January 27, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Sparks star Chiney Ogwumike made most of 2020 without WNBA

So that was why Chiney Ogwumike’s phone was buzzing.

After serving as a poll worker on election day in her hometown of Houston, the Sparks forward settled in front of the TV with her parents and uncle. She watched CNN’s coverage of the election and scrolled through her notifications, the ones she heard buzzing but couldn’t check while on duty. Her friends were texting her about what happened on Twitter. She thought it was fake.

Now, she realized, Barack Obama was really in her mentions.

“Thank you,” he wrote, retweeting a photo Ogwumike had posted of herself and older sister Nneka outside the Toyota Center, where they’d worked as election clerks. The former president lauded Chiney and her sister “and all of the athletes who are using their platforms and helping people vote in this election.”

What was already “one of the best days ever” for Ogwumike got even better.

“We grind in the darkness hoping that our hard work will come to light,” Ogwumike said recently. “I feel like I’m fortunate that this year there’s been a light shone on my work.”

Ogwumike didn’t need basketball to make 2020 one of her most successful years yet. After previous injuries kept her from participating in the WNBA’s bubbled season, the 28-year-old expanded her role in media, becoming the first Black woman to co-host a national ESPN radio show, and grew into a prominent advocate for social justice. The off-court influence earned her a spot on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list.

When the year began, Ogwumike had every intention of making her mark on the court with the Sparks. That was her main reason for coming to Los Angeles in 2019 from Connecticut, where she was drafted first overall by the Sun in 2014. She wanted to win a championship with Nneka, who plays for the Sparks and helped the team to its 2016 WNBA title.

But the coronavirus outbreak spoiled that dream for Ogwumike, like it did the plans of many others, as the WNBA moved its season into a bubble at IMG Academy in Florida. The WNBA players association, for which Ogwumike serves as a vice president, negotiates the details of the season. Ogwumike did so knowing she likely wouldn’t participate.

After undergoing microfracture surgery in 2015 and tearing an Achilles tendon in 2017, the two-time all-star needs eight weeks of practice to get in shape to enter training camp. The pandemic allowed players only three. Ogwumike, who averaged 9.6 points and 5.8 rebounds during her first season with the Sparks, chose her long-term playing career over the immediate desire to help the title-contending Sparks in the “Wubble.”

“It was heartbreaking for me,” Ogwumike said.

The stress of watching games from afar is much worse than being on the court, Ogwumike said. She knows her energy could have helped the Sparks, who were upset in the second round of the playoffs. Yet she found an equally important role outside the bubble.

As players dedicated the season to the #SayHerName movement, Ogwumike amplified the message through appearances on ESPN and her radio show, “Chiney and Golic Jr.” One day after the WNBA postponed play to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, she interviewed her sister Nneka Ogwumike, who is the president of the WNBA players association, and other members of the executive committee about the decision. It was the opening segment.

“Having the mic felt like I was still in the game,” Ogwumike said, “because what mattered the most to WNBA players at that time was actually everything that we were doing [off the court] and for people to actually hear us out and see us.”

Becoming activists is “part of our [generation’s] calling,” she said, especially for athletes who spoke out for racial justice following George Floyd’s death in May. She was one of the original members of LeBron James’ More Than a Vote organization, bringing the WNBA’s influence to the star-studded group that included personalities from the NBA, NFL and entertainment industry. Ogwumike spoke on MSNBC and ABC about the organization’s mission to combat voter suppression and narrated a call-to-action video to recruit volunteers to work the polls on election day. Poll workers typically have been older people, but they were encouraged to stay home because of health risks with the coronavirus outbreak. The group recruited more than 42,000 poll workers. Ogwumike was one of them.

“It struck home that if I’m voicing this piece, I can’t just talk about it,” she said. “I might as well just be about it.”

So Ogwumike requested a rare day off from work at ESPN, scrambling from L.A. on Monday, when she boarded a 6 p.m. flight after work, to Houston, where she arrived at Nneka’s house at 1 a.m. local time Tuesday. The sisters reported to the Toyota Center at 6 a.m. for their nine-hour shift.

Ogwumike helped nervous first-time voters. She gave an “I voted” sticker to a smiling young child whose single mother voted. She spoke Spanish with voters who needed help. That evening, she watched the first wave of the results with her parents. At 6 a.m. Wednesday, she was back on a plane to L.A.

“This honestly felt like a dream,” Ogwumike said. “A surreal dream.”

Ogwumike was back on the radio Wednesday afternoon with her regularly scheduled show. The former Stanford All-American has always found a way to fit in community efforts alongside work.

“Chiney’s always been a big-picture person,” said Tara VanDerveer, head coach of Stanford’s women’s basketball team.

Along with winning four consecutive conference championships and advancing to three Final Fours at Stanford, Ogwumike studied abroad for one quarter. After fulfilling a requirement for the international relations major by interning with Nigeria’s minister of petroleum, she volunteered with a nonprofit that raised $30,000 to build a basketball court to provide more opportunities for girls in sports.

“She’s not about Chiney,” VanDerveer said. “Whether it was [majoring in] international relations or working with Dr. Condoleezza Rice as her advisor, she’s always been a part of the big world.”

Ogwumike’s worlds now meet in Los Angeles, where she moved permanently early this year. She wanted the move to help balance her media and basketball lives. As she prepares to return to the court next season, Ogwumike intends to keep that balance, hoping to work out a creative solution with ESPN to maintain the radio show.

“The plan is to keep pushing boundaries,” Ogwumike said.

The former WNBA rookie of the year is still chasing that elusive WNBA championship. From her downtown apartment, Ogwumike saw L.A. celebrate two major championships in October. She watched fireworks light up the night sky for the Lakers, then 16 days later, saw them for the Dodgers.

She wants to help make the next celebration in honor of the Sparks.