Kobe Bryant called Ava Smith, an eighth-grader at the time, “Shooter” after remembering her big-time 3-pointer the last time he had seen her play
It was a Saturday in January, 2020, when one of the greatest players in NBA history walked up to Ava Smith during warmups and had a question for her.
“What’s up, Shooter?” Kobe Bryant asked.
Kobe remembered Ava from earlier in the youth basketball season because Ava was the one who hit the dagger 3-pointer, sealing the victory for Ava’s club team against the team featuring Gigi Bryant, Kobe’s daughter.
Those two teams — Tree of Hope and the Mamba Sports Academy — were about to face each other again that Saturday.
Coach Kobe Bryant had scouted Tree of Hope players. He knew their strengths. He knew their weaknesses. And he was tired of losing to Tree of Hope. The two teams had played each other three times, and each time, Tree of Hope came out on top.
Until that day.
That day, Gigi Bryant, with her dad coaching the team, walked off the court with a victory.
It would be their last basketball game.
The next day, Kobe Bryant, Gigi, and seven others perished in a helicopter crash en route to the facility, on the way to continue playing in that same basketball tournament.
Ava Smith, then an eighth grader from Clark County, was already on the court. She and her teammates had an early game on the schedule.
That game never finished.
The players heard screaming. They heard crying.
Then, they heard the news.
Now a senior at Union High School, Ava Smith is talking publicly for the first time about what it was like to be on the court at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, Calif., when Black Mamba — one of Kobe’s nicknames — died.
“We were playing against another good California team. We were just playing in a normal game,” Smith said. “All of a sudden, we hear all of this yelling and screaming, and people are starting to cry. Everyone’s confused. The refs come around. ‘Stop the games! Stop the games!’ There was panic and confusion that took over the facility.”
Ava’s mom, Patricia, was in the crowd. But at first, Ava was just with her teammates. They were asking questions. What was going on? What happened?
“There was an uncomfortable amount of silence,” Smith said. “The death got announced, but they were unaware of who was in the helicopter.”
For those who remember watching the news that day, there was a lot of misinformation. There was one national report that speculated the entire Bryant family was on board the helicopter. It would take hours to learn the truth.
“Wait, are the other girls in the helicopter with Kobe?” Smith recalled wondering. “Everyone knew Kobe passed. Was Gigi there? There were rumors that Gigi’s mom, Vanessa, was in the helicopter. There were rumors there were other girls on the team, too.”
Turned out, three members of the Mamba Sports Academy youth team — Gigi, Alyssa Altobelli, and Payton Chester — along with Alyssa’s mother and father, Payton’s mother, another basketball coach, and the pilot, died along with Kobe.
In the months before the crash, the Tree of Hope players — all from the Northwest — had enjoyed a friendly rivalry with the Mamba Sports Academy, playing in Elite Youth Basketball League contests.
Tree of Hope, based out of Seattle but featuring athletes from all over the Northwest, beat Mamba three times. The previous game was a close one, and Ava Smith had the shot that clinched the victory.
“About that 3-pointer, the dagger, that’s one of the best memories, ever, in basketball,” Smith said. “It’s something that’s always been a moment that will resonate with me forever.”
That moment only got better on Jan. 25, 2020, as Ava and her teammates warmed up to take on Mamba Academy again. Kobe Bryant visited with every member of Tree of Hope, giving an encouraging word.
“You have the jitters. ‘Oh my, I’m playing against Kobe. I’m playing against Gigi.’ Everyone you could think of surrounds the court, with loads and loads of people who want to watch the Mamba team and Kobe coaching. In warmups, Kobe is walking around our baseline and smiling at all of us, saying a little something to everyone,” Smith said.
Then he walked toward Smith.
“What’s up, Shooter?”
“It’s the craziest feeling. It was something so significant … and I know it’s going to stick with me my whole life,” Smith said.
Ava Smith will always have that moment, but years later, she said that she is more impressed with Kobe Bryant’s commitment to saying something to everyone on the Tree of Hope squad, not just her.
“He recognized every single one of us,” Smith said. “He respected us. Kobe made our team feel special. He respected us, and who doesn’t respect Kobe? He’s one of the greatest of all time. It’s unbelievable that I can say I’ve met him, talked to him, let alone got a picture with him, let alone got to play against them.”
Team Mamba got the win that Saturday. The Tree of Hope players were disappointed. Now? Smith smiles at that specific memory.
