Gianna and Kobe Bryant befriended a small-town basketball star and her trainer dad
Hailey Van Lith lives basketball in her tiny town — Cashmere, Wash., population 3,152 — and as the nation’s No. 1 guard and No. 2 overall player on the women’s basketball ranking site Prospects Nation, the 18-year-old knows a bit about celebrity and fame.
But last summer, as she waited in a Thailand airport after a Team USA game, she wasn’t prepared for a message from basketball legend Kobe Bryant.
“The text was from one of Kobe’s main guys — I called him ‘T,’ and he just basically said that Kobe knew about me, loved my game and really wanted to get me to L.A. to work with him and talk about basketball,” Hailey said in a phone interview Monday as she drove to practice at Cashmere High School.
“I couldn’t believe it, that he actually knew who I was and thought I was a good player. When I later asked him, ‘Why me?’ he basically said the way I play, my work ethic and mentality on the court, reminded him of himself, and it compelled him to reach out to me.”
But Bryant, the father of four daughters and a strong supporter of women’s basketball, had other motives too, said Hailey’s father, Corey Van Lith, who has served as his daughter’s trainer since she was small.
“He wanted to help Hailey, but he also wanted to put someone in front of his daughter she could relate to, because Hailey is an incredibly hard worker. Hailey has devoted her life so far to becoming the best person and basketball player she can possibly be, and he wanted to show Gigi, ‘If you do this, you can attain the goals you want to attain’,” Van Lith said, using a nickname for Bryant’s daughter Gianna.
And there was also a third — “dad-to-dad” — component that interested Bryant, Corey said: his relationship with Hailey as her trainer.
“He wanted to know how I made that work,” he said, “because he was going down that road with his daughter Gigi.”
He said Bryant reached out to him a couple of weeks ago, asking him to send some of the workouts he does with his daughter.
“He was one of the greatest basketball players of all time ... but he was always wanting to learn,” Corey said. “His ego wasn’t too big to ask somebody like me, who is nobody in the basketball world, ‘Hey, how did you find success in getting your daughter to where she’s at?’ ”
Corey, co-owner of a custom home-building business with his wife, Jessica, attended the University of Puget Sound on a baseball scholarship, where he also played basketball. He’s been training his daughter since she was in elementary school, he said, when her athleticism and competitive drive became apparent.
They train together two to three hours a night, before or after team workouts, and that’s what interested Bryant.
“When you spend that amount of time with somebody, things can’t get too boring or they won’t stay interested,” Corey said. “So I’m constantly coming up with new things.”
Hailey and her dad visited Bryant last August and she practiced with Gianna’s Mamba team. She visited again in September, this time with her mother, Jessica. Hailey said Bryant gave her advice for both on and off the court.
“He told me to study the game. ‘Make yourself a well-rounded player and just master the game,’ ” she said. He told her to focus on her footwork over dribbling, and he told her how he had pushed himself mentally to get through injuries and hardships.
Hailey shared some of that advice in a tribute to Bryant and Gianna before a game Tuesday night. “Thank you for teaching me that it is OK to be unapologetically great,” she wrote in her statement, hugging her teammates and fighting back tears as it was read to the crowd in Cashmere.
Bryant also told her to make a list of players she thought were better than she was and then, one by one, find a way to beat them on the court.
“He told me I had to be better than them in every aspect of the game, and each time I met them and bested them, I could check them off the list,” she said. “So I did that. I made a list of 20 girls, and so far I’m seven down. I still have 13 to go.”
Hailey also practiced with Gianna and came to feel like a friend and mentor to the younger girl.
“She was a nice, shy girl, polite and very reserved outside of the game of basketball, but on the court, she had that killer instinct. She was a competitor, fearless on the court. I played her one-on-one, and she was not scared of me. She didn’t care that I was supposed to be better than her, taller and older. She just played with everything she had, and that was something cool to see.”
She and Gianna often texted each other about their games, Hailey said. Gianna was “super excited” about starting high school basketball in the fall, she said, and already had dreams of attending the University of Connecticut and playing in the WNBA.
“It was awesome to see a girl so young be so driven to accomplish her dreams.”
It was during their summer Mamba Academy workouts that Bryant told her he would come to Cashmere to watch her team play, Hailey said, “I was like, ‘OK, Kobe, whatever,’ but he ended up coming. And that just affirmed to me that he was super serious about advocating for girl’s basketball and giving Gigi every opportunity he could to be surrounded by the game she loved.”
The Bryants’ visit on Jan. 11 lighted up social media around the entire Wenatchee Valley. The Van Liths had told only a few people that Bryant was coming.
But the night before, rumors of his visit spread. Cashmere is a fiercely sports-focused town, with powerhouse teams despite its small size. That Saturday around 3 p.m., the junior varsity team got to play before a rare overflow crowd.
“We’d never seen anything like that,” Corey said.
About three minutes after the girls’ varsity team hit the floor, the Bryants arrived. They’d flown by private jet to the nearby airport in East Wenatchee.
“You could see everybody taking out their phones, but people respected that he was there as a fan, to watch Hailey,” Corey said. “He didn’t want it to be about him. He just wanted to sit in a certain location as discreet as possible and enjoy the game.”
Cashmere won the game 62-27, with Hailey — who has committed to the University of Louisville — finishing with 35 points and nine steals.
“Halftime was a circus,” he said. “Everybody wanted to stand within 20 feet and take photos, but nobody got out of control.”
Bryant signed jerseys, cards and basketballs and posed for photos with both teams. He also took time to talk to Hailey’s team in the locker room.
“He came in and looked at all the girls and said, ‘You guys play like a bunch of dogs, just nasty tough,’ ” Cashmere head coach Brent Darnell told the Wenatchee World news outlet. “It was a great compliment from him and a special night for us.”
For Hailey, the visit was a gracious gift to her community.
“We’re a smaller town, and nothing even close to that has ever happened here,” she said. Bryant and daughter Gianna “had such a passion for life. It was inspirational just being around them; it made you feel alive. ... To have them come and support my team was something my community will never forget.”
The visit touched Corey too, but his connection to Bryant was more as a dad. That parental link was the first thing Corey thought of when he and his wife heard the news about the helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his daughter and seven others.
“We just immediately imagined how it must have been for him, moments before it happened, when he knew his daughter was in trouble,” Corey said.
The main thing Corey carries away is his last conversation with Bryant on Jan. 25, the night before Bryant was killed. That was the night LeBron James surpassed Bryant’s career scoring record. He said Bryant didn’t mention the record when he texted Corey that evening. He just wanted to brag about Gianna.
“He was proud that she was playing great at both ends of the floor, on offense and defense,” Corey said. “He was so proud of all his kids, and that’s how we shared: dad to dad. Kobe didn’t need me as a friend, and it wasn’t like I needed Kobe, but he was a friend because we had a mutual passion for developing our daughters and giving them their greatest success.”
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