‘It’s showtime’: Why Nneka Ogwumike is primed for a bounce-back WNBA season
The WNBA star questioned her worth after injury and an Olympics snub. Her renewed spirit came from making herself the priority again.
As Los Angeles Sparks star forward Nneka Ogwumike assessed the steps she needed to take to meet her offseason goals in late 2021, the first that came to mind were rest and recovery.
Coming off a serious knee injury in early June 2021, Ogwumike worked on getting back into peak physical shape on the basketball court, where the six-time WNBA All-Star and former MVP is among the best in the game.
For Ogwumike, however, rest and recovery were not just required physically but also mentally.
Over the course of the previous two seasons, Ogwumike continued to work tirelessly as president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), sometimes putting her work as president before her career as a player.
As Ogwumike began this offseason, she did so during one of the most difficult times in her career. She grappled with USA Basketball’s decision to leave her off the Olympic team that ultimately won a gold medal in Tokyo last summer.
So this offseason, after so much time dedicated to others, Ogwumike put herself first.
As Ogwumike, 31, prepares to take the court for her 11th season healthy in both body and spirit, she carries an energy that she worked to renew this offseason.
“It kind of feels like a rebound,” Ogwumike said. “Like redemption.”
Since the end of the 2019 season, Ogwumike has been unrelenting in her position as president of the WNBPA. In 2020, she led the negotiation of a groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement and helped orchestrate an entire bubble season during the coronavirus pandemic. Following the shooting of Jacob Blake in August 2020 in Wisconsin, she worked with WNBA players as they decided to respond with a two-day protest without playing. She has continued to affect the game beyond the court in ways that will be discussed for years through new partnerships and advocacy, such as the WNBPA’s multiyear partnership with Pepsi Stronger Together to support causes important to the players in each of the league’s 12 markets.
Ogwumike is driven by the pressure she feels to ensure that the demands of the 144 players she represents are met. She’s motivated by the opportunity to effect change, even if it’s the change she may not ever experience. It’s in part why she will put her name back on the union ballot at the end of 2022.
But to some extent, Ogwumike’s work has also come at the expense of her own on-court career. It’s a reality she both anticipated and accepted when she took on the role.
Ogwumike felt that impact especially during the bubble season, where juggling her demands as president and managing the stresses felt by many simply living in America during the year’s events caused a major imbalance in her physical performance. Ogwumike missed multiple games due to a back injury and averaged 13.3 points and 4.8 rebounds during the shortened season, the lowest totals of her career. It was a season in which she said she was just happy to make it through.
As a result, Ogwumike targeted the 2021 season as the one where she brought her playing career back to the forefront. After signing a multiyear deal to return to Los Angeles in free agency, coupled with the departure of Candace Parker to Chicago and Chelsea Gray to Las Vegas, Ogwumike held the keys to the Sparks franchise.
She was ready to stake her claim again as a dominant player – first in the league, and then the world during the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which she had been eyeing for years.
Ogwumike’s season began as expected. In the first four games, she averaged 18 points and 7.8 rebounds. But on June 1, she fell awkwardly during the fourth quarter in a game against the Dallas Wings and suffered a Grade 2 left knee sprain. It sidelined Ogwumike for 14 games – the longest absence in her career.
Later that month, Ogwumike was dealt a second blow when USA Basketball announced its 12-player roster for the Tokyo Games. Ogwumike had seemingly done everything possible to prove she had earned a spot in Tokyo in the years leading up to the Olympic announcement. She had gone to every team camp, participated in every tournament, won a World Cup in 2018 and was named the MVP of the Olympic qualifying tournament less than a year before. But when USA Basketball announced its Tokyo roster, Ogwumike was not listed.
Ogwumike’s injury appears to have played a role in USA Basketball’s decision, though, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. Ogwumike had called then-U.S. women’s national team director Carol Callan after suffering her injury and told her that she would be ready by the time the Summer Olympics rolled around. Sparks athletic trainer Courtney Watson had been in communication with USA Basketball regarding Ogwumike’s timeline, which hadn’t changed. Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, who at the time was also recovering from an injury, made the final roster.
Ogwumike wouldn’t give up on her Olympic dream, however. Along with her sister Chiney and Washington Mystics forward Elizabeth Williams, she petitioned to compete for the Nigerian national team. FIBA denied Ogwumike’s petition, citing her long-standing involvement with USA Basketball.
“I always tell people you have to go through it to get to it. She had to go through it and not pretend it wasn’t happening but really sit in what the reality was and figure out how this is going to make us stronger.”
On Aug. 9, just two days after the women’s national team won its seventh straight gold medal in Tokyo, Ogwumike sat alone at a table in Los Angeles for a news conference.
Ogwumike mentioned that following the roster announcement, she had gone weeks feeling “unvaluable or unworthy.” Those acute feelings, which triggered tears from Ogwumike at the podium, would last well past the Olympic break.
“That particular raw feeling … it lasted for a few months,” said Ogwumike, who had also missed the Olympic cut in 2016 and is the only former WNBA MVP not to make an Olympic roster. “Before last summer, I identified that feeling more as like an underdog or being taken for granted. But what I experienced last summer, that feeling kind of unearthed its ugly head as exactly what I’ve always kind of thought it was.”
In the Ogwumike household, Nneka, the oldest of four sisters, had always been her siblings’ source of strength and support. But in this instance, it would take the collective strength of the family to re-center its leader.
