Why This Aussie WNBA Star Is Tackling Racial Injustice
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this Nigerian-Australian import could be the next great WNBA star.
By Brendon Kleen
Ezi Magbegor had formally met just one of her teammates and a couple of Seattle Storm executives before the rookie made the long journey from Australia to the U.S. to join the strangest season in WNBA history, in the league’s coronavirus-defying bubble in Florida.
A stellar athlete with great ball-handling skills, it was no surprise that the youngest player in the WNBA, at age 21 — American players must be at least 22 in their draft year — could find a home on the court. And for a league that’s defining itself as a hub for racial justice activism, Magbegor already knew the drill.
As someone whose family migrated from Nigeria to Australia when she was young, Magbegor has long faced the sting of racism. In addition to adjusting to a new culture, Magbegor felt undereducated on the history and marginalization of indigenous Australians, something she says is often swept under the rug in the country’s school system. The process of appreciating that history and bigotry has been a focus for her during this summer of global social change.
It came to a head when she participated in a practice strike by the Australian women’s national basketball team, the Opals, as protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis hit a fever pitch across the world. The strike got results: Basketball Australia put together the RISE UP campaign to better support people of color in Australia, particularly Aboriginal folks and other indigenous groups. The team has asked to incorporate tribal flags in the design of its uniforms and hopes to work closely with local governments to fight institutionalized racism.
Racism happens in Australia, but with everything happening with police brutality [in America], it’s something I hadn’t had to be faced with head-on.
The stand was not dissimilar from the NBA and WNBA striking games in August after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The gradual ripple of trauma hit Magbegor hard.
“What’s going on in America, I think it’s quite confronting,” she says. “Racism happens in Australia, but with everything happening with police brutality, it’s something I hadn’t had to be faced with head-on. And being a Black female, it’s something I need to be part of.”
Just as she found sisterhood among her Storm teammates as they welcomed her onto their championship-level squad this summer, Magbegor has found in the WNBA a community of impassioned athletes who largely look and think like her. Comfortable isn’t quite the right word for a bubble season — she only secured a government exemption to leave locked-down Australia at the last minute — played against the backdrop of continued police killings, but Magbegor is at peace.
It shows on the court, where the 6-foot-4 post player is using her energy and athleticism to make a quick impact. She’s putting up 6.5 points in 13 minutes per game this season, earning a spot in the Storm’s playoff rotation as they have advanced to the WNBA Finals, which begin Friday. The numbers don’t blow you away, until you consider Magbegor’s age and the fact that she’s playing for one of the league’s top teams, which retains most of its talent from a 2018 title run, including the legendary Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart, as well as All-Star forward Natasha Howard, after whom Magbegor is modeling her game.
“To see her come here to the WNBA and compete against the best players and in her first year demonstrate that poise and that maturity from the very beginning has been really impressive, and I think it’s a big part of why she’ll continue to be successful,” says Sami Whitcomb, a teammate of Magbegor in Seattle and with the Opals.
Still, the naturally shy Magbegor admits she needs to be more assertive to take her game to the next level. As a post player, Magbegor often has to adjust on the fly, and she’s not yet comfortable directing her teammates to change tactics or fix mistakes. Her offensive game comes more naturally, but Magbegor’s growth will come on defense.
“She can be a game-changer at both ends of the floor,” says Sandy Brondello, head coach of the Opals and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, who has pegged Magebegor as a future WNBA star for years. “She has the athleticism where she’s a very versatile defender. She can do a lot of it, but it’s just getting her out of her shell a little bit. … She’s a superstar in the making.”
Having claimed trophies for Australia’s youth teams throughout her teenage years and earned comparisons to Aussie great Lauren Jackson, Magbegor rarely matches that tenacity with her off-court personality. Her shy demeanor can be traced back to competing against her older brother and his friends early on. Only now, seeing a lifelong dream of playing in the WNBA come to fruition, is Magbegor opening up.
But she’s also trying to be patient with everything that comes with being a WNBA player in 2020. Magbegor could well be on her way to a championship with the Storm, but the rookie also wants to make sure her presence is felt far and wide — on and off the court. Her focus is on Australia, where she hopes to help undo a more “discreet” form of racism by mending an opaque education system with the help of the Opals. That begins with educating fans and teammates.
“A lot of people think that doing one thing might not help the next day,” says Magbegor, “but I think the message that we’ve been reiterating over the course of the last couple months is you have to plant seeds for trees to grow.”
- Brendon Kleen, OZY AuthorContact Brendon Kleen