Hailey Van Lith sets record straight on toughness, LSU, 3x3 and more

NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament - First Round - Baton Rouge
NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament - First Round - Baton Rouge

Hailey Van Lith, 21, nearly broke the internet when she announced her decision to transfer from Louisville to LSU last April. Van Lith, one of the top-ranked college basketball players in the country, brings a fire on and off the court that she's not ashamed of.

In an interview with NBC Sports last summer, the Wenatchee, Washington native, who helped the U.S. take home the gold medal at the FIBA 3x3 World Cup, got candid about the criticism she's received for her passion, why she chose LSU, what drew her to 3x3 basketball, and her goals for the 2024 Paris Olympics below.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get your start in basketball? When did you first fall in love with the sport and when did becoming a professional athlete become a dream for you?

Hailey Van Lith: My dad played in college and coached my brother's team when he was younger so I just grew up around the game. I started playing with my brother's team and I would practice with them just to try it. I would say, first and second grade is when I realized I loved doing this. It just fueled my competitive nature. I was always fiery and competitive even when I was younger. I think I just got addicted to how it made me feel and I just fell in love with it right away.

As a girl, the professional outlook is different. I remember watching UConn on TV all the time and their dynasty sparked my interest into playing in college and then I found out there was a WNBA. The professional side had to grow as I grew up because it's not as prominent as the NBA but once I found out it was possible it was balls to the wall.

Tell me about that conversation with your dad that led to you guys renting out a gym every night for two hours just to practice.

Van Lith: It's funny because everyone always asks me "How did you learn to work this hard and be so dedicated to your game?" And with my dad there was really no option. I told him I want to be one of the best players ever. He told me from a very young age, if you want to be great, you're going to have to sacrifice. So I knew from second grade. I'm telling you we started then doing wall jumps in the house, dribbling all over the house and going to the gym at night for two hours. But I loved it. It wasn't something he had to force me to do. I just loved basketball so much.

I've been fortunate enough to have that love last to this point in my career still. There's really been no burnout for me. Having my dad there alongside me is something that has been such a blessing because not everybody has someone who's willing to weather the storm with them all the time. He's never left my side and always believed in me and so I've just kept going.

I heard you tell a story of how your dad had you just stand there and learn to take pitches one day. You were learning to get hit by a softball but that obviously was for a different sport. How intense were your practices for basketball and how have those days shaped you into the person and athlete you are today?

Van Lith: He wanted me to be tough. It didn't matter if it was basketball, softball, or soccer, he always put me in the hardest conditions because he said you're going to have to be able to weather through this in a game. No matter the drill, like for basketball, sometimes he would have me practice ball handling for 10 minutes straight and I'd be like, I don't want to do this anymore, this is hard. He would say "This is how life is, you're going to have to be tough."

I think a lot of people see me as a hard-nosed, fiery, tough player who plays physical and my dad brought that out in me. He said this is a trait that would be very valuable to my career. He definitely set me up for success there from the toughness aspect of things. Our workouts were very intense. We had a lot of back and forth bickering but our relationship is is so much more than that and it's grown so well. I am tough and I am smart and he's helped me accept that. As a woman in my sport [he's helped me] be okay with being vocal. That toughness that he showed me from a young age has helped me.

I love that because in sports, women are often criticized for expressing themselves. Being "too passionate” “too aggressive” “too emotional”. We've seen it with Serena Williams. Have you received that kind of criticism before and what advice would you give to other people, women especially, that have been told that their passion is “too emotional”?

Van Lith: Serena Williams is a great example because she might hit her tennis racquet on the ground out of frustration. People will say a "oh, you're not acting like a lady or, or you have a bad attitude." But when a man does it, it's just because they love the game and they're so passionate.

I've experienced that when I am talking in the game. People will say "that's not lady-like, you need to watch your mouth." When I'm tough and physical, they'll say "you're playing too rough". Be surrounded by people who always tell you to continue to be yourself. For me, my parents, my coaches, my teammates have all been there for me saying "continue being you", because that's what makes us great.

People always say the women's game isn't like the men's game yet when we try to be like the men we're punished. They don't want to see us as similar. There's great examples right now of women in the WNBA who are continuing to break down those barriers every day. Even one of my new teammates, Angel Reese, I think she's a great example of someone who is okay with who she is. She's someone that doesn't let societal standards tear her down from being what makes her great. Be vocal, have the attitude, have the sass, because it's all part of the game. It's what makes people want to watch.

LSU v Tennessee
LSU v Tennessee
NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament - First Round - Baton Rouge
NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament - First Round - Baton Rouge
LSU v Tennessee
LSU v Tennessee

Earlier on you talked about how professional women's basketball has evolved. Were there any athletes you looked up to when you were younger?

Van Lith: Obviously, you have the typical Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi names up there but I also loved to watch Baylor and I love to watch Brittney Griner. As I got older, I liked Kelsey Plum, she was way ahead of me. I still look up to her a lot. If you see it, you can be it and so as women's sports has gained more media and more attention, there's more accessibility to it and I think that's just going to catapult the game.

