Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Do you have a plan to vote?

Let us tell you the information you need to register and cast a ballot in D.C.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Time is running out and Azzi Fudd is having the worst game of her high school basketball career. Wide open 3-pointers clank off the front of the rim. Routine passes result in turnovers. More than three quarters into the game against Bishop McNamara High School, the No. 1 team in the country, Azzi is breathing heavy and looks tired, almost unsure of herself. 

Instead of attacking the basket and driving past her smaller and slower defender, she dribbles the ball near half court before settling for a jump shot. Another miss.

Her mother, Katie Smrcka-Duffy Fudd, throws her arms in the air. “These are usually all in,” she sighs. Sitting five rows deep and surrounded by a small group of family members and St. John’s College High School Cadets supporters, Katie’s eyes dart back and forth from Azzi to the iPad in her hands. She enters a red “X” into the her stat-keeping app and shakes her head.

Fans in the sold-out McNamara gymnasium appear to be wondering: Is this really the best girls’ high school basketball player in the country? 

In just the past year, Azzi has been the subject of a number of articles in national publications. ESPN ranks her as the top overall recruit in the class of 2021. YouTube videos of her highlight reels regularly draw thousands of views. The latest, posted by SLAM, is simply titled, “#1 Ranked Azzi Fudd Can’t Be STOPPED!!” Last summer, the 16-year-old became the first female player to play at Stephen Curry’s SC30 Select Camp for elite high school players. While there, she competed in the 3-point contest—and won.

Her parents understand that their daughter has become a face of girls’ high school basketball, and people travel from around the country to watch her play. On this late January evening, McNamara has to turn away dozens of fans who don’t have tickets for the highly anticipated game. Inside the gym, reporters and photographers from local media outlets pack the stage alongside college coaches scouting the game, including University of Maryland’s Brenda Frese and staff members from the University of South Carolina and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Across the court, Azzi’s father, Tim Fudd, an assistant coach for St. John’s, is sitting on the edge of his seat when Cadets senior center Malu Tshitenge-Mutombo gets fouled with 2 minutes and 26 seconds left. The game is tied at 47. If Azzi has any intention of taking over, the moment is now.

“You’re good,” her dad shouts. “Players make plays. This is your time!”

Standing with her back against the team bench, Azzi turns around and makes eye contact with her father. Without saying a word, she nods her head.

She’s ready.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

Curry, a rambunctious 2-year-old lab-terrier mix, greets me at the door of the Fudds’ Arlington County house. (He is, naturally, named after the Golden State Warriors star.) It’s late Christmas Eve morning. Holiday wrapping paper is scattered on the living room table, wood crackling inside the fireplace warms up the chilly air, and the Fudds are all home on one of the few days that doesn’t include a full slate of basketball activities.

Azzi’s brothers, Jon, 14, and Jose, 12, pop in and out of their rooms to play with Curry. Hair still wet from a shower, Azzi texts her mom to make sure she doesn’t need to dress up before walking from her basement room.

In order to fit in this interview, the Fudds went to the nearby Thomas Jefferson Community & Fitness Center in Arlington a few hours early to work out and get up some shots. Azzi tries to put in at least 1,000 extra shots a week. The misses don’t count.

Less than 24 hours earlier, the St. John’s girls’ basketball team had returned from the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix where the Cadets fell to the current nation-leading Miami Country Day, 44-41. As Azzi plops down on the couch next to Curry, the loss still lingers.

“I’m not missing free throws anymore. That’s my goal. No more,” she says before trailing off. “My goal was already to make all my free throws … If I made my free throws, it would have been closer.”

This is Azzi Fudd—the perfectionist. She typically ends her workouts with a deep 3-pointer from the top of the arc, then each side on the wings, followed by five free throws. The last one has to be a swish. 

It’s easier to remember the mistakes, the things that need to improve, she says. The goals she has in mind motivate her to put in the extra work.

“I’ve never really said this out loud before, but I, I don’t know, because sometimes it can come off cocky saying you want to be the best, but I want to be one of the best women’s basketball players to ever play,” Azzi says after a recent workout. “So I know that comes from a lot of hard work. Sometimes I do it a little begrudgingly, but I do it and most of the time I’m happy about it.”

On the basketball court, Azzi has a ruthless, machine-like quality to her game. She doesn’t celebrate after big shots. She doesn’t hang her head after misses. Her face gives little clue as to how she is performing. It remains neutral. 

But off the court, Azzi sheds away her intense focus and confidence and becomes a reserved 16-year-old. She laughs anxiously at interview questions, speaks in a quiet voice, and tries to blend into the background as much as possible, especially around new people and unfamiliar situations.

