The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

WNBA star, NBA analyst Chiney Ogwumike is on a tireless quest to have it all

Chiney Ogwumike is doing double duty as an NBA analyst for ESPN and a forward for the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks. (Will Navarro for The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — The elevator ride to Chiney Ogwumike’s Century City penthouse began in silence and ended with the steady thump of Afrobeats.

It was a random Tuesday afternoon, but Ogwumike was moving and talking faster than the music, whirling around a condominium that is a monument to multitasking. In a downstairs gym, Ogwumike has prepared for her upcoming season with the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks. Upstairs, the baller-slash-broadcaster has arranged her office around a tidy bookshelf that serves as a backdrop for remote television appearances.

Her phone was always nearby and rarely dormant, and she mumbled verdicts on a stream of incoming requests without losing her train of thought. Ogwumike stepped onto her deck to enjoy the sunshine — but only for a moment. There was too much to discuss about her dual careers, not to mention her secret dream of chronicling the Hollywood dating scene.

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“People think when you’re on TV that all these guys are going to be talking to you,” she said. “I go on TV, tell people what I want them to know and come home to eat Chipotle and watch my shows. I love African music — Burna Boy, Wizkid, Fireboy — so I go to small functions, but you won’t see me out here turning up. Dating in L.A. is traumatic. Dating in L.A. is comedy. I wish I could do an anonymous podcast about dating in L.A.”

For the next two hours, Ogwumike held court from her couch, shifting effortlessly and inexhaustibly through an array of more serious topics: her painful rehabilitation from two major surgeries, her exhausting rise to become an NBA analyst for ESPN, the petroleum industry, gender inequity in sports, sexism in broadcasting, the Ukrainian refugee crisis and social media criticism.

With a gleaming smile and active hands, she noted twice that her brain never turns off and chalked it up to her full legal name: Chinenye Joy Ogwumike. Her first name means “God gives” in the Igbo language. The joy is self-evident. Her last name translates to “tireless.” Together, it’s as fitting as a name gets.

Ogwumike, who turned 30 on March 21, is in a contract year with the Sparks and with ESPN. Between the age milestone and the career crossroads, she was in an introspective mood and had listened intently to Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Senate confirmation hearings. Jackson recalled feelings of homesickness and doubt as a Harvard undergraduate and told a story about a sidewalk encounter with “a Black woman I didn’t know” who apparently sensed Jackson’s uneasiness and provided a single word of advice: “Persevere.”

The anecdote reminded Ogwumike of her freshman year at Stanford, when she felt like an outsider and couldn’t bring herself to participate in class discussions, even though she was a star recruit and a straight-A high school student.

In stepped Condoleezza Rice, who joined the Stanford faculty after serving as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state. Summoning Ogwumike for a heart-to-heart conversation, Rice insisted the teenager speak up and informed her she would be requesting regular progress reports from her professors.

“Dr. Rice let me know that you can go as hard in the classroom as you go on the court,” Ogwumike said. “You don’t have to sacrifice academics to be great at basketball. A switch flipped in my head, and it changed my perspective on everything. That experience made me think maybe I could be a broadcaster or an entrepreneur. I can do both at the same time.”

Evading quicksand

Peter and Ifeyinwa “Ify” Ogwumike were born in Nigeria and raised by well-to-do families before immigrating to the United States as teenagers to study at Weber State and settling just outside Houston. They expected perfect test scores and community involvement from their four daughters: Nneka, Chiney, Erica and Olivia. All four went on to play college basketball, and the sport was a driving force for the family.

But Chiney, a 6-foot-3 forward who won two state championships at Cy-Fair High, was also active in student government and a civil rights club. Even as a young child, she enjoyed watching CNN’s global news and eavesdropping on her parents’ conversations about African politics.

At Stanford, Ogwumike majored in international relations and studied abroad in her parents’ home country, where she saw both ends of the economic spectrum. One day, she was job-shadowing officials at the Ministry of Petroleum. The next, she was attending Access2Success basketball camps, where hundreds of children, many of whom lacked shoes and proper athletic attire, squeezed onto two outdoor courts. She returned to Palo Alto with a newfound gratitude and graduated as the Pac-12’s all-time leading scorer.

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Two years after Nneka was the No. 1 pick in the 2012 WNBA draft, Chiney was selected first by the Connecticut Sun and appeared poised for a dominant professional career. Unfortunately, injuries intervened. While Nneka led the Sparks to the 2016 title and was named league MVP, Chiney endured nagging knee pain and underwent microfracture surgery in 2015.

She went home to Texas to recover, shielding her disappointment from the outside world. Laid up on a couch in her parents’ bedroom, she refused prescription pain medication after her first Vicodin pill made her nauseous.

“Negativity is like quicksand,” Ogwumike said. “Going from being a superhero athletically to not being able to move or walk or take care of yourself completely was a foreign experience. I purposefully chose for people not to see that side.”

Once healthy, Ogwumike returned to play for the Sun and competed overseas in China. While playing for the Henan Phoenix in 2016, she tore her Achilles’ tendon. To get back to the United States for surgery, Ogwumike embarked on a 72-hour journey that included a train ride across Hunan province, two lengthy flights and wheelchair rides through multiple airports.

“Technically, this is going to be her ninth season, but she’s only played in like five,” Nneka said. “Her personal challenges have to do with injuries, and she handles it with such grace.”

Ogwumike spent her second rehabilitation watching ESPN’s morning debate shows, seeking a connection to the sports world. She remained confident that she could still compete in the WNBA but decided playing year-round was no longer an option, leading her to consider joining the media.

“The Achilles’ injury was really the first time that she had time to think,” said Allison Galer of Disrupt the Game, Ogwumike’s longtime agent. “We spent a lot of time brainstorming and strategizing: Where are we going, and how are we going to get there?”

