- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2007

Gini Chukura, bleary from studying for finals more than two years ago, received a call as he was preparing for his final exam of the semester.

At the other end was James Gist, then a freshman on Maryland’s basketball team. Gist had just finished talking with then-assistant Mike Lonergan, who revealed the Terrapins were thinking about adding Chukura to the roster, and he excitedly called his high school friend with the news.

“I hit Gini and I said ‘Gini, Coach is going to call you,’ ” Gist recalls. “Gini thought I was playing with him. First he got mad. Then when I got off the phone with him he had a voice mail.”

Soon enough, Chukura had a new, longer-lasting test in front of him: A spot as a walk-on for the Terps.

And while he’s usually removed from the spotlight, Chukura has never been too far from Maryland’s success heading into today’s regular season finale against N.C. State.

It will be Chukura’s final game at Comcast Center, where he’s established himself as a fan favorite.

Never mind the modest career totals of 26 games, 61 minutes and 13 points; Chukura’s scrappiness has forced teammates to improve on a daily basis.

A payoff arrives today when the Terps (23-7, 9-6 ACC) celebrate the careers of their six seniors and fans have one last chance to plead for coach Gary Williams to insert the 6-foot-5 forward into the lineup.

“It’s real humbling,” Chukura says. “It makes me happy because you work real hard to get on the team.

When you hear somebody say ‘Put Gini in’ or start chanting your name, I think you say ‘Wow, you’ve really worked hard to get here. You should be proud of what you’ve accomplished.’ ”

Taking the call

Chukura played two varsity seasons at Good Counsel as a sixth man with a knack for rebounding and defense.

Division III schools Salisbury and Lynchburg expressed interest, but Chukura wanted to remain close to home and money was a concern.

He attended walk-on tryouts as a freshman at Maryland and wasn’t selected, but Gist helped cajole him into giving another attempt the next year. Two months went by this time before an evening of playing telephone tag with Lonergan.

“He said ‘Are you still interested in trying out for the team?’ ” Chukura remembers. “I said ‘Of course I’m still interested.’ ”

The Terps needed an extra body because Darien Henry and Mike Grinnon were injured, so Chukura assumed a significant role in practice and played in a game within weeks. But most of Chukura’s usual work is preparing his teammates for in-game situations by simulating the opponent’s top defensive perimeter player. That means being an every-day nuisance, even for the Terps’ best player. Chukura frequently matches up with guard D.J. Strawberry, aggravating his fellow senior with his physicality.

“He makes my job just as tough as possible,” Strawberry says. “He’s a lot bigger than me, a lot stronger than me and he tries to pound me on the boards. Coach gets on me because it seems like every time Gini’s getting a hand on the ball on every rebound. Defensively, he’s just a pest, kind of like I am.”

Not surprisingly, that trait earned him attention from teammates and Williams. Maryland has a history of carrying walk-ons, but they need to be savvy players to really integrate into the roster.

Gist says Chukura’s role manifests itself in several ways, including Williams doling out praise for accurately replicating an opponent. When Chukura is a mainstay on the scout team, it allows the Terps to rotate more players onto the first team during practice.

“That’s where walk-ons get a chance to play, and that’s their games, the practice situation,” Williams says. “He’s really been good. Gini’s been a great asset to our team. He really helps the other players.

“He talks to them. They don’t see him as a threat for playing time, but he’s respected on the team.”

And seldom seen at times. Chukura is on track to graduate with an international business degree this spring and has juggled his basketball demands with attempts to earn internships at the White House and World Bank.

He was part of an international scholars program his first two years, and he also took a trip to Africa his freshman year to visit family (his father originally is from Nigeria, his mother from Ghana). Both sparked interest for Chukura, who Gist jokes is so studious he “basically sleeps in the library” during finals.

“Gini’s one of those lifelong friends you want to stay in touch with,” Gist says. “After he graduates, I know he wants to do international business, and that’s a contact I might want to keep. We’re good friends and he’s one of the best guys you could ever know.”

Anything to help

The one time each game fans see Chukura is during pregame introductions, when he chest bumps each starter. But his contributions aren’t limited to before the opening tip.

Sometimes, he’ll sit next to Gist on the bench and point out something he saw before the forward re-enters the game. At other moments, he’ll try to motivate teammates, pushing buttons almost as deftly as Williams himself.

“All the time, he’s saying little funny things before the game trying to get me pumped up or trying to get me mad,” Strawberry says. “Gini knows when I get mad, that’s when I play my best, so he’s tried to get me mad sometimes. It’s pretty funny. Sometimes he gets me going.”

Gist insists Chukura is the best storyteller he knows. He is a man who can deftly weave sounds and obscure details into any tale, cementing his status as an authority for recounting any bizarre happening around the team.

But sometimes, the nuances of Chukura’s in-game appearances — notably the contribution of something in a brief stint — tell a story of their own.

“Even in the beginning of year when he was getting a little playing time, Gini would come in and he would always score points or get a steal or get a rebound,” Gist says. “That would always show, even in that minute and a half, how hard he worked. He didn’t play the whole 38, 39 minutes. He still went out and worked and still got on the stat sheet.”

It could happen again today, as the Terps try to remain in the hunt for the No. 4 seed in next week’s ACC tournament. Chukura hasn’t played since Jan. 4 against Iona, though it hasn’t made either his balancing act or his contributions any less rewarding to himself or his surging team.

“You have to do good both in school and on the court,” Chukura says. “But at the same time I’ve also increased in my basketball knowledge. I think that’s one of the main things that helped me when I came here, understanding how the game is played on the next level because playing in the CRC and Comcast are two different things. …

“It’s going to be sad. It’s my last game here at Comcast, but I had so many great times here. I have to appreciate the times I’ve played here.”

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