A Day With Nneka
BRISTOL, Conn – It was a few minutes before Noon and Nneka Ogwumike was just finishing her hair and makeup, about four hours into what amounted to a whirlwind of day for this year’s most hyped prospect.
While camera crews, makeup artists and a cloud of hair spray surrounded Nneka, she was, much like when she is on the basketball court, totally in control. “I’m more excited than nervous,” Ogwumike theorized.
Ogwumike is the most bulletproof prospect in this draft and everyone knows it, even if she does not want to admit it. In fact, maybe the only thing that can rattle Nneka during the course of her ‘Hello, world’ day is what had her 6-foot-2 frame standing a few inches taller: high heels.
“Obviously when you’re walking in your heels back and forth up on the stage it will be a little nerve wracking,” Ogwumike admitted, “but I’m not going to let my nerves overpower my excitement.”
Being selected No. 1 is both a culmination and a new beginning for the 21-year-old who became the first Stanford player to be picked with the top overall selection. It is the culmination of an amateur career that began at age 11 when her mother, Ify, insisted she pick up the game and then continued to see her dominate the Pac-12 and help lead a Stanford program to four straight Final Fours. But it’s also the beginning of a professional career, in Los Angeles with the Sparks, that brings with it both promise and high expectations.
“I look forward to bettering my game,” Ogwumike said. “I think (Stanford Head Coach) Tara (Vanderveer) has done a real good job in helping me develop over these past few years, but also she’s developed me as a person. She’s pushing me out into the real world and I think I am ready for it.”
As anyone could imagine, it was also a special day for the Ogwumike family. The entire draft process, in fact, was a family experience -- all the way down to Nneka’s dress.
“My mom helped me pick this dress out,” said a stylish Nneka, looking far from the fierce competitor she is on the court, wearing a bright orange dress, black blazer and, of course, those black high heels. “She told me to wear something bright to go with my skin and it will pop on TV.”
Not only were Ogwumike’s parents and all three of her sisters in attendance, but it was also Nneka’s mother’s birthday. Ogwumike’s full name is Nnemkadi, meaning “my mother is still with me”, so the coincidence seemed all too appropriate.
Nneka Ogwumike (right) and her sister Chiney.
While Nneka will likely have a fan base immediately in L.A., since she starred in-state at Stanford, she won’t have to look hard for her No. 1 fan.
“I am going to be fine putting on some purple and gold,” Chiney Ogwumike exclaimed. “I’m probably going to go to the team site right now and just start buying up the shop. You’ve got a new No. 1 customer.”
Nneka’s mom called the whole day “surreal” and said she was overjoyed to hear that the Sparks wanted her daughter.
“I looked at her before the names started rolling. I said ‘Nneka, 21 years ago who would have known? Who would have known?’” said Ify Ogwumike.
The Ogwumike family will likely be making another trip to the WNBA Draft in two years when Chiney, Stanford’s second-leading scorer and rebounder last year, behind only her sister, turns pro.
“She sets the bar really high, but if you just try to follow her footsteps you can only achieve greatness,” Chiney said.
Even though it was largely considered to be a certainty that Ogwumike would be, as she put it, “going, going, back, back to Cali, Cali,” it was still a relief for her and her family to officially get the news.
“I think that at this point for me to be able to officially say ‘I’m an L.A. Spark’ that just completely releases a huge weight off my shoulders and my heart is no longer heavy,” Ogwumike said with an elongated sigh. “My chest was pounding before they called my name.”
It was after WNBA President Laurel Richie called her name that the real media circus started for Ogwumike. Immediately after being selected, she participated in a live chat for WNBA.com answering questions from her fans. By 2:20 p.m. she was being interviewed by a group of reporters in the Green Room. She was then escorted, followed by a small entourage that included this reporter, to take official photos in the Friends & Family Tent. By 2:40 p.m., she was conducting phone interviews with fans and local media followed by a video news release.
Nneka Ogwumike on the set of ESPN SportsNation.
Ogumike means “Warrior” in Igbo, one of the national languages of Nigeria, where her parents were born, and Nneka lived up to that name with her ability to power through this entire media blitz with unwavering poise and charm.
“This is just me,” Ogwumike said. “This is just how I am. I really try to relish all the experiences I get because you never know when you’re going to get it again. Nothing is guaranteed. The only thing that is guaranteed is now and you really have to enjoy what’s happening at the moment.”
Everywhere she went, she was followed, videotaped and congratulated. When walking past the set of NFL Live, ESPN’s Trey Wingo even shot her a wave and yelled his own congratulations.
And, not to go unnoticed, she navigated ESPN’s vast campus the entire time in those same black high heels. While other players opted to switch to flats, Nneka persevered. “I’m up for the challenge,” she said of keeping the heels on, even once offering up that she was, “so excited I feel like sprinting.”
Based on the infectious professionalism she displayed with the media and fans, it’s strikingly clear the Sparks are getting someone that is already carrying herself like a veteran of many years off the court, as well as someone who torched opponents for 22.5 points and 10.2 rebounds a game on the court this past year.
“It was fun,” Ogwumike said of the draft day experience. “It’s not every day you get drafted for one, and for me to be able to be drafted number one is a great honor on behalf of my family, the program at Stanford and the L.A. Sparks. I’m really happy they chose me to represent them in purple and gold.”
Represent them she did, admirably. Her day started at 7:45 a.m. when an ESPN crew was there with her when she woke up. By the time this reporter left her side over seven hours later, a few minutes after 5 p.m., she was still at it, heading back to do even more phone interviews.
We parted ways, and as I walked out she was still smiling. Then she grabbed the phone.