By Matt Citak
Some people are born into sports. Others happen to find good fortune and stumble across a sport they are good at. For Chiney Ogwumike, the latter could not be more true.
“I always tell people we fell into basketball, and I say ‘we’ because it is a journey with my sisters. We fell into basketball and we fell in love with it,” Ogwumike told CBS Local. “We were tall. My mom’s coworker was like, ‘Put them into basketball. That’s for tall girls…’ It really changed our lives.”
Ogwumike and her three sisters, Nneka, Olivia, and Erica, grew up in Cypress, Texas. Nneka and Chiney were teammates at Cy-Fair High School for two seasons, and won the 5A State Championship during Nneka’s senior year before she left for Stanford University. Two years later, Chiney would follow her older sister to Stanford, but not before winning her second state championship during her own senior year.
Chiney found immense success during her four years at Stanford. Her points per game, along with her shooting percentage, increased each season she was there, culminating in her senior year when she averaged 26.1 points (on 60.1 percent shooting), 12.1 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game. Her performance that season earned her the John R. Wooden Award as college basketball’s female player of the year. Ogwumike finished her Stanford career in 2014 as a two-time Pac-12 player of the year, three-time league defensive player of the year, and the all-time career scoring leader for either sex in Pac-12 Conference history (a record that fell in 2016 to Kelsey Plum of Washington).
“What I remember the most about Stanford is just the overall experience,” Ogwumike said. “I mean it’s unlike anywhere else in the world.”
The Stanford Women’s Basketball team also accomplished a lot during Chiney’s time there. Stanford reached the Final Four in three of Ogwumike’s four seasons, as well as being crowned Pac-12 regular season champions all four years and Pac-12 tournament champions in three of the four years.
While it is very clear she was successful on the court, Ogwumike was able to impress off the court as well; Chiney earned a 3.6 grade-point average in her major, international relations.
“Looking back at my experience, I had an amazing time,” Ogwumike said. “I went to three Final Fours, which was magical. I met some amazing people; my academic mentor was Dr. Condoleezza Rice through my international relations department. I mean, it’s just a place I’ll cherish. It’s a place I call home.”
Following in her sister’s footsteps as the number one overall selection in the WNBA Draft, Chiney picked up right where she left off at Stanford. She started all 31 games during her first season with the Connecticut Sun, and averaged 15.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. These stats were good enough to earn her WNBA Rookie of the Year, as well as being named to the WNBA All-Star Game.
After sitting out the entire 2015 season while recovering from a micro-fracture on her right knee, Ogwumike came back strong the following year. She played in 33 games (18 starts) during the 2016 season, and finished the year averaging 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. But the injury bug struck again in December 2016 when it was announced that Ogwumike had undergone surgery after injuring her Achilles while playing overseas in China during the WNBA offseason. She is currently recovering from this injury, and is set to miss the entire 2017 season.
However, Chiney is not letting the injury stop her from achieving her goals in life.
“The biggest challenge is just not knowing where your life will go. I mean, it’s like a crossroads. How do you react to an injury? You either just give into it, or you try to conquer it,” said Ogwumike. “I think a lot of times you see athletes that are conquering their injuries. And just to not let that injury become your narrative.
“So when I got injured, I was like ‘You know what, why don’t I try to do things outside of my lane.’ And I became a woman of ‘Yes’ I guess you can say. You have to say yes to opportunities, so when I was injured, a lot of opportunities came my way. That kept my mind busy as I was physically recovering, and that really transformed, honestly, my life.”
Chiney has spent her time off the court wisely over the last couple of years, working hard to start her career in broadcast journalism. In 2015, she began her own vlog series with Grit Media, documenting her life as a player in the WNBA. She has also made numerous appearances on ESPN segments such as “First Take” and “His & Hers.” But the most significant opportunity offered to Ogwumike came in June, when ESPN signed her on as the co-host for SportsCenter Africa. This vertical covers highlights across America’s best sports teams, and is then broadcast across 19 sub-Saharan nations. As a Nigerian-American, this was an amazing opportunity for Ogwumike, and one she is extremely excited about.
“The best piece of advice I’ve ever received in my life is just to be true to who you are. There have been bumps in the road in my journey of being a basketball player, which most people know. But those bumps in the road have set me up in different lanes that I ever would have imagined.”