“She gets nervous a lot,” says Tshitenge-Mutombo, the niece of former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo, “and she’s, like, shy. But when she touches the ball, it’s like, whoa, where did that shy girl go? Like it’s gone. Completely gone.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

Azzi cried before her first soccer practice. And before her first flag football practice. She never even wanted to try basketball. 

“I don’t know,” she says, shrugging. “I don’t like new things.”

Katie interjects. “Preface it with you didn’t want to do anything in life.”

Sitting across from Azzi, you get the sense that she is often uncomfortable with the attention she receives. She’s a natural deflector, and rarely does she bring up her accomplishments. She admits she doesn’t like stepping out of her comfort zone.

In third grade, one of Azzi’s teachers wrote goals for each student and placed them on their desks. Azzi’s read: Step out of your box. Do something that is uncomfortable. Even now, Azzi says, she doesn’t raise her hand in class unless she absolutely knows the answer.

“She’s the kind of kid that if she puts her mind to it, she’d be good at it,” Katie says, “but she just doesn’t have that natural swag of, ‘I’m just great.’”

Katie and Tim are both coaches and former elite players. Tim, who stands 6-foot-7, played at American University and professionally overseas, while Katie starred at Georgetown University and became the first Hoya ever selected in the WNBA draft at 62nd overall. Azzi is named after Jennifer Azzi, an Olympic gold medalist Katie idolized.

The Fudds got married when Azzi was 2 and Tim officially adopted her shortly after. Azzi says she has not seen her biological father since she was born. In elementary school, she found out that she has an older half brother who lives in Finland. They share the same father.

“Biological dad,” Azzi clarifies. “I don’t claim him. I already have a dad.”

Her parents have coached her since she started playing Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball in first grade.

“And she was awful,” says Katie. 

Tim isn’t quite as harsh in his assessment, but agrees Azzi wasn’t a natural, at least at a young age. She wasn’t tenacious. She didn’t have a killer instinct. She mostly stayed to herself, and let the other girls make the first move.

“There’s some little kids who would go out and just like try to rip your hearts out,” Katie says, “and that just wasn’t her.”

But because there wasn’t a team for her in first grade, the Fudds had Azzi play with older girls, so it became difficult to assess her skills. As a coach, Katie says, she tends to see the negatives. Even as Azzi quickly improved, her parents kept the compliments to a minimum. They didn’t want any success to go to her head.

“In coaching a lot of kids and having been around a lot, you see a lot of kids that are prodigies when they are young … and everyone fawns over them,” Katie says.

“Then they get a big head,” Azzi interrupts.

“Yeah, they get a big head,” Katie agrees. “They stop working. They stop loving the game or their passion fades, or they get an attitude and start to really think that they’re good. I think the moment that you think you’re good, the moment that you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m good,’ that’s the moment you cease to be good.”

After one game during middle school, her parents harped on her mistakes. Why didn’t you attack the basket, they asked. Why didn’t you get more rebounds? Because I’m not any good, Azzi replied.

Her parents fell silent. You’re playing two years up and you’re consistently the best player on the floor, Tim remembers telling her. What does that mean, he asked, looking his daughter in her eyes. She didn’t know how to respond.

“For the sake of having confidence, you should never feel you don’t belong. You belong,” Tim finally said to her. “Every time you’re on the floor, you’re one of the best ones there, if not the best one there. So we shouldn’t [even] have these conversations.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

Hanging on the walls leading into Azzi’s bedroom is the banner she received for being named the District’s Gatorade Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year. There’s also an American flag with autographs of her teammates when she played on Team USA’s under-17 World Cup team. The year before, she was the youngest member on the under-16 squad.

In sixth grade, she received her first college scholarship offer, from Maryland. 

Around that time, she attended a Terps summer basketball camp and met one of her favorite players on the team, Chloe Pavlech, whose bobblehead sits on the desk in her room. Azzi was nervous, but Pavlech’s outgoing personality complemented Azzi’s shyness. She made her feel at ease. 

At the end of the camp, the players invited Azzi and a few other campers to play pick up with them. Pavlech says Azzi held her own against collegiate players.

“The fact that even at such a young age, she can score at all three levels, that’s something Division I can’t do,” says Pavlech, now a women’s basketball analyst. “She can get to basket, score midrange, and can also score outside the 3-point line … She can be in transition, going 100 miles an hour, and stop and pull up. That’s something very, very hard, and only the best players in the country can do. That’s why they’re the best players in the country. Imagine seeing someone like that in sixth grade.”

Azzi’s game has often been compared to WNBA star Maya Moore, who played for Division I powerhouse University of Connecticut. She’s also been compared to Diana Taurasi, one of the best to ever play the game.

“I wouldn’t say Diana, just because I think Diana plays good defense, but Azzi plays better defense,” Pavlech laughs.

Wait, what? Better defense than a WNBA legend? How about Moore?

