During her three years in the Woodbridge girls' basketball program, Chinyere Ukoh was constantly a source of amusement for her teammates, asking seemingly obvious questions, unwittingly making Yogi Berra-type observations and speaking of her parents' native Nigeria as if she herself had grown up there.
When it came to her quirks, "Chi-Chi" laughed right along with the Vikings. But during that time, she said, she also learned of hurtful comments from players outside the program who questioned her ability to develop the skills expected from someone with a promising, 6-foot-2 frame.
It is those naysayers who will be in the back of Ukoh's mind at 6 p.m. Tuesday when the recent graduate -- a Hampton University signee -- plays in the Virginia High School Coaches Association all-star game at Hampton Coliseum on the West team, a squad that also includes Forest Park guard Courtney Portell.
"The best feeling out of all this is being able to shut people up, the same people who told me I wasn't any good," Ukoh said. "And I've gotten a Division I scholarship and they didn't get a scholarship to any school, and they're not in the all-star game.
"It just shows for any person if they believe in themselves and have people believe in them that anything is possible," Ukoh added, citing Woodbridge Coach George Washington and former Vikings assistant Mike Wilson as people "who believed in me when I didn't believe in me."
The lingering bitterness belies Ukoh's self-described "goofy" nature, but that's how much the knocks stung. When Ukoh enrolled at Woodbridge, after attending Farfax's W.T. Woodson in her freshman year, volleyball was her better sport. It showed.
"Yes and no," Washington said last week when asked if he knew then that Ukoh could develop into a Division I player. "The yes part is she had all the physical attributes. But I didn't know how hard she would work, and I wasn't sure that she really wanted basketball.
"First of all, Chi-Chi couldn't shoot past five feet from the basket. That was only 50 percent, at best. She couldn't make a layup. . . . She couldn't catch the ball. She wasn't able to throw the ball."
And trips to the foul line could cause even the most supportive of her friends to giggle.
"She could not make a free throw to save her life," recalled Vikings rising senior Jennifer Pannocchia. "She'd be unbalanced and fall over after she shot it."
What Ukoh could do was accept criticism -- even from the high-decibel Wilson, recently named the girls' coach at Potomac -- and not allow the volume to drown out the instruction.
"I called her [Wilson's] daughter," Washington said with a chuckle. "That's how bad they were. It was like his daughter, he was yelling at her so much. . . . After a while, both of us were screaming at her."
Ukoh also benefited from practicing against fellow post-player Ariene Jenkins. Even though Ukoh was a year older, Jenkins had better skills.
Ukoh also reminded herself of certain NBA stars who did not take up basketball until their teens.
And on several occasions when she did not have a ride to practice or an open gym, Ukoh would walk the two miles from her home to the school, most of the trip on sidewalk-less Old Bridge Road.
"If I could rate my improvement on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give myself a 15," said Ukoh, who averaged 15.3 points as a senior and had 21 points and 17 rebounds in an early-season loss to eventual state runner-up Forest Park. "I'm not trying to sound big-headed, but people that were at the same place I was two years ago, I can say for a fact have not made as much improvement as I have."
Ukoh, whose first name means "God's gift" in her parents' native Igbo language, is branching out in other ways, too. She thinks she is too grown up to be called Chi-Chi, although it has already caught on at Hampton, where she is enrolled in three classes this summer.
Ukoh is excited about new acquaintances turning out Tuesday to watch her play in the all-star game, even if they have no idea how far her game has come.
"It's not only great for her to be in this game, this is great for the game," Washington said. "They'll see there's somebody there who wants to learn and work hard."