Now that I'm with Adidas, I've had a great opportunity to give back to future generations and people always ask why that's my focus. It is because I remember being that girl. I didn't always have access to the college games, even now with the WNBA, you can't always get it on TV. Sometimes you have to watch it on Twitter, it's crazy the lengths you have to go through. I think anytime that you can give that younger generation hope and the ability to see that women do this successfully all the can't pass that up.

I love that phrase "if you can see it, you can be it". Looking at where you are right now, you're one of the top college basketball players, you're representing Team USA, and you have a bright future ahead. Did you ever think you'd be here?

Van Lith: I think that's the fun part about it. Luckily, I've matured as I've been in college and learned to enjoy the process. It's not always about the end goal. I think, before when I was younger, maybe my freshman year, I was looking at it as I want to do this and I need to get these awards, and we need to be national champions. If you have that mindset of the end goal all the time, you really miss out on the real part of the process, which is the day-to-day interactions, the day-to-day growth and hardships that really make you better as a person and a player. I think I've finally turned that corner, maturity wise, of enjoying the present moment and not always looking back at the past, or looking ahead to the future.

There's things that I've done that I didn't think I would do but there's also things that I thought I would do that I wasn't able to get. That's not good or bad, that's just an experience and it doesn't make me a worse player or a better player. If I win a national championship, that doesn't make me a better player, I just received that accolade. I have really grown and I know a lot of athletes struggle with that. You're constantly chasing an award and when you finally get it you're chasing the next one. If I could tell a young player anything at this point, it'd be enjoy the process and live in the present. Because you really are able to fully love the game and experience the joys that the game brings you when you're in the present and not constantly ring chasing or wanting to get personal awards. That's what I'm most proud of that I've been able to accomplish in my career.

You’ve been playing 3x3 for the national team since 2018. What is it that draws you to 3x3 and what makes the sport so exciting? 

Van Lith: 3x3 fits my my playing style really well. It also brings me back to high school,  just pure basketball. You basically roll the ball out and are just like, let's hoop. That's what I love about it! You can't have any weaknesses because they're going to get exposed. If you can't dribble, shoot, or play defense on all different types of positions, you're going to get exposed.

3x3 just makes me so much better as a player from an IQ standpoint, from a physicality standpoint, it's going to help me get prepared for the WNBA. I've talked to Kelsey [Plum] about it and she said 3x3 helped her so much and so decided to do it. I could have done 5x5 basketball this year but I chose 3x3. What it teaches you from a leadership standpoint, from an IQ standpoint, and from a physical and skill standpoint, you just don't find that in 5x5. It's different. It's super fun and I just think it makes me so much better.

FIBA 3x3 World Cup
FIBA 3x3 World Cup
FIBA 3x3 World Cup
FIBA 3x3 World Cup

How would you describe your playing style?

Van Lith: I'm a smooth playmaker. I'm going to make a play and I have this smooth confidence about me. But I'm also fiery. It's weird because there's parts of me that contradict each other. I have a smoothness and effortlessness to my game, but I'm also very fiery and physical at the same time. I have multiple phases to my game that I'll learn to blend together better as I get older so I'm excited to see that.

What does playing for your country mean to you?

Van Lith: My first experience with Team USA opened my eyes, especially, with what we've been talking about being a female athlete. The opportunities that we get in the U.S. are just different compared to Latvia or Japan. Hearing about their's just different. It also encourages me to fight more because even though we have it better, it doesn't mean it's all right. Women still make less than [male basketball players] in the USA. You feel grateful for your experience but it also makes you want to fight for that too. I want to keep pushing the boundary. Just because it's good enough doesn't make it right.

It's a great experience that humbles you and I've made so many friendships with girls from other countries and even bonding with my peers that I play with on Team USA. It really opens your eyes to to the world and I'm really glad that I did it. It's scary--you're 16 and leave the country without your parents for like a month. But I'm really glad that I pushed myself to do it. I've just received so many benefits and gained a lot of experience.

Did you grow up watching the Olympics as a kid? Do you have a favorite memory or a favorite Olympic athlete?

Van Lith:  I actually love Simone Biles. I love to watch gymnastics. With her, she's so powerful and she's just great---and she's great in her way and she dominates in her way. That's what I find comfort in and what I admire watching in her. She knows who she is and she's 100% okay with that. She's going to be great at what she does. Like we talked about, there's pressure as a female athlete to act and look a certain way. You need to be pretty, but also athletic, and you need to be skinny, but also strong. She's beautiful, strong, athletic and great. She believes that, and she has confidence, and she has that aura about her. I think that's what really drew me into watching her and I want to be like her. It's weird because she's not even a basketball player but I used to sit in front of TV like a deer in the headlights watching her.

Switching gears - I want to talk about LSU. What exactly drew you to the program the most?

