Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike continues to push for WNBA progress
The players’ union president talks about free agency, a new collective bargaining agreement and her career after 12 years
Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike believed that she had boxed herself in.
After dealing with multiple injuries that sidelined her over the past few seasons, Ogwumike entered the 2023 WNBA season, one in which teams would play a record 40 regular-season games, planning to survive the full season without injury.
“When you hear ’12 years in’ and ‘you’ve been doing this for so long,’ and ‘40 games,’ your mind automatically goes to ‘OK, how can I achieve this the best way possible without getting hurt?’ ” Ogwumike, 33, said.
Through the first part of the season, however, Ogwumike’s production revealed to her that her mindset required a shift. She began to ask herself what can I do? What are the possibilities? The result was her best all-around season since she won WNBA MVP in 2016. Ogwumike finished the 2023 season averaging 19.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game. She was named to the All-Defensive second team and All-WNBA second team this season.
“I’m really just very grateful, to be honest. I guess it kind of gives me a new lease on what the end of my career really looks like,” Ogwumike said.
Andscape caught up with Ogwumike at the WNBA Finals to discuss her plans for the offseason, her interest in competing for the Nigerian national team in Olympic qualifying, her approach to the upcoming WNBA free agency period and her responsibilities as Women’s National Basketball Players Association president as the union begins the process of deciding if it will opt out of its current collective bargaining agreement.
How important was it to have the kind of season you did in 2023 after the injury-disrupted years you’ve had in the past that didn’t allow you to play consistently and at the level you’ve previously displayed?
I didn’t anticipate it, to be honest. I ended up doing more than I thought I was going to do this season. It’s still a blessing and I’m very grateful to know that I’m capable. To be able to come out, both on the All-Defensive and WNBA teams, it showed that I’m doing something right. I want to make sure that I’m as much of an asset on the court for my teammates.
Would you say you learned something new about either your capability on the floor or even about yourself?
I would say that I learned something new, maybe not necessarily about my skill but more about how I exert my skill – my stamina, my endurance. I learned a lot about that. That’s after a lot of great offseason work, and now to build off of that. Each offseason, I’m like, ‘OK, I did this much. What’s it going to look like?’ It’s amazing to see that there are still more changes to be made after each season. I’m in that right now and it feels really good.
It sounds like, after a timid beginning, you exited with a real sense of optimism in terms of what’s possible for you on the court going forward.
That’s what it feels like and I’m really grateful. I think I’m also thinking about myself, what I want and what I want to achieve. I think I’ve kind of hung my career very heavily on service but I’m focusing more of that service as, like, how can I serve my wants, my needs, my goals that create a greater environment and perspective for my team and my teammates.
What does your offseason look like, any particular plans?
I don’t really have any expectations. You end up figuring out different things and getting into so many different off-court opportunities that are so fruitful as well. This month alone I would have come to New York three times, which is great to know those opportunities are alive and well. I’m blessed to be able to say I’m healthy to be able to play and travel and expand who I am off the court as well. I see a lot of that in the offseason, of course, training in different ways and just seeing what that looks like for me going into year 13.
Three, four years ago, you knew what you would be doing in the offseason, going overseas most likely. How is it to have that flexibility now?
I feel a little bit more settled in it. I didn’t stop playing overseas by choice. I was two weeks away from flying back to China in 2020 and I was prepared to kind of go back and do that the next few years. Different markets have opened back up, but I think I’ve hit such a groove now where it would actually be less beneficial for me to not be around here in the offseason and be able to build my brand and own business.
Another Michelob Ultra Super Bowl commercial on the way?
I hope so! I hope so, those are fun.
Is international competition something that you still have an interest in participating in?
I do, I do have an interest. I think right now we’re just working to see what we can do to be able to participate on that level.
If you had the opportunity to compete with Nigeria in February at the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament, would you want to play?
I would love to.
You’re an unrestricted free agent this offseason. How will you approach the free agency period?
I like to approach it honestly. I think I had an experience doing that in the last free agency that I was a part of, being able to approach it giving myself the honesty, truth, time and space while also being transparent. I think it’s important to honor it. Even if you know where your heart is, I think it’s still good to give yourself the space to really experience it and benefit from what free agency is. In a lot of different ways people end up making different decisions because they open their perspective and their mind and that created great narratives in the WNBA [and] makes your job a lot more fun. I think just give yourself the time and opportunity.
Obviously you’ve been a lifelong Spark, but are there certain things you’d want to see from the organization, for example, we’ve previously talked about your desire for Los Angeles to get a practice facility – but I haven’t heard any announcements about that to date…
Me neither. (Laughs.)
How important is it for you to continue your career in a place where you are looking for things that display that commitment to the future and growth of the organization?
That’s what’s driving free agency movement. It’s definitely something that’s trending in the direction of it being the standard. I think being a part of an organization that is trying to move the needle in that way is important whether it exists or whether it’s being worked towards. Seattle is opening theirs [practice facility] in February. We’re getting to a moment now where in the WNBA more teams have their facilities than teams that don’t. That’s going to determine where people want to play. Along with, of course, market and teammates and even coaching staff and front office. That’s still something that’s a work in progress in LA, and I don’t want to see anyone devalue LA because of that – because it is a prime market.
How do your duties with the WNBPA change during the offseason?
I’m able to physically be in meetings, come to the WNBPA office. We have a meeting at the end of this month where we’ll be able to convene with [WNBPA executive director] Terri Jackson and the staff and really just figure out what the future looks like, what the next season looks like. Being able to be in person and of course foster development and maintain relationship and strategy with the league. We’re able to talk with Cathy [Engelbert, WNBA commissioner], Bethany [Donaphin, WNBA head of league operations] about things in order to make the player experience better.
It seems CBA [collective bargaining agreement] discussion has become so frequent these days. I assume it’s a very different environment compared to when you got in the league.
I didn’t even know what it was, honestly. (Laughs.)
Does that make you excited to then see/hear so many folks talk about it?
Yes. I love that with every player that comes in, they’re asking questions about the CBA and not asking what it is. That’s kind of what it was when I came in. Even when I was a player representative, ‘collective what? What are all these emails?’
Years ago, you said if you could have one wish it was that every player reads the CBA …
That’s it. We have an amazing staff that broke it down and basically developed SparkNotes for the CBA. They’re sent to us periodically and as reminders, especially as we approach another opt-out opportunity, or not. Those conversations are now starting. Players are now citing it like, ‘hey, I read this, that’s not what this is. This doesn’t cover this.’ It’s really refreshing.
Players have not shied away from publicly sharing different aspects of their player experience, whether that be on the court or off. Is that important for progress?
I would hope that now, after so much time and after the last CBA, that we can be less on the defensive and work together and hear people out and understand, ‘hey, this is what the players say they are experiencing. Let’s assess this. What can we do to change it?’ I’m hopeful that that’s kind of where the conversation and collaboration goes, and that only happens if players are speaking their opinions and experiences. We want to be able to make things better, but we won’t know what to make better unless players speak up.
You’ve spoken before about the challenge of balancing being the players’ association president with being able to also maintain focus as a WNBA player. As we ramp towards another CBA negotiation, why did you want to lead this process on behalf of players once more?
I want to leave this place better than how I entered it. Period, point-blank. I want the job — the fervor, the passion of having agency over your value, your worth, your change — to be in players that are recognizing that as they enter the league.