The 96-year-old basketball fan stands tall when it comes to fighting racial barriers in Denver, but still had to reach up to plant kisses on the cheeks of two 6’8” Denver Nuggets players.
“I got to kiss two young men,” Hattie Smith said with a grin and a giggle after meeting and cozying up with Nuggets, Jeff Green and Vlatko Cancar at Ball Arena on Feb. 3.
Denver Nuggets celebrate Black History Month
To help celebrate Black History Month, the Denver Nuggets honored Hattie, a sports super fan whose loved ones fondly call Miss Hattie. A descendant of enslaved people, she grew up one of 10 children picking cotton on a Mississippi farm that her parents were forced to sharecrop. Hattie’s husband served in the Army during World War II. He and his all-Black unit were transferred from Germany to Denver after the war, and Hattie delivered the first Black baby born at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora. She then spent decades fighting for housing equality and other rights for Black people in Denver.
Fitzsimons evolved into the Anschutz Medical Campus, where Hattie now receives medical care at the UCHealth Seniors Clinic at University of Colorado Hospital.
Hattie’s beloved medical provider, UCHealth geriatric nurse practitioner Maria Vejar, entered Hattie in AARP’s Wish of a Lifetime. Hattie won and received an all-expense-paid trip to visit her parents’ graves in Mississippi one last time. (Read more about Miss Hattie and her trip to Mississippi.)
Hattie enjoyed another special experience last week when she spent time with Green and Cancar.
“I’m so glad to meet you. I’ve been watching you,” Hattie said.
The players had a surprise for Hattie. They presented her with tickets to come see the hottest sports team in town. The Nuggets lead their division and hope to clinch the team’s first-ever NBA Championship.
“You know, I have a birthday pretty soon,” Hattie coyly told the basketball players.
Green laughed and told her he most certainly knew about her upcoming 97th birthday on Feb. 15. That’s the night when Hattie and family members will see the Nuggets face off against the Dallas Mavericks.
“You get to come see us up close and personal,” said Green, who, along with his charm with elders, is known for his dunks and Green and Cancar both scored half-court shots in recent games.
Equality for Blacks in Denver: Miss Hattie helped fight housing discrimination
Hattie and the young men also bonded over favorite foods. Hattie and Green, whose folks came from North Carolina and Maryland, particularly love southern food like fried chicken, black-eyed peas, collard greens and cornbread. Hattie’s a big fan of black-eyed peas, while Green loves cornbread.
Cancar, who comes from Estonia, hadn’t heard of Hattie’s southern favorites.
“I hope I can get some,” Cancar said.
“He needs some greens,” Hattie said, eliciting a laugh from the young men. “I’ll make you some before you win.”
Then Green asked Hattie an important question.
“If we win a championship, are you going to come party with us?”
Hattie didn’t miss a beat: “Yes, if you come get me.”
Hattie, of course, no longer drives.
But she keeps up with sports and watches every single game the Nuggets play. Even though she was hanging out with Green and Cancar, she didn’t hesitate to say that her favorite player is Nikola Jokic, also known as “The Joker.”
“The Nuggets are really playing good now,” Hattie told Vic Lombardi, Altitude TV’s reporter and host and a longtime Denver broadcaster, who moderated a meet-and-greet with Hattie and the players.
Lombardi agreed with Hattie, and said he thinks this year’s team is the best in Nuggets’ history.
Hattie provided a little analysis of the team.
“Sometimes they come out and they be playing kind of slow or something, but in the end, they get the job done,” said Hattie, who herself played some basketball back in school and topped out at about 5’7.”
Green joked with her that Denver’s high altitude sometimes slows the players down.
After giving her take on the Nuggets, Hattie filled the young men in on what it was like to pick cotton as a girl.
She confided that cotton is “the worst plant God ever put out,” but said the work was “all right because that was all you knew.”
She also talked about the era when Black people were confined to particular Denver neighborhoods like Five Points.
“You couldn’t live past Downing,” Hattie said.
When she received care at Fitzsimons, she rode a cable car then a bus east of Denver past old farm houses to get to the hospital.
How to celebrate Black History Month? Volunteer. And root for a Nuggets NBA championship.
Hattie encouraged young people to volunteer and support their communities. Among those she supported were Denver’s first Black mayor, Wellington Webb. He famously wore out athletic shoes walking the streets of Denver to get elected.
“I still have one of his shoes in my garage,” Hattie said.
Her secret to living a long life? She shrugged at that. “You’ll have to talk to the almighty.”
Hattie is the last of her siblings to be alive. She also outlived her husband and their three children.
She’s incredibly proud of her relatives including her niece, Janice Turner, who accompanied her to Mississippi, her grandson, Mandingo Cooper, a teacher, writer and producer in Atlanta, Georgia, and her granddaughter, Caryl Smith Gilbert, who flew into town to accompany Hattie to the Nuggets meet-and-greet.
Smith Gilbert, a standout athlete herself, said she got her strength from Hattie. Smith Gilbert is the director of the track & field program for the University of Georgia bulldogs and led her former teams at the University of Southern California to national championships. She was a star runner at Denver’s George Washington High School back in the day and went on to run for the University of California Los Angeles in college.
Hattie remains very active with her church — Denver’s Central Baptist Church, founded by African Americans in 1891. She sometimes prays for Nuggets players during games saying things like: “Oh Lord, please let him make that shot.”
She’s pulling hard for the team to win a championship.
“It would sure be a blessed thing,” Hattie said.
Then she made a prediction: “Denver’s going to go wild.”