Food for thought: Freshman basketball star Azzi Fudd in a class of her own
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Azzi Fudd cups her hand over her mouth at the sight of the distressed jeans with more rips than fabric down the back of the legs at American Eagle Outfitters.
"Oh, my God! What would my mom say?"
Fudd quickly turns her attention back to finding a pair of shorts her dad would approve of, and maybe an extra pair of jeans or a top. But her pink wallet remains zipped while she and her basketball teammate make the rounds at Pentagon City Mall just outside of Washington, D.C.
The friends began their excursion in the food court. "I am so Chipotle-ed out," Fudd declares.
The 14-year-old almost could be mistaken for any teenager doing her back-to-school shopping. Except ...
- Those loafers she tries on in Sperry are size 11½ -- men's.
- That 8-inch figurine wearing a Team USA uniform on the family mantel? It's Fudd, who keeps the gold medal she won over the summer atop the dresser in her basement bedroom.
- That phone call that lasted nearly a half-hour? Muffet McGraw, calling her.
Fudd has already lunched with the Notre Dame coach in South Bend, Indiana, and while walking back to meet her mom, took a serendipitous wrong turn only to bump into WNBA star and Irish alum Skylar Diggins-Smith.
She's sat in Brenda Frese's office, where she received her first college offer from the Maryland coach. She was in sixth grade at the time. "Thank you?" Fudd answered, later acknowledging, "I wasn't sure exactly what that meant."
Although the 5-foot-10 guard doesn't turn 15 until November, Fudd, Class of 2021, is not just on the radar as the next big wow in the game.
She's on the Richter scale.
At USA Basketball's U16 trials in June, 133 elite players tried out for 12 spots. Fudd landed one of them, the youngest to do so.
"She's just got it," says UConn alum and Tufts coach Carla Berube, who directed the U16 team to the gold medal at the FIBA Americas in Buenos Aires. "Her strength on the perimeter, her footwork, the way she extends on a drive to the basket and is able to finish with contact and the fact that she's a pretty good defender -- she's got it all. If I had to pick someone to compare her to -- and I always think in terms of UConn -- it would have to be Maya Moore."
Others see more Diana Taurasi. "I think it's weird because they are really great players," Fudd says. "I'm only 14."
Name of the game
In a way, Azzi was born to be a great basketball player. Or at least named for one.
Fudd's mom, Katie, idolized Olympian Jennifer Azzi and even owns an old San Jose Lasers jersey. Years before becoming pregnant, Katie announced that her daughter would be called Azzi.
"In eighth grade I watched a documentary on Stanford winning the national championship," Katie says. "I admired Jennifer Azzi, not just because of how she played, but her high character, high motivation and work ethic. When I had Azzi, I thought if she's got some of those same characteristics, we're great. I had no idea, of course, she was going to be a basketball player."
Jennifer Azzi met her namesake two years ago, admitting she's never been on the receiving end of a gesture this significant.
"A couple of dogs and a license plate, but for somebody to name their child after me?" says Azzi, who became a new mother in February. "Choosing a name is not something you take lightly. When I heard there was a child named after me, not my first name, but my last name, which is pretty unique ... that's a huge honor."
Katie's maiden name is a familiar mouthful -- Smrcka-Duffy. Twenty years ago, the braided redhead was the ACC rookie of the year at NC State who transferred to Georgetown after her freshman season. Leading the Big East twice in scoring, she was drafted by the WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs.
Back, shoulder and knee injuries derailed Katie's career, but she remains a gym rat. In addition to training on her own, she runs high-performance elite camps and coaches AAU ball alongside her husband, Tim Fudd.
Tim starred at American University, later became an assistant to the Longwood University men's team and today is athletic director at Washington's Archbishop Carroll High School. He and Katie trade off coaching duties with the Fairfax Stars, their daughter's team, which won Nike Nationals in Chicago in July.
"He's a yeller; Mom, she's just sarcastic," Azzi says. "They scared me because they were always yelling at people."
As a (younger) kid, Azzi liked to tag along to the gym, excited when her mom let her pick out the "punishment" for players who didn't give a full effort. "I'd choose inchworms or bear claws sometimes," she says, demonstrating both.
But Azzi never wanted to play, convinced she never would understand all the rules.
"The ref will tell you," Katie promised.
"But what if I don't hear him?" Azzi asked.
The first-grader bawled when Katie signed her up for recreational basketball.
"We forced Azzi into everything," Katie says. "If it was new, she wanted no part of it."
Soccer, tennis, ballet, flag football all got the same reaction.
"Lots of tears," Katie remembers.
Even kindergarten lacked appeal.
"Just home-school me," Azzi pleaded over lemonade and cookies on meet-your-teacher day.
It didn't take long for basketball to rise to the top, though Azzi hardly looked like a prodigy from the jump.
