The night of June 6 was difficult for Chiney Ogwumike. Fans of the Connecticut Sun, the team that drafted her into the WNBA in 2014, booed her from the moment she stepped on the court at Mohegan Sun Arena for her first game there as a visiting player with the Los Angeles Sparks.
“I think my whole team was shocked when I was booed,” she recalled. “Very shocked. And even shocked throughout the course of the game as it was happening, largely because they know who I am and what I stand for and where my heart is.”
It could have been a lonely and frightening walk back to her hotel room adjacent to the arena — especially when a pair of Sun fans heckled her. So it mattered that her sister was next to her. Chiney Ogwumike remained quiet. Nneka Ogwumike didn’t.
“I had to address it right then because for her, if she tries to defend herself, it’ll look combative,” Nneka said. “So I took it upon myself to step in so she wouldn’t have to be personified in such a way. I mean, fans are invested. So I understand, but . . . sometimes they forget that we’re people.”
That may be the best way to summarize the joint, overlapping project that the Ogwumike sisters have taken on this year. Both are forwards for the Sparks after Chiney, 27, requested an offseason trade from Connecticut to reunite with Nneka, 29, and to further her career at ESPN, where she is an emerging star as an NBA analyst.
Their work has moved well beyond the court, into the realm of the larger conversation about how women are compensated in sports. Both Ogwumikes sit on the executive committee of the WNBA players’ union — Nneka as president, Chiney as vice president — that is negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one set to expire at the end of the season. At the same time, Chiney’s work at ESPN is an example of WNBA players developing their off-court careers while still playing.
“Chiney is the quintessential little sister who will not be outdone,” said Terri Jackson, executive director of the players’ union. “She is showing everyone that if you want it all, you can have it all, but you must be committed to putting in the work.”
The amount of work is evident — Chiney’s days are often split between her obligations to the Sparks and a burgeoning career at ESPN. That has brought her some criticism, too, which she sees as unwarranted, considering how many NBA stars manage numerous projects in the entertainment industry.
“I think there’s a real double standard,” Chiney said. “For a lot of people, the perception is that for women, we’re supposed to be grateful for everything that we have. These fans support you and there’s a lot of loyalty there, but also as women we have to push boundaries and also do what is in your best interest, 365 [days a year], not just during the summer. To not understand that is frustrating for me as an individual that gives 100 percent to everything I do.”
Beyond questions of equality and career path, there’s another, vital element to this reunion of sisters — it’s what they both want as professionals. Chiney pointed out that since Nneka graduated from Stanford, two years ahead of Chiney, they would see each other in bits and pieces — catching up when their teams played each other, or the brief period between the end of the WNBA season and their obligations to teams overseas, the latter work necessary as a result of the WNBA pay structure that both sisters are working to improve.
“For eight years, my best friend, my closest person in my life, I've seen a total of maybe one month,” Chiney said.
They are thriving together for the Sparks, who are tied for fourth in the league at 11-8 as the season’s second half begins Tuesday. Nneka was an all-star for the sixth time, ranking sixth in the league in scoring at 16.6 points and third in rebounding at 9.4. Chiney, a two-time all-star, is averaging 11.7 points and 7.4 rebounds.
And being on the same team means more downtime together: “Game of Thrones” or “Big Little Lies” on TV, exploring restaurants on the road, “just sister things where we hang around each other,” Chiney said.
It’s emotional fuel for the larger battle, one Jackson said she understood both sisters would fight. A few months after Jackson began working for the players’ union, the Ogwumikes’ mother, Ify, pulled her aside and explained, “My daughters are more than basketball.”
“I understood exactly what she meant,” Jackson said. “ . . . In Nneka, I saw a young woman who owned the responsibility that big sisters often have. She is thoughtful and methodical in her approach. She is a problem-solver who seeks all available information and processes quickly.”
It’s a skill that has come in handy for Nneka in her work as union president, with Jackson recalling a moment when Nneka took a PowerPoint presentation and explained each one in plain English, point by point, while other committee members began nodding in understanding.
“It was a 'more than basketball moment' for sure,” Jackson said.
And now they have each other as they figure it all out together. Nneka said Chiney hasn’t changed a bit since they were in college together. Only their conversations have changed.
“It’s been a lot of lost time,” Nneka said. “It’s not so much of me calling and being like: ‘How was your day? What are you doing?’ Now I’m calling, I’m like: ‘Hey, where are you? Where should we eat?’ ”