Chiney Ogwumike is on. On court with the L.A. Sparks; on ESPN with her podcast, Chiney; on a bold and towering mural alongside Ashleigh Johnson, Alex Morgan, Oksana Masters and Chelsea Wolfe in a partnership with Secret to promote girls and women in sport; and soon, if FIBA’s multi-tiered approval process passes, on the Nigerian women’s basketball team for the upcoming Olympics alongside her sisters, Erica and Nneka.
“On” is the word the brain needs to use when describing the full force of Ogwumike, though her power is more of constant undercurrent, a steady and humming energy, than something toggled by a switch. Which is handy, because when asked to pick her favorite word — a question inspired by her once saying her big sister, Nneka’s, was “grace” — Ogwumike hesitates for the first time.
“Ooooo,” Ogwumike says with a laugh. “It’s so funny how it’s my job to know everything about other people as an analyst, and then it’s like, okay, how do I analyze myself?”
The difficulty a person as deeply perceptive as Ogwumike has in distilling herself doesn’t come from a lack of self-awareness. The challenge is that to limit herself — something you come to understand when watching her snatch up second chances under the basket, or set impervious screens to get her teammates clear so they can send the ball looping back to her for a shot from deep — goes against what feels like Ogwumike’s main drive: to go beyond.
“I’m trying to think of what the essence of my favorite word is, but it’s almost like I have this drive, this motivation, I don’t want to say Energizer bunny — it’s like, can’t stop, won’t stop type of mentality,” Ogwumike says, her voice a little scratchy from her appearance on Jimmy Kimmel the night before with guest host Wanda Sykes (“I have no voice because I was having so much fun with Wanda,” she clarifies). “So it’s not one word, but it’s fearless, almost. You know, keep going and keep progressing no matter what I’m doing. Why waste a moment?”
For Ogwumike, much of that fearlessness was instilled in her by taking up sports as a kid, and it’s that feeling she wants to instill in young girls through her partnership with Secret.
“Every athlete has, you’re told this is what you’re good at, and this is what you need to work on. You have strengths and weaknesses. I would say that for me, it’s an exercise in vulnerability, right?” she recalls. “As young girls, you are vulnerable going to school and learning and being around people for the first time and trying to find out what you like. That’s where you get tested. And I think sports is what helped give me the confidence to deal with my vulnerabilities, deal with my weaknesses and learn how to embrace my strengths instead of focusing on the possible negatives. And that’s why we find it so important to support girls in sports from the grassroots level, because that’s a huge indicator for confidence and even success at the professional level.
“That girls are falling out [of sports] at two times the rate of young boys. And yet that’s coupled with the idea that over 90 percent of women in C-suite positions — CMOs, COOs, CEOs — played sports. We have the reasoning as to why we should support women in sports and enhance the coverage,” Ogwumike stresses. “We know that no one will go harder for the next generation of young girls than us.”
Advocacy is a conduit through which much of Ogwumike’s energy flows, and why she was eventually urged into her position as VP of the WNBA Player’s Association by Nneka, the organization’s president. One of the earliest and funniest moments of her show comes in the inaugural episode, when she’s joined by Nneka, whose eyes go wide in horror as Chiney’s glint with delight when she jokes, “Shout out nepotism!” on their side-by-side executive committee roles.
“We were fully elected, okay? All the votes and everything.” Ogwumike says of the candid moment using the same ribbing tone before turning sincere, “But that just shows you how we roll. We just gravitate towards each other.”
The elder Ogwumike, who counts WNBA Champion and six-time All-Star as a small sampling of her accolades, has been a driving force in Chiney’s development on and off court since the two “were kids in the driveway” practicing hoops. Chiney, meanwhile, views Nneka as a “goal model,” a person who sets the bar for herself “and then also is very inclusive with us as sisters to help us achieve them as well.”
“She sets goals for herself and those goals have been infectious,” Ogwumike says about how she’s watched Nneka open doors. “And I think that’s the best thing you can do as a woman.”