“If I could choose Maya or Azzi to run my team as a point guard, I would choose Azzi,” Pavlech replies. “This is gonna sound very crazy, everyone is gonna say I’m super biased, but just how she can see the court and her floor vision. If a game is on the line I’ll choose Maya, but for the point guard spot, I’d choose Azzi.”

Her St. John’s coach, Jonathan Scribner, has been quoted comparing Azzi not to a WNBA player but to Kawhi Leonard, a three-time NBA All-Star.

“I mean, nobody talks about it,” Scribner says. “She’s the best defensive player in the country. She’s got a midrange game, she’s got a three game, she can get to the basket. She’s got an even keel demeanor.”

He pauses. Nevermind what he just said, he insists.

“I don’t like to make comparisons,” Scribner continues. “I don’t want her to be compared. She’s Azzi Fudd. She doesn’t need to be compared to anybody.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

Azzi takes out her phone and opens up the Notes app after a game early in the season. On the screen is a list of her goals for the school year. It includes:

Individual on the court

  • More of a vocal leader
  • Average 8 rebounds a game (“Actually, it should be 10,” she later clarifies.)
  • Average 4/5 steals a game
  • Average 28 points per game
  • Shoot 50% from the 2 and 3
  • Shoot 90% from the free throw line
  • Grow my game—different moves
  • Gatorade player of the year
  • First team all American

Off the court

  • 3.8 GPA
  • Communicate with my teachers better—have better relationships and go to them more often
  • No distractions during homework—get it done

A few weeks later, I give a brief overview of Azzi’s athletic accomplishments and show a copy of this list to David Epstein, a former reporter for ProPublica and Sports Illustrated and the author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

Azzi, he says, is by definition an outlier. Her attention to detail, drive to succeed, and goal setting are just examples of how she separates herself from other elite high school athletes.

“I think that’s rare for a person in general,” Epstein says. “It’s not unheard of, certainly, but how many adults would have the equivalent of that? Be it work goals or goals at home.”

Epstein has studied elite athletes across the globe, and after watching a few of Azzi’s highlight videos, he couldn’t help but think that she reminded him of elite running backs. Then he Googled her name and discovered that his hunch wasn’t far from the truth.

From third until ninth grade, Azzi played flag football alongside her close friend and St. John’s point guard Carly Rivera. In 2017, her Arlington NFL Flag Football team, coached by Carly’s father, Mike, won the national championship. 

“It really helped my reaction time,” she says. “It’s so much better now and I have to say, it’s mostly because of flag football, the timing stuff.”

While attending The Potomac School in McLean, Azzi also played field hockey and soccer, and she runs track for St. John’s, focusing on sprint events from 100- to 400-meters. In seventh and eighth grade, Azzi played for her school’s boys’ basketball team. 

Her parents have encouraged her to play multiple sports, and according to Epstein, that has likely helped her become the elite basketball player she is.

“The people who specialize early [have] what is called closed skills,” he says, “like they sort of learn the skills of the game early so they have an apparent advantage, but then other people catch up. Sport diversity seems to have advantages for learning.”

Credit: Kelyn Soong

***

Mystics star Kristi Toliver needed to clear her mind. It was a month and a half into the NBA season and life as a Wizards assistant coach began to wear her down. Toliver’s days included little more than watching basketball from a mediocre NBA team and traveling all over the country. A week earlier, the New York Times reported that Toliver is only being paid $10,000 for her role with the Wizards due to WNBA salary cap rules.

During the drive back home after one practice, Toliver started listening to an episode of a podcast hosted by LaChina Robinson that featured Azzi. Once she stopped the car, she immediately looked up the St. John’s schedule. They happened to have a game that same night. She decided to go.

“I had one of those moments. I was like, I just wanted to get back to the purity of the game,” says Toliver. “I just wanted to watch, one, women’s basketball. I hadn’t watched women’s basketball in a while, that was a part of it, and also high school, just bringing me back to the basics, to where I started.”

She watched from the bleachers as Azzi poured in 27 points and grabbed seven rebounds against St. Mary’s Ryken in a 71-31 St. John’s victory.

“The way she moves on the court hides her size,” says Toliver. “She’s so fluid, a lot of it was effortless—speed, change of direction, her feel … She was just a sweet, sweet kid, that just made me so happy, because you never know how ego can play such a huge part in kids, in pro athletes, from top to bottom, that can mess with you a little bit, but she was so sweet.”

Afterward, Toliver posted a photo of her and Azzi with the caption, “Future of women’s basketball is in good hands with this one right here.” 

The basketball and youth sports landscapes have changed since Toliver’s high school days. More eyes are on the athletes, leading to more hype. And social media can bring an added layer of concern for parents and potential distractions for the players. Promoters, agents, and over-eager fans are all looking to cling to an athlete’s celebrity status.