Starting over

Despite her elite basketball pedigree, Ogwumike was a 25-year-old broadcasting rookie. She had dabbled with a few ESPN appearances since joining the Sun, but pitching herself to media executives as an on-air talent during her playing career was more complicated. She prioritized opportunity over compensation by channeling Shonda Rhimes’s “Year of Yes” philosophy.

Want to interview college mascots? Yes. Want to analyze Pac-12 games in the studio? Yes. Want to anchor “SportsCenter Africa”? Yes. Ogwumike, who is now a regular on ESPN’s “NBA Today,” knew she needed to raise her profile because she wasn’t a household name like Lisa Leslie or Candace Parker.

“People are like, ‘Why is she on TV so much?’ ” Ogwumike said. “I’m not the MVP or a champion. My story is different. I know what it’s like to be looked past and judged. When you’re a Hall of Famer, you’ve always got a spot. They need you. I don’t have that luxury. I have to fight for my spot.”

Before long, she had constructed a frenzied day-to-day existence in Uncasville, Conn., where the Sun plays. Three or four times a week, she would wake up at 4:30 a.m. and drive an hour to ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, arriving early enough to attend production meetings and get her hair and makeup done before her first “SportsCenter” hit at 7 a.m. Her appearances would continue throughout the day, and she would sneak in a quick cafeteria lunch when possible.

Ogwumike would head out by 4:30 p.m. to work out, make the hour-long drive home and tune in to the first set of NBA games at 7 p.m. When the games were done after midnight, she would log plays and send notes to her producers for use on the next day’s shows.

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“These are things people do to follow their dreams,” Nneka said. “I don’t know how she does it, and it couldn’t be me.”

Meanwhile, at her night job, Ogwumike averaged 14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds for the Sun, earning her second all-star nod in 2018. Yet she felt stuck in an endless loop: apart from her family, living in team housing and driving a team-owned Hummer.

“I was a single woman in Connecticut by myself with no friends, really,” she said. “My lifestyle wasn’t sustainable at all.”

As her ESPN responsibilities increased, Ogwumike experienced a heavy dose of impostor syndrome, much like when she was a Stanford freshman. Former Houston Rockets star Tracy McGrady, her childhood idol, was sitting next to her on set, and she felt added pressure following the departures of several high-profile female hosts. Network executives took note of her diligence and professionalism, but some colleagues struggled to pronounce her name and viewers nitpicked her appearance.

“A woman with a microphone can’t mess up, and you get the magnifying glass for your mistakes,” she said. “I would go from practice straight to on-air, filling in for someone who dropped out and doesn’t care about this job. I’m so excited to hustle and prove that my perspective matters, and all society wants to talk about is that I didn’t look good. I’m used to the smoke. Someone that tweets me hate isn’t comfortable with a Black woman on your screen. All right — next.”

Twitter critics were one thing, but Ogwumike was hard on herself, too. Worn down by her hectic schedule but feeling too guilty to take a real vacation, she coped by hibernating at home with Netflix. To ease her mind before appearances, Ogwumike, a Catholic, began reciting the Serenity prayer and the Angel of God prayer. Eventually, she settled in and trusted that she would hold her spot through preparation and persistence.

“There are quicker ways to [get attention],” she said. “Some people hot-take it, but we’re not afforded that luxury as women. Even if I wanted to, are we comfortable with women yelling?”

Rounding out

A 2019 trade from the Sun to the Sparks reunited Ogwumike with Nneka and enabled her to contribute more frequently to ESPN’s NBA coverage from the network’s Los Angeles studio. The cross-country move also prompted an unsparing self-assessment.

“I’ve never had a personal life,” she realized. “In high school, I was focused on my grades and being the number one player. At Stanford, I needed to be the best player in the country and get this degree. In the pros, I had to prove that I was good because my sister is hooping. When’s my life happening?”

Ogwumike now has a checklist for her next 10 years: marriage, children and launching a media business that will combat systemic inequality through narrative storytelling. Her off-court causes have piled up: In addition to serving as a vice president for the WNBA’s players union, she has spearheaded voting rights initiatives, campaigned for more equitable treatment for female college athletes and launched a fundraiser for African students fleeing the war in Ukraine.

“I wouldn’t be surprised one day if Chiney is a U.S. senator or president of the United States,” said Dave Roberts, ESPN’s head of NBA and studio production. “She’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever worked with in this industry.”

A potential political future will need to wait. After playing just seven games over the past two seasons, Ogwumike has trained for the upcoming season with 5 a.m. workouts and regular sessions with a basketball coach, osteopath, track coach and trainer. Retirement would have its benefits — less physical toll on her body, more time for everything else — but she isn’t ready.

“I want to prove that I can still play,” she said. “I know I still have gas in the tank.”

Something will have to give. The WNBA season begins in May, leaving Ogwumike unsure about her availability to cover the NBA Finals in June. Sparks Coach Derek Fisher said he was optimistic that Ogwumike “will report to camp healthy and contribute to our on-court success,” adding that the team has “always supported our athletes pursuing careers” outside the WNBA. Roberts said ESPN’s leaders will be “flexible and nimble” to make the juggling act work.

As Ogwumike ramps up for another basketball comeback and builds her broadcasting reputation, she recited one of her mother’s favorite sayings: Small drops of water make a mighty ocean.

“You’re told that you have to give your all to one thing to be great,” Ogwumike said. “That’s not how the world works right now. We have one nationally televised game as the Sparks. I’m fortunate to be on TV three or four times a week. There are young girls that want a voice and an opportunity, and that visibility goes so far.”

A lot of good can happen, then, if she just keeps talking.

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