The Courier Journal is shining a spotlight on people making a difference across the Metro Louisville community. Know someone with a story to tell? Please nominate them through this form.
A case of plantar fasciitis didn’t take the pep out of Hailey Van Lith’s step as the Louisville women’s basketball star walked onto a stage Saturday afternoon in the Mall St. Matthews’ parking lot and saw for the first time the 20 children whose day she was about to make.
Van Lith began her speech by complimenting the kids’ colorful shirts, all of which featured her last name on the back and the Family Scholar House’s logo on the front. Since 1995, the Louisville-based organization has provided housing and other support services to disadvantaged single parents and their children, many of whom have experienced poverty and domestic violence.
Partnering with JCPenney to celebrate the department store’s 120th birthday, Van Lith had $150 gift cards to give each of the children a back-to-school shopping spree. The kids, meanwhile, had no clue why they had been brought to a party in the middle of a mall parking lot on a scorching summer afternoon.
Two girls’ jaws dropped in amazement when Van Lith unveiled the big surprise. Another girl, who was holding a pinwheel, began jumping up and down, her beaded braids bouncing in the air. One of the boys stopped eating his red popsicle and looked back toward the group’s chaperones with an expression that said, “$150? Y’all serious?”
Hailey Vanlith:How Louisville women’s basketball star found her confidence during deep NCAA Tournament run
NIL at U of L:Louisville’s interim AD Josh Heird plans new department devoted to getting athletes paid
“Let’s go shopping together,” Van Lith said, “does that sound good?”
The children answered in unison: “Yes!”
“The (Louisville) women’s basketball team is particularly dear to our heart, because they’ve done some really cool things with our kids,” said Cathe Dykstra, Family Scholar House’s president and CEO. “It’s wonderful for our kids to get to make positive role models in the community, people that they can aspire to be.”
In just two seasons at Louisville, Van Lith has endeared herself to fans with a fierce competitiveness that was crucial in the Cardinals’ run to the 2022 Final Four. According to a report from SwishAppeal.com, the guard has also emerged as one of the most prominent women’s basketball players in the country when it comes to embracing the NCAA’s policy allowing student-athletes to benefit off their name, image and likeness.
Van Lith, like many of her peers across college athletics, has made supporting others a priority while navigating the NIL landscape. She’s also getting teammates like Chrislyn Carr and Mykasa Robinson involved; they joined her Saturday at JCPenney to help the Family Scholar House kids with their shopping spree.
“An opportunity like this, where I get to involve the community, involve my teammates, involve other athletes, that’s really all I’m looking for in NIL,” Van Lith said. “Because at the end of the day, I’m going to be a pro no matter what and I’m going to have those marketing opportunities, but I think in college I have this really unique position to help the community that I’m apart from.
“I’ve done stuff with Grace James Academy; I’m now doing stuff with the Family Scholar House, and it’s just a really great opportunity to better our community, our kids, give them better opportunities and surround them with successful young women (and) men that play at the college level. Anytime I can do that, that’s really my goal with NIL.”
Emily Engstler:Facing her idols and growing pains: Q&A with ex-U of L forward, WNBA rookie
louisville athletics:Why women’s programs keep on winning despite U of L’s Title IX shortcomings
In August 2021, Van Lith became one of the first student-athletes to sign with Octagon, a sports and entertainment agency whose clientele ranges from women’s basketball great Nancy Lieberman to superstar gymnast Simone Biles and the most prolific 3-point shooter in NBA history, Steph Curry. Van Lith said she got connected to the firm through her trainer de ella in California and decided it was the “best fit” after meeting with several other agencies.
“I felt like they understood me the best,” Van Lith said. “It’s been a great relationship.”
That relationship has blossomed into a partnership with Adidas, which on Tuesday night revealed it had signed Van Lith and 14 other female student-athletes to NIL endorsements in celebration of Title IX’s 50th anniversary. The U of L star is the only women’s basketball player among the group and said this deal will allow her to “get more resources for nonprofits and schools in Louisville that I work with and care about.”
“I’ll also have this platform with (Adidas) to continue to push women’s basketball, get more visibility and representation – all things that are really important,” Van Lith said in a statement from Adidas.
Van Lith and her parents work regularly with a five-person team to field NIL offers, she said. Together, they determine which opportunities to pursue based on her “very tight guidelines.”
“My team does a great job of involving me with my negotiations,” Van Lith said. “I’m very much in charge. They know my rules; they know what I’m looking for in a deal and they always make sure it’s there, whether it’s (including) my teammates, (helping) my community, any foundation that I like to partner with.”
In March 2021, using data provided by sports marketing firm Opendorse, Axios reported that Van Lith’s NIL rights had an estimated annual value of $965,000, which topped a group of the 20 men’s and women’s basketball players participating in that year’s Elite Eight with the most combined followers between Instagram and Twitter.
Final Four reflection:Louisville women’s basketball team has no reason to hang heads after deep NCAA Tournament run
Van Lith has approximately 742,000 combined Instagram and Twitter followers, which is up from 696,000 at the time of Axios’ report, and is coming off one of the most dominant individual NCAA Tournament performances in school history: four consecutive games scoring 20 points or more. When the Cardinals punched their ticket to the Final Four, the guard went viral for her answer to a postgame interview question about what the late Kobe Bryant, with whom she was friends, would have to tell her at the moment.
“He would say, ‘Go f****** win this s***, Hailey,’” she told ESPN’s Christy Winters-Scott. “That’s what he would say.”
This summer, Van Lith once again took the court on a high-profile global stage for USA Basketball, playing with the Women’s 3×3 National Team during the FIBA World in Antwerp, Belgium. In five games she averaged 7.2 points per contest and contributed 12 highlights, a metric that combines key assists, drives, dunks, blocks and buzzer-beating shots.
“Belgium was actually probably one of my favorite foreign trips that I did with USA (Basketball),” Van Lith said. “It was just really fun. It was my first senior event, so it was a different vibe competitiveness-wise. I was playing with kids that were my age, so it was a totally different experience. But I’m glad I did it, and it made me better.”
Hailey Vanlith:Louisville women’s basketball star dominates FIBA 3×3 World Cup pool play, leads US to quarters
Louisville women’s basketball:Hailey Van Lith and the Cardinals have a fan in Jazz star, former U of L great Donovan Mitchell
Van Lith is set to appear in a back-to-school shopping commercial through a NIL partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods. She said her her first acting gig was “weird” in that it did not come with a script.
“It was kind of like whatever I wanted to say, so it was pretty fun,” she said. “Maybe one day you’ll see me in a movie. You know, they said I was pretty good, so hopefully I can explore that part of my career a little bit more. We’ll see what happens.
“I feel like I could be a good like Blake Lively, like drama show (actress). Like high school drama. I could really sell it.”
For now, though, her focus remains on the court, where she and the Cardinals hope to improve upon last season’s deep postseason run by reaching the program’s first national championship game since 2013.
“You can be happy that (the Final Four berth) happened, but I think that we did fall short,” she said. “We had national championship goals. We’re very proud of how far we went, but at the same time we’re very focused — like the girls are working really hard already.”
Reach recruiting and trending sports reporter Brooks Holton at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @brooksHolton.