Nneka Ogwumike’s parents, Peter and Ify, were born within a hundred miles of each other, in Nigeria. They met, years later, in Colorado, got married, and settled in Houston. Ify became a teacher and, later, the assistant superintendent of a school district in Harris County. Peter owns a tech company called Automated Systems. They have four daughters: Nneka, Chiney, Olivia, and Erica. Growing up, the girls played basketball, volleyball, and soccer, and did gymnastics. There was also “student council, playing the piano, going to church, mentoring others, being role models, having straight A’s, cleaning the house, mowing the lawn with me,” Ify said recently. Her tone was lighthearted, but she was serious. “The only expectation we have of the girls,” she went on, “is that they are hardworking, focussed, and have good personal morals and values, and remember who they are.” Today, Nneka and Chiney, who both went to Stanford, are teammates on the Los Angeles Sparks, in the W.N.B.A. (They were each drafted No. 1 over all, two years apart.) Olivia, who played college ball at Rice, is in business school, and Erica, who also played at Rice—and who was drafted by the Minnesota Lynx in the spring, but was cut before the season began—plans to attend medical school. In December, Ify received a Ph.D. in education. “Our custom and culture is about excellence,” Peter said.
Among the sisters, Nneka, the eldest, is the “mother hen,” Ify told me. “Very nurturing with her sisters, but also the disciplinarian. It’s kind of a fine balance. But she doesn’t allow anyone else to be hard on them.” Playing that role was, perhaps, the perfect preparation for the remarkable series of challenges that Nneka has taken on this year. As the president of the W.N.B.A.’s players’ union, she helped complete the negotiations for a historic collective-bargaining agreement, in January. A couple of months later, she played a central role in deciding how to start the season during a pandemic. On the season’s first night, she scored twenty-one points for the Sparks, against the Phoenix Mercury, in the most-watched W.N.B.A. opener in eight years. She didn’t miss a shot; the Sparks won by twenty-three points.
Condoleezza Rice, who got to know Chiney and Nneka at Stanford, told the Times several years ago, “Whatever career they find themselves in, they will eventually end up on top of that career. They’re going to be transformative personalities.” But, for Nneka, none of that seemed like a given. Even after leading Stanford to four Final Fours, she didn’t plan to enter the draft—she was preparing for medical school—until Chiney convinced her that she could make it. And, though she joined the executive committee of the players’ union just after entering the league, she never thought about serving as its leader until the outgoing president, Tamika Catchings, urged her to run. She was elected unopposed.
Ogwumike is clearly aware of her accomplishments, but she seems conscious that others may not be. On the court, her style is practical, matter-of-fact; to watch her bait a defender with a fake jump hook before stepping into open space and sending up a gentle floater is to be more impressed than awed. Her calling card is efficiency: in 2016, her true-shooting percentage was nearly seventy-four per cent, an unheard-of stat. (Men’s and women’s basketball are different enough that making comparisons is complicated if not pointless, but it is perhaps worth nothing that the single-season record in the N.B.A., held by Tyson Chandler, is a shade under seventy-one per cent.) In a three-game stretch that season, she made twenty-three straight shots. Careful execution is her style off the court, too, Layshia Clarendon, who plays for the New York Liberty and serves on the players’ union’s executive committee, told me. “She makes calculated, poised decisions.”
Ogwumike is six feet two, with wide-set eyes and muscular shoulders. She is a dominant physical presence on the floor. She should have known that she could succeed in the W.N.B.A.—she was named Rookie of the Year in her first season and M.V.P. in her fifth—but her decision to become a pro basketball player rather than a doctor was less inevitable than it might have seemed. Under the W.N.B.A.’s old collective-bargaining agreement, Ogwumike, the year that she was the M.V.P., made $63,710. The league’s average salary was around seventy-five thousand dollars; the league minimum was about thirty-five thousand. Spots in the W.N.B.A. are limited, the competition is ruthless, and life on the road can be gruelling. Most players supplement their income by going overseas—to China, Turkey, Spain, Russia—where the money is better. European contracts involve confidentiality, Ogwumike’s agent, Lindsay Colas, told me, but, under the old salary structure, a player of Ogwumike’s calibre could make five to eight times the top W.N.B.A. salary—and a few players were making ten to fifteen times what they made in the United States. But the sacrifices were real. “When I say Siberia, it’s not a figure of speech,” Howard Megdal, who reports extensively on women’s basketball, told me of where some athletes end up competing. “Players who wanted to have relationships, friends, lovers, whoever, simply didn’t have them.”
Ogwumike went to Poland after her rookie year. Later, she played in Russia and China. After winning the W.N.B.A. title with the Sparks in her M.V.P. season—she hit the championship-clinching shot, off balance, with 3.1 seconds on the clock—she led Dynamo Kursk to the title there. That year, 2016, was when she realized her “superpower,” she told me—some ineffable awareness of her own capabilities, the sense that she had something rare and special within her. She cited her favorite book, Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist.” In the novel, a parable about personal destiny, a shepherd travels from Andalusia to Egypt in search of a treasure that he has dreamed about, only to realize that the treasure—a box of gold coins—was buried back home all along. “Every search begins with beginner’s luck,” an alchemist tells the shepherd. “2016 was like that for me,” Ogwumike said. The alchemist adds, “And every search ends with the victor’s being severely tested.”
The W.N.B.A. began, in 1996, as an offshoot of the N.B.A. Its teams were owned by N.B.A. franchises, and many of them played in N.B.A. arenas. At the end of 2002, the N.B.A. sold the teams either to the N.B.A. franchises or independent parties, though it retains a controlling interest in the league, and there was a period of reshuffling and contraction. There are still a number of chauvinistic sports fans who seem to assume that the women’s league is some kind of social-justice project, or charity case, rather than a business. Like many fledgling leagues, it loses money; in 2018, shortly after the players decided they would opt out of their previous collective-bargaining agreement, Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, noted that the W.N.B.A. had lost more than ten million dollars every year of its existence. Of course, the previous N.B.A. commissioner, David Stern, had insisted on multiple occasions—often in the context of labor negotiations—that the N.B.A. itself lost hundreds of millions of dollars a year. And Major League Soccer, which is a year older than the W.N.B.A., and which garners the same ratings on ESPN for its regular-season games that the W.N.B.A. does, acknowledged in 2014 that it was losing a hundred million dollars annually. (According to a source recently cited by the Wall Street Journal, the M.L.S. “is losing more than that now . . . because it is investing more in players.”)