Chiney and Nneka both have experience playing abroad — Nneka in Poland and Russia, and Chiney in Italy (“There’s no better life than playing the sport you love and at night, going to bed or going home and seeing the Italian countryside,” she says, “I was like, whoa, am I in a Nicholas Sparks novel?”) and China — and while it’s something that goes hand-in-hand for many WNBA players during the offseason, Ogwumike credits her time overseas as something that opened her eyes to the opportunities sports can, more widely, provide women.
Now, all three sisters are waiting to see if the doors to a more gilded global stage will open to them. With Team USA neglecting to name Nneka to their Olympic roster, the trio have been listed on the Nigerian women’s basketball team’s provisional roster, and could make history if FIBA approves Nneka and Chiney’s additions to the final 12-person team.
The Ogwumike sisters are on the threshold of history after the trio were listed in the 15 man provisional list submitted to the Nigeria Basketball Federation by Head Coach, Otis Hughley.@nnekaogwumike pic.twitter.com/Rnty1VUXgv
— #NBBF (@nbbfonline) July 6, 2021
“I don’t know how many families can say you have three Olympians that can all play on the same team,” Ogwumike says with a chuckle. “Being Nigerian has mattered to me and my family, being American has mattered to me and my family. And it’s an opportunity we don’t take for granted. And to be able to do this with my sisters in about two weeks, say, ‘I’m an Olympian,’ that, to me. is literally a dream come true. And then it’s times three, and got to shout out my other little sister, Olivia, who is our biggest support system and keeps us on balance as well.”
Despite her proficiency and the ease at which she’s stretched out into so many meaningful directions, Ogwumike is honest about how she’s needed to find balance, even if there’s been a steep learning curve.
“Definitely don’t have balance,” she laughs. “That’s the biggest misconception when people meet me, they’re like, oh my gosh, how do you do it all? I don’t. Things get dropped, texts get dropped, you know? But people that understand that what I’m doing, meaning trying to do it all, play, be an analyst, also be an entrepreneur and find new roles that will help break down barriers. People understand that that mission is so unique and so timely, it’s amazing to see how my team has grown over the years.”
The team, “usually women” (though she credits her dad as always being a champion for her and her sisters), started out as her family and grew into coaches and, eventually, the professional group Ogwumike built and relies on to help fill in the occasional gap. She believes it’s been crucial in what she considers more important than balance: handling failure.
“When I think about balance, it’s okay not to have everything together. I learned in TV — and also basketball, but basketball is a little bit more relatable. You’re going to miss a shot. You’re going to maybe even air ball a shot. How do you handle that failure? And how does that motivate you to be better?” Ogwumike says. “On television, it’s like that on steroids because … well, let me not say steroids, but that on a million, because you make a mistake and everyone sees you immediately and judges you, typically in that male-dominated space, as a woman for that mistake. And so you realize that perfection is overrated. It’s about progress over perfection.”
That onus on progress, or pushing forward toward interests that eventually turn into goals, can so often be marred by an early misstep or the tendency to hesitate. In her Kimmel appearance, Ogwumike talks about the hesitation — a “hesi move” she calls it — that keeps people from doing something as simple as, in her example, going to a WNBA game. “Get rid of that!” She shouts, miming a shot before telling the audience, “Follow through!”
It’s the total absence of hesitation in the moves Ogwumike is making now — the development she’s done in her shooting volume with the Sparks, her stepping up to executive produce the documentary 144 about the WNBA Bubble and the league’s continued social justice leadership, her and her sisters’ commitment to going a different route regardless of what’s been historically contentious — that compels a question toward the end of our interview as to whether it’s the way she’s always approached her life.
“Wow, look at you doing deep psychology,” she says, teasingly. “No, but that’s so true. I do think so. I always say the way I learned this the most dramatically was my role with ESPN. You jump into the deep end there, they put you on it, they believe in you, they see something in you and they say, all right, let’s see what you do on air. You know, will you sink or swim? And when you have an opportunity of a lifetime, do you jump in and immerse yourself in it and see what you’re made of, or do you sort of hesitate? And that’s what really gets you in quicksand, right? You don’t want to be like that in the pool. You want to just go out there and use your skillset and swim.”
So maybe “on” isn’t the right work for Ogwumike after all. Maybe it’s off — as in lift-off, or the culmination of the countdown, the deep breath, the run and the plunge. Taking the leap before testing the water, proud with purpose, no hesi moves.