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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Returning Home

Nneka Ogwumike, the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2016, played her final game of the overseas season in Russia on May 1. The game tipped off at 6 p.m., in Kursk. By 9 p.m., Ogwumike was on a train, on the way back to the United States. Not that it was a very direct trip.

The train ride from Kursk to Moscow was seven hours. Followed by a three-hour flight to Frankfurt. Followed by a 10-hour flight home to Houston, where she was greeted at the airport by sister (and fellow WNBA player) Chiney on May 2.

“It’s just nice to get to see my family,” Ogwumike said.

Brittney Griner played her last game in Russia on the same day. But she didn’t get out of Ekaterinburg until the next morning.

Griner’s three-hour flight to Moscow was followed by a two-hour layover and then a 12-hour flight from Moscow to Los Angeles. Followed by another two-hour layover and a 90-minute flight to Phoenix.

Griner’s still trying to get herself acclimated.

“It was kicking my butt when I first got home,” Griner said. “I was going to bed at 8 a.m. and waking up at 4 a.m. But I’m starting to feel better.”

Griner and Diana Taurasi – her Ekaterinburg teammate and travel companion – checked into WNBA camp over the weekend in time to play in the Mercury’s second preseason game last Sunday.

Ogwumike will report to Sparks camp on Thursday after having just over a week off between seasons. She’s far from the only player on the defending champs roster making a quick change. Riquna Williams and Chelsea Gray showed up to join camp last Friday. Alana Beard arrived Monday. Candace Parker, Jantel Lavender and Essence Carson will not be back until they are done playing in the Turkish playoffs, which may cause them to miss at least one WNBA game.

It is a fact of life in the WNBA that’s it is a quick – and often exhausting – turn for many WNBA players, from the end of the European season overseas to their nearly immediate insertion into WNBA training camp in time for the season opener. The concept of an offseason, certainly the kind that most other professional athletes get to experience in their sports, is laughable.

There are maybe a handful of days between the overseas season in most of Europe and the WNBA. And if your team makes a long run in the WNBA playoffs, not much time on the other end before players have to report to their foreign teams.

This time of year, some players take what amounts to barely enough time to shake off the jet lag before they report to their teams for the WNBA season.

With the start of the WNBA season now arrived, the short rest afforded by a quick break, Ogwumike said, is critical.

“It’s definitely about needing rest, and you could always use more,” Ogwumike said. “But I’ll be O.K. We are all professionals. We know what we need to do, how to get into the right state of mind and the right place physically. But this time off, I’m not messing around. I’m resting and getting ready for the next season.”

Sparks coach Brian Agler said it makes sense to give his veteran players the extra time they need.

“It’s pretty simple, you do your best to keep them rested,” Agler said. “Even during the season, there are times we can do that and we do. Nneka’s been playing year-round and she’s close to her family, and I think it’s appropriate that she gets to go back and spend some substantial time there. I know when she gets here, she will be ready. She wants to be here.”

Ogwumike said she has this process down. She started packing to leave Russia two weeks before she left, and lived out of her suitcase for about a week before her departure. She put her winter clothes in storage and left them in her apartment in Russia.

“It’s pretty nuts, but it’s what people do all the time,” Ogwmuike said.

Griner said she is shaking off not only the jet lag, but the weariness of a long season overseas.

“I was ready for it to be over, it was six long months and you get to a point where you think ‘I don’t even want to see a basketball a game, I don’t want to think about it’,” Griner said. “But then I have three days off and I don’t know what to do with life. I’m excited for a new WNBA season, and we have a completely new team and I’m glad to get back and start meshing with everybody.”

Sylvia Fowles of the Minnesota Lynx did it a bit of a different way. Fowles played again this season in China, which has a shortened season, and returned to the States in early March which gave her more time to rejuvenate.

“Mentally, the wear and tear of playing year-round tears at your body and at your soul,” Fowles said. “The main reason I went to China was to be able to play for three months and come home and get an opportunity to enjoy myself. I had about a month and a half and it was nice.”

Fowles said she reached a point several seasons ago when she didn’t know whether she wanted to continue to play. She was exhausted.

“I was definitely burned out,” Fowles said. “It’s tougher than people think and I don’t think we get enough credit for these quick turnarounds and all the energy that goes into it. But playing the shorter season helped me.”

This past season, many of the league’s biggest stars – including many of the players who participated in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, took a year off from the grind of overseas play. Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Elena Delle Donne and Sue Bird were among the players who stayed home. Breanna Stewart, like Fowles, also played in China.

“Credit to those girls who could stay home and when I have an opportunity at some point, I’m going to do the same thing as well,” Fowles said. “Physically and mentally, you have to get back in tune with who you are and the things you like to do. At some point in your career, you have to check yourself and figure out what’s important.”