Why you should care
Chiney Ogwumike refuses to let injuries, underrepresentation or an endless workday derail her life as a basketball businesswoman.
Families with small children, couples enjoying their twilight years while hand-writing WNBA box scores, troops of Girl Scouts and inebriated stumble-ins from the attached casino — everyone inside the Mohegan Sun Arena is letting the referee know that they don’t appreciate seeing Chiney Ogwumike relegated to the bench with two early fouls. But no one is more vocal than the Connecticut Sun star forward herself. She even grabs the official’s elbow to plead her hapless case. It’s a move that would likely earn an ejection in the NBA, but in this arena, no one seems to flinch. Ogwumike is one of the faces of the WNBA, more league ambassador than agitator. And in her second game back since missing all of last season, Ogwumike knows that her team needs her on the court.
It doesn’t help that her big sister, 2016 league MVP Nneka Ogwumike — who plays for the Los Angeles Sparks — is now headed to the free throw line. But the Nigerian-American siblings feed off each other’s energy. And they’re both scoring for a community that is emerging as America’s most successful immigrant group.
“Mentally, it’s always tough playing against your sister,” the younger Ogwumike told reporters after scoring 18 points to lead the Sun in a 102–94 win over her sister’s Los Angeles Sparks. “But, man, it felt right. Even though we’re playing against each other, I felt her positive vibes.”
As basketball players, we think of the game first, but I would be in a way different spot if I didn’t make this work off the court.
Chiney has been vibing well in her hardwood return, but a more important stat than her 12 points and 6 rebounds per game is the two jobs she’s holding down. On May 1, days before WNBA preseason began, Ogwumike signed a multiyear contract with ESPN to become a full-time analyst. Her exact role is still evolving, but at 26, Ogwumike is one of the youngest national sports analysts on network television and one of the only professional athletes to pull double duty in the mainstream media. And she holds a more prominent post than NBA-playing podcasters J.J. Redick (The Ringer) and Frank Kaminsky (Barstool Sports); or Kevin Durant, whose company, Thirty Five Media, develops YouTube programming for other athletes.
So far, Ogwumike has worked pregame broadcasts for the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals, hosted SportsCenter Africa and reported live — alongside her sister — before and after her game against the Sparks. She’s leading the way both for underrepresented women of color in media and female athletes who need to supplement their comparatively meager incomes while reinforcing concerns about whether talented athletes can make the WNBA a career.
“If anyone can pull it off, it’s her,” says Sun head coach Curt Miller. “We have total confidence in Chiney.”
The day before facing off against her sister, Ogwumike put in what most professionals would consider two days’ work. She practiced with her team the morning of May 23, then drove two hours to Boston for Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals. There, she hopped on a media conference call and squeezed in some jump shots in TD Garden. Then Ogwumike morphed from baller to broadcaster, utilizing her extensive knowledge of the game and engrossing personality to break down tape and drive pregame conversation. Her gig ended after the first quarter, then Ogwumike was back on the road to Connecticut.
Amid her game-day preparation, she manages to squeeze in a dual SportsCenter interview with her sister on the Mohegan Sun court. After the game — Chiney’s first WNBA win against Nneka — both sisters hop back on camera for a postgame reconciliation. “I have no idea how she does it,” Nneka Ogwumike says after leaving the court. “If she’s not playing, she’s watching film or spending a ‘day off’ at ESPN.” Sarcastic emphasis on “day off,” of course. “But, she’s always been up for the challenge.”
It’s nearly impossible to be more dominant than Chiney Ogwumike was on the amateur circuit. The Tomball, Texas, native was named the Gatorade National Athlete of the Year in 2010 before following Nneka, two years her senior, to Stanford. There, she shattered the Palo Alto institution’s scoring record, was a three-time All-American and left college as the Pac-12 Conference’s all-time scoring leader. For women and men.
But that dominance has been fleeting in the WNBA. She won rookie of the year in 2014, and when healthy, Ogwumike remains a game changer. But she has already missed two full seasons (2015 and 2017) owing to injury — which pushed her toward a second career. “As basketball players, we think of the game first,” says Ogwumike. “But I would be in a way different spot if I didn’t make this work off the court.”
Ogwumike’s magnetic personality always seemed fit for the camera, but, until recently, broadcasting seemed like a post-hoops plan. Then, Ogwumike tore her Achilles in December 2016 while playing in China, and Connecticut wouldn’t pay her for the season — though the Sun did offer its ailing star a contract extension as a show of good faith. But the injury may have never happened if WNBA players were afforded the luxury of an offseason. Because the maximum salary in the WNBA is just $115,500 — a fraction of the $560,000 NBA starting salary — most players head overseas during the offseason for a supplemental paycheck. Before signing with ESPN, that was Ogwumike’s route. Legendary guard Diana Taurasi skipped the 2015 WNBA season altogether when her Russian club upped her ante.
While on the mend, Ogwumike began working for ESPN part time as an anchor for SportsCenter’s African edition, which is broadcast to 19 sub-Saharan nations. Her knack for learning on the fly led to positive reviews and guest appearances across many ESPN platforms. “Chiney is a knowledgeable, passionate and versatile commentator with a high level of expertise and appreciation for the sport of basketball,” says Sean Riley, ESPN senior coordinating producer. Now, by signing on full time with the network, the WNBA has become Ogwumike’s seasonal gig.
A career in front of the camera doesn’t rest on a balky Achilles, but it can be as cutthroat as a battle for a loose ball in the paint. Women, particularly those of color, in sports media long have had to battle to be heard, but Ogwumike aspires to be a role model. “I get to play at our game’s highest level while adding more diversity to the sports media world,” says Ogwumike. “Hopefully I help inspire a new generation of girls to get creative and pursue their passions.” Even when it’s two passions at once.