Viral High School Sensations Zia Cooke and Fran Belibi Reflect on Their Internet Fame
This will happen again. This is not some flash-in-the-pan thing, a one-time blink of stardom only to fade into obscurity. These are legitimate stars doing what they will do for their rest of their careers.
They are talented teenagers and top recruits, and the fact that their exploits on the court went viral isn’t surprising.
The credentials are there, after all. Zia Cooke, a 5’9” senior guard from Toledo’s Rogers High, led her school to the Ohio Division II championship last season, and won a gold medal with Team USA over the summer. She’s the No. 7 recruit in the country, committed to South Carolina, part of a loaded class that will ensure her highlights will be playing on ESPN for years to come.
Fran Belibi, a 6’1” forward from Regis Jesuit High outside of Denver, can fly. She can dunk. (For reference, some famous female dunkers: Lisa Leslie, 6’5”; Georgeann Wells, 6’7”; Candace Parker, 6’4”; Brittney Griner, 6’9”.) Two years ago, she threw down a massive slam, putting her on SportsCenter and on the national radar. She’s only been playing basketball since her freshman year of high school. She scored a 35 on her ACT and will attend Stanford next year as the No. 23 recruit in the country. She’s also won gold with USA basketball.
But they’re high school seniors. They’re both in the middle of exams. How do you respond when basketball luminaries are heaping praise on you?
What do you do when Steph Curry writes on Instagram, I see you in the Curry 3ZERO twos?
What do you do when you get compared to James Worthy?
What do you do when Bleacher Report, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, the Washington Post and more showcase your work?
What do you do when Chance The Rapper shouts you out?
What about when Dwyane Wade writes, Oh she’s cold.
Or when CJ McCollum notices you?
Or put it this way: How do high schoolers, in the era of mix-tapes, social media drops and instant information, where Zion Williamson YouTube highlight reels rack up millions of views and online haters can be a constant, deal with being the biggest thing around? We asked them.
Fran Belibi is on the phone in the middle of exam week at Regis Jesuit, which should be a breeze for her, given her 4.0 GPA and her invitation to the National Academy of Future Scientists and Technology.
Belibi isn’t exactly like normal teens. There’s the whole ridiculous book smarts thing, but she gives off a mature and relaxed vibe beyond her years.
And there’s this: she doesn’t have social media. “I’m just not a social media type of gal,” she says, though she notes that she will answer her friend’s Snapchats. “I just don’t find a need to have one for yourself.”
Belibi doesn’t have social media, so the first time she dunked, it was her friends and teammates who showed her that she was on SportsCenter.
That was Belibi’s first experience going viral. She was 15 years old, the first girl in Colorado history to dunk. She was a known commodity, not just in Colorado hoops circles or women’s hoops circle.
“I would be walking around, minding my own business and people [would] come up to me and know who I am,” she says. “They ask me what school I’m going to. Once they figure that out, they ask me if I’m the girl that dunked, or if I know the girl that dunked. It’s fun to say that I am.”
Belibi shot to national recognition after that. She played internationally. One time, on a team trip to New York, someone noticed her and gave the team free drinks.
This time, the dunk, which was arguably more powerful than the first, rocketed around social media. The Lakers' Kyle Kuzma tweeted it. Steph Curry shouted her out.
“It’s the weirdest thing ever!” she exclaims. “To me, I’m just a normal girl. To have these celebrities talk about me is crazy.”
Belibi is unlike most teens in other ways. She says she has no plans to play in the WNBA, preferring to go straight to medical school after college. And, even after seeing all the tweets, all the shoutouts, she’s glad that she’s doesn’t have social media. “I think it would be overwhelming,” she says. “A couple of my friends are top level players across the country, and just watching them and how many notifications they get, and on this scale, it would be overwhelming.”
Two days before the game that brought D-Wade into her life and Chance the Rapper onto her screen, Zia Cooke put out a plea: More followers, please.
She’s been wanting this. She knows she’s good enough and hell, there are other girls going viral and they’re not even as good! And she’s got a point. There’s the sick crossover, pointing at the poor defender who fell on the floor. There’s the step-back J’s. There’s a reason she’s committed to South Carolina and is the No. 7 recruit in the country.
What happens when you score 43 points, breaking ankles and exploding past defenders in the process? First you get a thousands likes in 10 minutes. You get 500 shares on Facebook. You wake up and your phone is going crazy. You don’t have Twitter, so your friends share the screenshots of Chance the Rapper name-dropping you. You’re getting so many likes that you have to create a Twitter. “I was like I don’t want one!” she says. “But I had to make one.”
Cooke, who led Rogers to the state championship last year, is incredibly talented. There are other YouTube highlights of her that are just as impressive. There’s a reason that her future coach Dawn Staley called her after the game, that John Wall messaged her on Instagram saying “Keep Killing.”
After 24 hours, Cooke had 51,000 followers across Instagram and Twitter. It’s safe to expect more crazy outbursts in the future, both here and at South Carolina. She’s prepared for this, and she’s expecting it. “I felt like I was dreaming,” she says. “The best part is people noticing me. Now I can show off all my talents.”
Is this a good thing? Is it a good idea for 17-year-olds, regardless of their skill, to be rocketed around the internet like this, exposed to millions of people? It’s unclear. There’s no harm done, and there haven’t been—at least for Cooke and Belibi—too many haters. It’s worth asking, though: Will this turn into a phenomenon that will go out of control? We don’t know. We do know this—it will happen again. And it will happen again to Cooke and Belibi.