Only a few seconds had passed since Georgia beat Florida on its home floor, and that’s when Caliya Robinson erupted into a grin that was more exuberant than one related to a win. Her sprint was faster than one on a game-winning possession — in fact, she was galloping across the court.
Robinson laid eyes on one of her purest joys and was determined to celebrate with her biggest fan. Aven Howell, a 4-year-old out of Cleveland, Georgia, embraced Robinson while her father, Andrew Howell, watched in awe. They smiled at each other as Robinson held Aven with care. Then, the surprise came.
“Can I take her with me?” Robinson asked Andrew and his wife, Ashley Howell.
They obliged, because their fondness of Robinson nearly reaches the level of their daughter. Robinson trotted across the court once more and sat adjacent to the scorer’s table. Aven was joining the player of the game for a radio interview with Georgia’s radio announcer, Jeff Dantzler. Aven sat on Robinson’s left leg as the Lady Bulldogs’ senior forward discussed her 17-point performance.
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Robinson sported a headset that would’ve swallowed Aven whole, so Dantzler held an external microphone in case there was any additional input from the sidekick. A few days later, Aven remained the topic of discussion as Dantzler mentioned her to Robinson after Georgia’s win at Alabama, because the Howells made the trip.
It’s something that Aven can’t stop talking about, too, even a couple weeks later.
“Caliya Robinson is really into my heart,” Aven said. “I love her heart too and the way she acts.”
The love between a basketball star and her 4-year-old superfan who both wear the No. 4 on their back was born. Robinson enters the final stretch of her senior season as the Lady Bulldogs enter the SEC tournament. Through her performances, one of her proudest moments is spending time with Aven after each game.
Don’t worry, the Howells have reservations in Greenville to watch Robinson play with the hope that Georgia can make a run toward the conference title. Georgia opens play against Arkansas on Thursday (6 p.m., SEC Network).
“She’s my good luck charm,” Robinson said. “It’s definitely a great feeling to know I have someone that young looking up to me.”
Oddly enough, this all started as an accident. Andrew is a long-time Georgia fan, but focuses most of his fandom — as many do — on the beloved Bulldogs’ football team. He would “drag,” as Ashley called it, his family to Sanford Stadium and they’d have an enjoyable time in Athens. But around the 2017 holidays, the Howells were given free tickets to a men’s basketball game by friends.
They sat down at Stegeman Coliseum with Aven, and a fan next to them mentioned the excitement of a Lady Bulldogs’ game. This person thought they’d really enjoy it, so Andrew decided to bring his family along for the women’s basketball game against Georgia Tech.
One turned into two. Then three. Then road trips. Then the SEC tournament in consecutive seasons.
“We fell in love with women’s basketball, and those are the games that we go to,” Ashley said. “It has been crazy in a good way.”
Robinson has been a star player for the Lady Bulldogs since the Howells started attending games. She nearly averages a double-double with 14.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. She was named to All-SEC First-Team by the Associated Press and coaches. She is likely a first-round draft pick in the WNBA. Aven fell in love with Robinson, but remember that she’s only 4 and doesn’t understand much about basketball.
Her reasoning, however, is one that those young and old admire Robinson for: her smile. It’s something that head coach Joni Taylor believes has led Georgia to wins this season, and has undoubtedly created energy inside Stegeman Coliseum. And in someone who has developed unending love for her 6-foot-3 best friend.
Aven cherishes every moment she gets to spend time with, mention or watch Robinson. That’s a leading factor why the Howells travel to road games — they’ve done so three times during SEC play this season: Alabama, Auburn and South Carolina. If it were up to Aven, they’d travel more often, but west of Alabama is the limit, her father said.
“Aven cheers harder than I do, and I love it,” Ashley said. “She pays attention, really likes it and always yells ‘CALIYA.’ After the games, she’s always really excited to see Caliya and is starstruck at the same time. She’s stares at her with the thought of ‘oh my gosh, you’re amazing.’”
Aven’s fondness of Robinson has been apparent over two seasons, but her shy personality would show during games. Aven would wave to Robinson, but didn’t make much effort to interact. That was until Aven asked her parents for a Robinson jersey, and Andrew had two t-shirt “jerseys” made — one red, the other white — for Aven to wear to games.
It didn’t take long for Robinson to notice it, either. That’s when visiting Aven in the stands and engaging in thoughtful embraces became a routine.
“Caliya really took to Aven from that point on,” Andrew said. “She thought that was the coolest thing for Aven to have her jersey. That wasn’t something that me and my wife wanted her to do, but something that Aven wanted to do.”
Aven has reciprocated those gestures to the Lady Bulldog players, too. Georgia’s aforementioned win over Florida was the weekend prior to Valentine’s Day, and Aven purchased a box of cards to make for her cousins (since she’s homeschooled and doesn’t have classmates). She made one for Robinson and gave it to her after that Sunday’s win. Suddenly, Aven got upset on the car ride home.
She told her parents she didn’t want any other players to be left out. So, they stopped at a store in the midst of their return trip and bought another box of cards. Aven recently learned to write as her fourth birthday was in January. So, Ashley wrote out each player’s name and Aven copied them onto her cards with her own signature touch. The next game Aven attended was at South Carolina on Valentine’s night, and she had a fresh batch of cards delivered to the rest of Robinson’s teammates.
“One said the card is hanging up in their locker, and one had it in their dorm,” Andrew said, citing reaction from Que Morrison, Jenna Staiti and Stephanie Paul. “That’s really cool that they reached out. They’ve been really great to my daughter, and I love this family atmosphere.”
Aven and Robinson have developed a special bond, but moments like these are part of the senior’s legacy. This isn’t the only time such a connection has been formed.
Taylor designates a section of the arena for each player to visit after each home game. That player keeps that section for their entire collegiate career. It was Robinson’s freshman year when she noticed someone missing.
‘There’s a little boy who sits in my section and I haven’t seen him over the past two games,” Taylor recalled Robinson saying. “Can we track him down?”
Georgia, being intentional in knowing its fans, did so. The young boy’s family was touched to the point where they purchased season tickets and remain regular attendees. Taylor said there are three season-ticket holders who purchased them with Robinson being the sole reason, and the Lady Bulldogs’ head coach sees these gestures often — whether it be taking pictures, signing autographs or playing with children at other Georgia sporting events.
“Caliya’s personality is so infectious and she’s such a sweet lady,” Taylor said. “She’s someone who touches you. I’m not surprised that she’s had another family adopt her and become Caliya superfans. That’s the spirit she has about her.”
Aven’s situation, however, might be Robinson’s favorite accident. After Georgia’s loss to Auburn, the Howells were waiting to see Robinson before exiting the arena, but were pressed for time as the senior forward was late to return. Taylor noticed that Aven wanted to see Robinson, and went into the locker room to retrieve her.
Taylor, however, referred to the Howells as “family,” and Robinson had no second guesses who it was. One of Robinson’s sturdiest bonds has been built with a 4-year-old fan, and there may be more exuberant cross-court sprints to come.
“I want her to know she’s special to me,” Robinson said. “She is someone I want to have in my life regardless of where I go.”