Lith isn't just some Barbie in a jersey that's here for the viewing pleasure of men. She's a basketball player with an incredible motor and work ethic, as her coach will tell anyone.
"I went out to recruit her, and her training, what she does is off the charts," Louisville head coach Jeff Walz told the Courier-Journal. "I watched her on a rowing machine and the thing was about to burn up. I've never seen a kid go so hard. It's just what she does."
There's no limit to what Hailey Van Lith can do in her sport. She's hoping that includes winning a national championship.
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