It just wasn't Natalie Gilbert's day. The 13-year-old had the flu, and now she had forgotten the words to the song she was performing at half-court of Portland's Rose Garden Arena, in front of 20,000 fans, before Game 3 of the 2003 NBA Western Conference quarterfinals. The song? The Star-Spangled Banner.
Luckily, as much of America recalls from the YouTube clips, Trail Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks (now an assistant with the Thunder) came to the hopeful songstress's rescue, placing a hand on her shoulder and singing along. "He was my guardian angel," says Gilbert, now 21, who had won the chance to perform in a contest. "He's a very selfless man."
After the series—which the Blazers lost to the Mavs—she and Cheeks were interviewed together on CNN and The Tonight Show, and Gilbert appeared on Good Morning America and The Wayne Brady Show. Returning to school was the hard part. "It was really embarrassing," recalls Gilbert, who was slow to regain her confidence. "I would overpractice [other songs] just in case," she admits—but she hasn't slipped up in public since. Certainly not the following April, when the 76ers flew Gilbert in to sing the anthem before a Blazers game in Philadelphia, where Cheeks had played and coached for 18 seasons. She nailed the song, and Cheeks gave her a big hug before she left the court.
Gilbert graduated from high school in '07 and attended junior college in Portland before moving in '09 to L.A., where she spent the year taking dancing, acting and voice lessons, resulting in two professional gigs at private events. "I was really rough on myself for a while," admits Gilbert, who today is working at the family business, Environmentally Conscious Recycling, in Portland to save up the funds to hire an agent. "But music is an extension of me again."