Women’s basketball Bear jumps from sidelines to spotlight

Kept off the court by injuries her freshman year, Cal women’s basketball player Avigiel Cohen nonetheless became so important to the team she was named a captain — a rare honor for a freshman, let alone one who can’t play. Now a senior, Cohen is not only more active on the boards these days, she’s busier around Berkeley, too, spending what little free time she has after games, practices and classes as a tutor, volunteer and activist.

That drive got Cohen noticed by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association: It’s named her a finalist for inclusion in the AllState WBCA Good Works Team, a squad of female athletes chosen for their leadership, volunteerism and civic-mindedness. From the 84 nominees, a voting panel led by WNBA star Tamika Catchings will pick 10 to join the team. The winning players — to be announced in February — will travel to Nashville for the 2014 WBCA Convention and NCAA Women’s Final Four, spending part of their time in the city promoting community service.

Cal senior guard Avigiel Cohen overcame setbacks on the court to become a leader both for her team and her community. GoldenBearSports.com photo.

Cal senior guard Avigiel Cohen overcame setbacks on the court to become a leader both for her team and her community. GoldenBearSports.com photo.

Cohen admits she wasn’t familiar with American basketball honors like the AllState WBCA Good Works Team until recently. Though she was born in Los Angeles, her family moved to Israel when she was 4. Still, when she told her parents about the nomination, she says they weren’t surprised.

“They know how busy I am,” she says. “I never have time to Skype them.”

Of course, her family had already had years to observe Cohen’s drive up close. Though Cohen’s sister and three brothers have all played basketball, around the age of 10 she committed herself to it in a way that was intense even for her sports-loving family.

“Basketball was my passion,” she says. “In high school, my life was mainly basketball and school – and even school wasn’t my first priority, to be honest.”

While basketball remains an important part of Cohen’s life, she says she started to reexamine her priorities after tearing a ligament in her knee twice – first during her last game as a high school player in a Tel Aviv suburb, then not long afterward during a pre-season practice of the Cal squad. Before she was even a single game into her college basketball career, Cohen had to face the fact that her days as a competing athlete were numbered.

Sidelined but not demoralized, she focused on becoming a leader off the court, going so far as independently calling a meeting when she felt that a lack of unity and team spirit had contributed to a big loss. Not long afterward, Cohen was named a captain.

“I came to Cal thinking I might go into business or nutrition, but once I got injured I opened my mind to sports psychology and the mental part of basketball and sports in general,” Cohen says. “So now that’s my real passion.”

One of several, actually. Cohen’s committed herself to not one but two organizations as a board member: the Berkeley Hillel and the Cal Student Athlete Gay-Straight Alliance (Cal SAGSA).

“I’m Jewish and I knew that one of the most important things I could do to make it feel more like home here would be to be close to the Jewish community,” Cohen says. “So from the start I was very involved. This year the board chose me and two other students to serve on the board of directors, so we basically represent the Jewish student voice on campus.”

“She has been an exceptional ambassador for the Jewish community to Cal athletics and is a model example of bringing together diverse communities to create a more inclusive community for all college students,” says Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, Berkeley Hillel’s executive director.

According to Cohen, it was that belief in inclusivity that led her to Cal SAGSA. As a female athlete, she says, she’s become aware of a lot of stereotypes and stigmas, and she’s hoping to help make those a thing of the past.

“I think having this group helps the overall perception that in our athletic department your sexuality doesn’t matter,” she says. “What matters is that you’re human and you’re a good athlete. We’re accepting of everybody who wants to play for Cal.”

As if her volunteer work, the women’s basketball schedule and her classes didn’t keep her busy enough, Cohen also tutors other students at the Athletic Study Center. Through that experience, she discovered yet another passion: teaching. Cohen has developed such an interest in it she even developed a class for herself to lead through the Interdisciplinary Studies department. This spring, her Student Athlete Leadership Class will explore both the special challenges and life lessons of collegiate athletics.

Cohen hopes another student will take over the class and keep it going in the future. She won’t be around to teach it after this spring, as she has two big changes ahead of her.

“I’m graduating in May and on July 1 I’m going into the army,” she says.

Military service is compulsory in Israel, with most citizens conscripted at the age of 18. As a student-athlete, Cohen won one of two deferrals the Israel Defense Forces used to grant each year. (The deferral program has since been discontinued.) After her two mandatory years in the military, Cohen hopes to return to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in sports psychology, with a Ph.D. and teaching perhaps in her future, as well.

In the end, though her injuries stymied her athletic career, they also opened up a whole new world.

“It all made me a stronger person,” Cohen says, “and one that will not regret anything.”