Van Lith: There are a lot of things. I want to play with other really great players that will help get me ready for the WNBA. I wanted to play with a really great five or a four and Angel Reese fits that perfectly. Coach Kim Mulkey, she's one of the greatest and she's fiery and intense but she also celebrates you, and lifts you up, and has your back like no other. I wanted to explore that relationship.

She recruited me in high school was really close with my family. That was something that never went away. We've always had that connection. I think she'll push me in all aspects of the game. I want to be pushed defensively. I want a coach that's going to hold me accountable on the defensive end because I think I have more in me. I want a coach that's going to push me to be the best version of myself that I can and I think I found that with LSU. I'm not saying it's going to be perfect or easy but I think it's going to be worth it in the end.

LSU v Tennessee
LSU v Tennessee

Have you started getting to know your teammates for next year yet?

Van Lith: I have. I took a visit down there and met them all in person and we've just stayed in touch. I FaceTime some of them all the time and am continuing to build that connection before the season starts. Everyone has just a good vibe. There's no selfishness to anybody on that team. Everybody is willing to see other people succeed and eat and have a place at the table. That's the best environment you can ask for.

What have you learned about the program or team culture that’s surprised you the most?

Van Lith: A lot of people think there's big personalities or that people are fighting for the spotlight, but it's really not about that. [The program] is about women having the platform and all different types of people being able to see us and relate to us. We have a team of very diverse people that do have personalities and I'm okay with that. I love that there's people on my team that are different than me and if they deserve the spotlight, I am happy for them.

I think that's something that people don't understand. It's not a competition when you're women in sport. You just want attention to grow and cultivate your sport. If it's not on me, that's okay because it's going to come back to me at some point when the game grows. I'm not scared. I'm not scared of the personalities on our team. I think it's great. I think we're going to have so much fun off the court just because everyone is so outgoing and funny.

Hailey, you are vocal. You're passionate. You're mature on and off the court. Where does all of this confidence come from and have you always been this way?

Van Lith: I haven't. When I started playing with Team USA confidence was hard for me. It's the first time you're surrounded by other great players and it really tests you to see do you really think you're good in a room full of other great people? I don't think I did at first but I was 16 and a sophomore in high school so it was okay. It was great for me to learn that about myself when I was in high school, and I've been working on it ever since. It's helped me really learn what true confidence really is. Just because someone else is shining, it doesn't mean that I'm not shining right next to them. Her being great doesn't take away from me being great, we can both be great in different ways. Being on Team USA really started that journey of self-learning for me.

Since I've been in college, the maturity part came into play. Do I really want to enjoy the process or am I attached to outcomes and validation from awards and what people think of me? I started playing more free, you could see it in my play on the court when I changed and when I was able to flip that switch. Mentally, I just played more free and more fun. I was laughing more and not everything was so serious. I asked myself does it matter what I think of me at the end of the day or does it matter what the media and analysts think of me? When I found joy and self-satisfaction and satisfaction from people in my inner circle, I was able to really blossom as a player. I became more outgoing.

When I was younger, I was very shy and not as talkative or outgoing. Now, I'm more open to saying what's going on in my head, and people actually laugh when I talk so it's been fun. I've just enjoyed the game and life a lot more since I've been able to take on that "it is what it is and it's not that serious" mentality.  If the shots don't go in one day, it doesn't mean you're a bad player. You're still a great player and you get to play basketball again. I'm still learning, I'm not perfect, and I still have days. It's an everyday challenge to work on myself but I've seen great results from it so far.

You have such a bright future ahead. Where do you envision yourself after college? What would be a dream come true for you?

Van Lith: I'm really focused on the Paris 2024 Olympics. I would love to be there and would feel honored to be there but obviously if that doesn't happen, I'm still young so LA 2028 would be great for 5x5 or 3x3. I'm also focused on the WNBA and the next level, being a top pick in the draft and going to a team and making an impact in whatever role I have to be in. The WNBA is tough like that. You can be a top pick and get drafted to a team that already has All-Stars. I'm preparing myself to mentally be able to take on whatever role I have to in the league but also pushing myself to be great in the league at a young age. I can't be afraid of trying to implement my skill set right away. That's what I see for myself.

I also am getting my masters at LSU and I want to go to law school while I'm in the league because I do enjoy school. I think I'd be a great lawyer and have the personality for it. I want to push myself to do that. I have goals off the court as well. I love fashion and I'm going to Milan Fashion Week here in the next couple of weeks. I like exploring those other parts of me that aren't just basketball. We'll see what happens. I might be styling your favorite athlete.

Wow, all of that sounds so exciting! What makes you want to study law?

Van Lith: I got my bachelor's degree in finance. I took one elective law class and it was a basic introduction course but I actually loved it. It was hard, I didn't get an A, I got a B-plus, but I still loved it and realized I want to do this. I want to specialize in contract law, go to law school and try it. I mean, if I do my first year and hate it then maybe it's not in the cards for me but I think I would love it so I'm going to try it and see!

NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament - First Round - Baton Rouge
NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament - First Round - Baton Rouge