Zaila Avant-garde walks onto the basketball court with the kind of confidence an NBA player might exude, but the Whitney Houston shirt she sports alludes to the light-hearted nature that follows this 12-year-old girl wherever she goes.
From the moment she walks into the Oakdale Gym, in her hometown of Harvey, Louisiana, Zaila is immediately greeted with hugs and words of congratulations. This hometown celebrity recently brought home a national title.
But not for her beloved sport of basketball.
Zaila is the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion and the first African-American to win the competition in its 96-year history. The winning word she spelled was “murraya,” a word that defines a citrus-type flower found in the Pacific.
Taking home this national title, though, was no accident for this quiet, humble pre-teen who would rather spend her days on the basketball court instead of preparing for spelling bees.
“I knew the last word immediately. You can’t strategize your way through all the words,” she explained.
A movie she watched also helped.
“I also watched a lot of ‘Lost In Translation’ with Bill Murray. So, like, murraya, I always remembered the word as Bill Murray with a ‘ya’ on the end,” she added.
In the last two weeks, this 12-year-old student has been on Jimmy Kimmel, made an appearance at the ESPN Awards, and she’s even flown to Manhattan to play strategy games with the staff of the New York Times.
She has logged thousands of miles in the air, and yet, her favorite part of the last few weeks has nothing to do with the notoriety.
“Traveling on the planes that have TVs, I really like that. I’m really into airplane TVs,” Zaila said as she cracked a small smile.
None of this happened by accident. Zaila actually prepared for the Scripps Spelling Bee by prepping with other spellers from previous years.
As for her future plans?
Zaila will turn 13 in a few weeks, meaning her spelling bee days are over. But she’s hoping to someday play basketball at Harvard and has aspirations to work at NASA.