True to his guru-like leadership style, Winthrop women’s basketball Kevin Cook likes a calming walk-and-talk. He does this with players and coaches alike, pacing in or around the Winthrop Coliseum while discussing tactics or life lessons. One of his favorite walking partners is senior guard Diana Choibekova.
“Every program needs what you would call a ‘class clown,’ ” said Cook on Friday before his team’s practice. “She kind of fits that bill. But she’s able to lead because she works so hard, and be funny all at the same time.”
Choibekova, the team’s lone senior, will be feted Saturday before the Eagles’ regular season finale against UNC Asheville. She came to Rock Hill from Daytona State College, after drawing little or no interest from Division I schools as a high school player in Manhattan. Choibekova used that dismissal as fuel for her ever-burning competitive furnace during the two-year stint in Florida, and certainly the last two at Winthrop.
“Winthrop was my dream … well, D-I,” she said. “So, Winthrop turned out to be my dream school, I guess.”
Choibekova, nicknamed “Chobi,” will graduate as the program’s second all-time leading 3-point shooter. She’s knocked down 203 triples during her two years in Rock Hill, leading the NCAA in 3-pointers made per game last year, and ranking sixth this season. She arrived at Daytona as a decent scorer, but Christena Hamilton, who recruited Choibekova to the junior college and now coaches her as a Winthrop assistant, saw something else in the scrawny competitor with a poof of seemingly uncontrollable frizz on her head.
“I saw her drive,” said Hamilton. “She loves the game, and that stood out to me.”
Choibekova, who is averaging close to 14 points per game this season, is renowned as a brazen 3-point gunner, but Hamilton said that was the product of hard work, not a natural gift. Choibekova shot 200 to 300 jump shots a day while at Daytona, and she hasn’t let up at Winthrop.
“That came from getting in the gym every day,” said Hamilton, “and realizing, ‘wow, at the 3-point line I’m pretty deadly.’ That’s really a reflection of her hard work.”
As the lone senior, Choibekova has shouldered a heavy leadership load for the Eagles this year. But true to her unique personality, she’s led in her own way. Choibekova’s mother is Russian and her father is Cuban, making her essentially a relic of the Soviet Union. She lived in both countries before moving to New York City as an 11-year-old and it’s that worldly, melting pot background that has molded her into an outgoing and accepting person.
“She’s not a sheltered person where she thinks her way is the right way,” Hamilton explained. “She welcomes all cultures. You got to love that about her.”
Choibekova recently orchestrated the team’s obligatory take on the Harlem Shake, tracking down every ridiculous costume personally. She also starred in the team’s goofy video promoting its “blackout” game against Campbell several weeks ago, while Cook pointed out that in-season she’s on a strict no-skateboarding policy. During a campaign in which the Eagles have played 65 percent of their games on the road and battled a number of nagging injuries, a dose of well-timed levity from Choibekova has kept the squad loose.
“This season is long, extremely long and you’ve got to keep things fun,” said Cook. “And that’s what Chobi does; she has an aura that she touches everyone she comes in contact with.”
She’s been a perfect, quirky fit with Cook, who took over as the Eagles’ boss after serving as an assistant last year under Marlene Stollings. Hamilton said coaches don’t have to jump on Choibekova to get her moving; she’s self-motivated, allowing her relationships with coaches to reach deeper levels than the secondary parenting less mature players require. For Choibekova and Cook, that means lots of long walks.
“They’re awesome,” Choibekova said about the strolls. “He just calls us individually and says, ‘Hey, come talk to me.’ He walks so fast, it’s hard to keep up with him.”
The walks help maintain a level of calm throughout the program during a very trying year coupled with big expectations. The Eagles (19-10, 13-4 Big South) are on the brink of a 20-win season and already set the school record for most Big South wins in a season. Cook said his team will be disappointed if it doesn’t make the NCAA tournament, but they expect to be involved in the postseason regardless, even if it’s the NIT or WCBI. Everyone wants to make the postseason this year for “Chobi.”
“This is her last go-around. I think tomorrow, her teammates, it will start to hit them,” Cook said. “It becomes a jarring reality on Senior Day.”
The practical jokes and the promotional video ideas will be gone, as will the 3-point bombs that broke the backs of so many opponents. But there’s one thing Cook genuinely doesn’t want to lose.
“I hope that she and I will be able to walk when she finishes,” he said.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T