“It was really, really difficult,” Chiney Ogwumike said of seeing her sister in that state. “To go through some unwarranted adversity like that, she has to feel it. I always tell people you have to go through it to get to it. She had to go through it and not pretend it wasn’t happening but really sit in what the reality was and figure out how this is going to make us stronger.”
Ogwumike played in the Sparks’ final 13 regular-season games. She grew closer to feeling like her usual on-court self with each game. She found pride in her return and her performance. Los Angeles made a push for a playoff berth but fell short. Ogwumike missed the playoffs for the first time in her career.
In previous offseasons, Ogwumike’s response to a season like she had in 2021 or 2020 would be to fill her plate, capitalize on opportunities and make sure those around her were full. However, the combined experiences of the past two years led Ogwumike to reevaluate how she wanted to move this offseason and redefine how rebounding from those experiences works for her.
The first step in that process was making herself the priority.
“I think it was just about getting back to not feeling like she has to move mountains. She can sort of do her own thing. This is the first time that I think she could just take a breath.”— Chiney Ogwumike
“There’s always the analogy of you can’t pour from an empty cup,” Ogwumike said. “I think a lot of times I’m always trying to pour from an empty cup because it’s just natural for me to want to help and be involved, but I have to fill my cup up first before anything else happens.”
After other offseasons where Ogwumike was either playing abroad or participating in a USA national team camp or tournament, she aimed to appreciate moments of stillness – not to misinterpret those moments as inactivity.
Ogwumike spent more time hanging out with family. When she was in Los Angeles, she’d stay with her sister Chiney. The two shared moments that Chiney Ogwumike described as being like the old times when the pair were growing up. She leaned on her inner circle for mental and emotional support, crediting them in large part for helping her get out of the mental hole she had fallen into as a result of last summer’s outcome and reminded her that she was, indeed, the “Nnekanator.”
Ogwumike did say yes more. Not to responsibilities or obligations, but things that she wanted to do.
Things that were fun.
It was the most fun Ogwumike had during an offseason.
“I think it was just about getting back to not feeling like she has to move mountains. She can sort of do her own thing,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “This is the first time that I think she could just take a breath.”
Behind Ogwumike’s journey back to peak physical health was her own assembled all-star team that includes strength and conditioning coach Susan Borchardt (who also works with Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird), athletic trainer Watson, and a genetic nutritionist and chiropractor.
Also included in that group was Sparks assistant coach Seimone Augustus. Ogwumike worked out with Augustus all offseason. For 30 to 45 minutes a day, the pair worked on different on-court concepts that Ogwumike could see throughout a game. They worked on different reads, practiced isolation moves in the post, direct passes to guards on the weak side, getting to spots more efficiently, whatever they believed Ogwumike’s game needed.
“It worked well for both of us,” Augustus said. “It gave me an opportunity to find my coaching voice. But it also gave me an opportunity to study a player that’s been around this league for a very long time and see where I could make an impact in her game.”
Augustus’ focus wasn’t limited to skill instruction. Between her injury, which kept Ogwumike sidelined, and the situation with USA Basketball, it was important to Augustus to focus on working to get her back into the mindset of being dominant.
“When situations like that occur, you just feel like you weren’t able to give enough,” Augustus said. “That wasn’t necessarily the case.”
Over the course of her 15-year pro career, Augustus won three gold medals with USA Basketball. Augustus had never been in a situation like Ogwumike where she had done everything that was asked of her and still didn’t make the team. When she didn’t make the team, she could pinpoint the cause – an injury, rehabbing an injury or not being at peak form. But during those times, Augustus maintained a mantra that she hoped to pass to Ogwumike this offseason.
“My mental preparation was the next camp or the next time that I see you, I’m going to be the best you’ve ever seen,” said Augustus, who was announced as a new member of the Olympic selection committee in January. “I tried to instill that in [Nneka].”
“We as human beings, we do a lot of beating ourselves up when things don’t go our way – especially when you feel like you’ve done everything right. But sometimes things just happen and how you respond is really what builds character and is really what kind of determines who you are.”— Nneka Ogwumike
With distance from last summer and the time to reflect on everything that occurred, Ogwumike has the perspective that as long as she moves with intention and understands her purpose when working toward a goal, any outcomes or results that arise are simply lessons learned along the way. Energy will be dedicated to things within her control.
“One thing that I’ve always said is no one in this life can ever master anything. Even when you feel as though you have kind of overcome something or stepped over a hurdle, there’s nothing that says that life can’t throw another one at you,” Ogwumike said.
“We as human beings, we do a lot of beating ourselves up when things don’t go our way, especially when you feel like you’ve done everything right. But sometimes things just happen and how you respond is really what builds character and is really what kind of determines who you are.”
Ogwumike’s on-court response and quest for redemption will begin Friday with the Sparks, who are looking to bounce back after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and posting a losing record for the first time since 2015.
Los Angeles had one of the biggest acquisitions and free agency signings this offseason. The Sparks acquired Chennedy Carter from the Atlanta Dream and signed four-time All-Star Liz Cambage. Along with veterans such as Brittney Sykes, Kristi Toliver and Amanda Zahui B., it’s a group and energy that excites Ogwumike.
Chiney Ogwumike, who is entering her third season with the Sparks, is excited to see Ogwumike’s return uninhibited by injury and without the burden of last summer.
“I want her to go out there and have some joy, have some fun and not feel like she has to solve all the world’s problems while she’s trying to put the team on her back,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “I think she’s now creating space for herself where she can get back to being a hooper for a while. Just a hooper. When she’s happiest is when she’s balling.”
Echoed Ogwumike: “I’m excited about how I feel. I kind of feel like lights, camera, action. It’s showtime.”