"The first time she played she literally caught the ball and turned, held the ball underhanded and looked at a defender who took the ball and went the other way," Katie says. "She was OK with it.
"I thought she was horrible. Tim, of course, thought she was wonderful."
To say Azzi has evolved is an understatement.
For one, that flag football she was coerced into playing remains a fun diversion. Wearing Tennessee Titans uniforms, Azzi's team won the Girls 14U NFL Flag Football national championship in January. That scored an invite to the Hall of Fame week ceremonies in Canton, Ohio. She plans to play her final year of flag football this spring.
"I like flag football because it's so different but the same as basketball," Azzi says. "There's no dribbling and passing -- I'm not a quarterback -- but there's still catching and running and making moves. I also like meeting the new people because only a few of my basketball teammates play, and the rest are new people."
While Katie insists Azzi never had to fall in love with basketball -- "I just wanted her to find something she was passionate about" -- it's become as integral to her life as the pink cell phone case, pink hair tie, pink bracelet, pink wallet, pink socks, pink everything that dominates her bedroom, where a bucket list mentions going to the Final Four.
Younger brothers Jon and Jose serve as her rebounders regularly at Thomas Jefferson Community & Fitness Center in Arlington. While spacious, it's hardly the setting where you'd expect to find a blue-chip talent. Baskets, one minus a net, surround rubber-surfaced courts, part of a giant multipurpose area encircled by a track. Millennials read off Kindles on treadmills; a rowdy pickleball game draws the most attention.
The phone stays in her bag for a few hours, and Azzi goes to work, making eye contact with Katie regularly about what specifically she should be doing.
"Mikan, Az," Katie instructs. "Then reverse mikan."
Translated, that's layups and reverse layups.
Azzi favors neither hand under the rim, oblivious to the noise of a busy Friday summer afternoon. Tim arrives straight from work.
Azzi moves to shooting jumpers at midrange, then heads to the 3-point line and beyond, draining shot after shot.
"Is that a miss?" Katie asks on occasion.
Azzi is better than 50 percent on the roughly 500 shots she puts up during this light practice.
"Remember Tara VanDerveer said to try to go for 8-of-10 from each spot," Katie reminds.
Tim pulls Azzi aside for a moment, and Katie concedes, "I'm a good coach, but Tim? He's a phenomenal coach."
Sipping from her water bottle, Azzi takes a break, pointing to her right knee, tweaked slightly, she says.
"Stretch your quads," Katie advises.
"Um, where's your quads?" Azzi asks.
Back at Pentagon City Mall, the rising freshman at St. John's College Preparatory School is still searching for the perfect pair of shorts even though she will wear a uniform to school. Azzi and buddy Malu Tshitenge-Mutombo -- yes, that's Dikembe's niece -- repeatedly disappear into their respective dressing rooms and emerge to compare outfits.
"So cute!" they say simultaneously after an adorable combo they later decide against at Forever 21.
Shorts shopping becomes serious at Azzi's favorite store, American Eagle. She bypasses the shoes, noting they wouldn't fit anyway, and rummages through shorts without rips.
"Too loose," Azzi grumbles in her first trip out of the dressing room.
The next pair isn't right either -- Azzi is unimpressed by the adornments near the cuffs. What she does like is Beyoncé on the PA, singing about putting a ring on it.
"I love this song; I love Beyoncé," beams Azzi, also a sucker for Dora, "Pretty Little Liars" and her Instagram account.
While Tshitenge-Mutombo heads to the cash register, Azzi snaps pictures of shorts up front. She finds what she wants, the identical pair she is wearing, just one size larger. She will buy them online, she decides. Better deal, and it's buy one, get one.
"I overthink everything," she says, heading for the exit.
All that brain activity doesn't paralyze her on the floor, though. Azzi uses her tools wisely; sometimes they're tangible, other times, not. Prior to USA team trials, she practiced with an altitude mask and a FIFA ball to prepare for conditions in Colorado Springs.
"She's mature beyond her years," Berube says.
Maybe that's why her father's number -- Tim handles all recruiting calls for now -- is in the contacts list of coaches the caliber of Frese and McGraw.
Tim hands her his phone, and Azzi sprawls on the floor of the rec center, her back to the continuing pickleball game, for a conversation with McGraw that lasts 26 minutes.
Afterward, Katie and Tim pump her for details.
"She said she doesn't like Indian food because it's a little spicy," Fudd says. "She thinks high school basketball is going to be great for me. She asked me what position I thought I'd want to play and I said that's a hard question. I said I think a 2 and she said something about me being ver-saa-till ..."
"Versatile," Tim corrects.
"She said I'm good at playing the 1, 2 and 3," Azzi trails off. "That's pretty much it, I think. She said I should stop by again."
The annual trip the Fudds take to Minnesota later in August to visit extended family might present an opportunity for that.
Shrugging her shoulders, Azzi looks to both her mom and dad. "I'm so hungry. Aren't you hungry?"