Azzi has more than 32,000 Instagram followers and around 3,300 people follow her on Twitter. (“I hate Twitter,” she says.) She’ll get requests from people asking her to promote their product or share their mixtape video of her. 

Other times, it’s less innocuous. Her father recalls an incident when a man who identified himself as a blogger sent her a direct message at midnight and said, “Hit me up.” In their living room, he pulls out his phone and clicks on an Instagram account from an out-of-town coach that includes photos of female high school athletes in jerseys and also revealing clothing. Azzi has not been featured on the account, but her parents have concerns about the attention her profile brings.

“Social media has allowed them to have direct access to these kids,” Tim says, “and it’s a little suspect.”

A few summers ago, Azzi posted a photo of her and her friends hanging out at the pool. Her parents made her take it down. Azzi rolls her eyes at the reminder.

“Because she was in a bikini,” Katie explains. “There’s just too many weirdos and creeps out there.”

Azzi understands, but pushes back against the social media policing as any teenager might. “I feel like people are going to be weird and perverted or whatever no matter what,” she says. “I get what they’re saying, but I just feel like there’s always gonna be weird people.”

Her celebrity has also brought her international recognition. After the Curry camp, Azzi went on a cruise and walked through a security check point in a village while the boat was docked. Not long after, a little girl approached her. “Oh my gosh,” she said. “Were you one of the girls at the Steph Curry camp?” Azzi was in Mexico.

Young fans also wait for her after games to take photos, and the Fudds are often the last people out of the gym. “Where’s Azzi?” one of her teammates asked while posing for a group photo after the team beat Christ The King High School, the former No. 1 team in the country, in early December. A line of reporters was waiting to interview her.

So what is the most challenging part of being a 16-year-old celebrity, I ask her a few weeks later.

“Well, one thing is I don’t really have a signature that I like,” Azzi responds.

Katie can’t help but chuckle. “You’re such a dork.”

(Azzi has practiced incorporating “35”—her jersey number—into her autograph, but none are to her satisfaction. “See, Zs are so ugly!” she says as she throws down a pen.)

But with the attention, and sometimes uncomfortable spotlight, comes opportunity. Multiple Mystics players have invited her to work out with them, she says, and Brandon Payne, Stephen Curry’s personal trainer, has also reached out.

“I was like, did he really just text me this?” Azzi says. “I don’t even know what word to use. It’s beyond amazing and humbling. That also drives me to work harder.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

Thirty-one seconds remain. St. John’s is down by one point. Azzi dribbles the ball to the left corner. Her defender is late, and without hesitating, she fires a 3-pointer. The ball splashes into the net. It’s the first 3-pointer she’s made all night.

St. John’s leads 54-52, but McNamara is able to force overtime. In the extra period, Azzi scores six straight points in the final two minutes to finish with 18 points, shooting 6 for 24 from the field. The Cadets win, 67-65

Azzi finally smiles. 

Later on she will admit that for several weeks, a large blister on her right foot, in addition to patellar tendinitis and a tight iliotibial band, has made it painful for her to bend down to shoot.

“Honestly, I’ve watched Azzi play 52 games or whatever it’s been, and I haven’t seen her miss shots like that, but that’s part of the game,” Scribner says, his voice hoarse from shouting over the crowd. “But when it really mattered, she knocked down the big ones.”

***

Azzi is back in the gym. It’s a week later, and she’s with her parents in Arlington on a Monday night. She came directly from practice at St. John’s.

“Keep that release high,” Tim shouts. “Elbow above the eye!”

For the next hour and a half, Azzi is working on her shot, chasing perfection. “That’s Katie’s shot,” Tim explains, as Azzi drains another 3-pointer. “The release. We’ve worked on it for the last three, four years.” Tim and Katie take turns coaching Azzi, each valuing individual time with their daughter.

A few onlookers stop to watch the entrancing rhythm of her shot. Catch. Jump. Release. Swish. Jon and Jose are there too, helping rebound the ball for Azzi and her friend, 15-year-old Imari Poindexter, who recently moved in with the Fudds.

“I’ve only known Azzi for a year,” Poindexter says, “but it’s like family, like I’ve known her for 15 years.”

It’s moments like these that help shape a player. No agents. No college coaches. No TV cameras. A family together in the gym before dinner.  

“I’m really fortunate in that they’re always here for me and they do so much with me,” she says of her parents. “Sometimes I get them mad and sometimes they make me mad but I love them.” 

“And I know that even when they’re mad at me, they put me on, well—I don’t really get in trouble, I’m the good kid,” she laughs, “but even when they make me do something I don’t like, I know it’s all for the best, that they always have my best interest in mind.”

Before leaving for the evening, Azzi puts on her hoodie and gently lays her head on her father’s chest. He puts his arm around her as she closes her eyes. Neither of them say a word. 

She knows she belongs.