“It was competitive, man. It was the best of the best, which is crazy to think about,” Smith said. “It was their best game against us, for sure. They went out with a win.”
The next morning, it was business as usual for Tree of Hope. Until nothing was usual.
When their game was stopped, everyone in the facility joined together in prayer.
“We all ended up walking out of the gym. Everyone was crying, praying. Teams were together outside in the parking lot, just confused. It was hectic. Everyone was in tears. I know my team, we all got together, got some food, and stayed with each other the whole day,” Smith said. “We ended up going to a mall. Had no fun at the mall, but just had to do something to try to get our minds off the crazy thing that just happened.”
Ava and her mom came home to Clark County on Monday. Some of Ava’s friends knew where she was, what she endured. And, of course, all in the basketball community understood. But Ava kept quiet, for the most part, just talking about it to close family and friends.
The basketball community needed time to heal.
In fact, the surviving members of the Mamba Sports Academy did not play for three weeks. When they returned to the court, they had a special request from the Tree of Hope. Ava Smith and her teammates traveled back to California to practice with Mamba Sports Academy for the academy’s first practice since the crash.
“To be with those girls, just to have some fun, to have that spark back,” Ava recalled. “I’m still friends with those girls on social media.”
Less than a week later, the public memorial service for Kobe, Gigi, and the others was held. Photographs of Team Mamba’s final game were used. Ava Smith is in some of those photos. She got messages from friends who were watching the service on TV.
“Is that you? Is that your team?”
“That’s me,” Ava responded.
They were eighth-graders playing basketball against one another, just like any other day, at any other tournament. Only the very next day, three of those players would be gone … forever.
There are no words of comfort. For their family. For their friends. For their opponents.
For Ava Smith, though, she used the events of Jan. 26, 2020 and beyond as a source of inspiration.
Kobe Bryant, in his final years, had become an ambassador for the sport, specifically for women’s and girls basketball.
And there was Kobe, remembering Ava Smith.
There was Kobe, one of the most clutch shooters in history, calling Ava “Shooter.”
“We adapted the Mamba Mentality,” Ava said. “My mom ordered me the Mamba Mentality book. I just kept reading it. Kobe taught me you have to be the best version of yourself. You can’t let outside perspectives affect your game. I learned about his passion, his obsession, his commitment, his relentlessness to the game. You have to grind. Hours and hours in the gym.”
Ava Smith came into high school with a solid reputation about her game. Her freshman season of varsity basketball with the Camas Papermakers was delayed and cut short during the pandemic. Still, she had an excellent first year of high school ball.
As a sophomore, she made first-team, all-league with the Papermakers. But by the end of that season, she was looking for a fresh start. The Smith family moved, and Ava played her junior year at Union. There, she had another solid season.
This year, though, she has elevated her game to another level. She said it was from a commitment she made to herself. Stronger. Faster. Fitter. She hit the weight room. She rededicated herself to conditioning, speed, and agility drills. She could always shoot, but she knew she needed to be stronger. It would help her college recruitment. And, more importantly, it would help her team.
She is closing in on 1,000 points for her career. She is one of three players from Washington to be nominated for the McDonald’s All-American Game. And the Union Titans are 14-2. (Coincidentally, Brooklynn Haywood, a teammate at Union now, was also at the tournament in California when Kobe and Gigi died. Haywood was a sixth-grader, living in Alaska at the time.)
“I told myself, ‘What’s a better way to go into my senior year than trying my hardest, putting my all out on the floor, and trying my best for my teammates?’ I don’t see a better way to go out,” Smith said.
As far as college, she is keeping her options open. She had an official visit with Cal State Northridge. She also had a Division I offer, but that program had a coaching change.
“With the Mamba Mentality, I know the work I put in is paying off and will pay off in the long run,” Smith said.
About the past, Smith said she has matured enough to understand all that she and her friends went through four years ago. There was an incredible moment on a Saturday — “What’s up, Shooter?” — and then the horrific Sunday.
Through it all, Ava Smith had her family, father Matt, her mom, and younger sister Aleya. (By the way, Aleya is a seventh-grader already making a name for herself in youth basketball.) Plus Ava had her basketball teammates and the rest of the youth basketball community by her side. And, of course, the Mamba Mentality to inspire her.
“It’s the bigger picture that I look at,” she said. “We built a relationship with the girls. It’s a distant friendship, a mutual respect we all still have for each other. We’re never going to forget who we played that (Saturday.) We’re never going to forget that (Sunday). We’re never going to forget the people who were with you.”
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