Chiney Ogwumike was practically flying up and down the court as the Los Angeles Sparks scrimmaged earlier this week at Los Angeles Southwest College. She was grabbing steals, leading fast breaks and sinking layups in traffic. Her effort pushed the pace of every point.
Her sister Nneka was watching from the sideline as practice ended, but she plays the same way. Fast. Explosive. Hungry to win. That’s why coach Derek Fisher likes putting them on opposite teams in scrimmages. Competing alongside an Ogwumike sister drives the rest of the Sparks to match their intensity.
“Because of how hard they each work at everything that they do,” Fisher said, “the other four players don’t have a choice but to work as hard.”
Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike are the only siblings besides Eli and Peyton Manning to be drafted at No. 1 overall in the history of the four major U.S. pro sports, and in 2014 they became the first sisters selected to participate in the same WNBA All-Star game. Both are former rookies of the year and were All-Stars last season. Nneka was the league’s MVP in 2016.
For the first time in their professional careers, they are teammates. On April 27, the Sparks acquired Chiney from the Connecticut Sun in exchange for a 2020 first-round draft pick.
The addition of Chiney, 27, has helped make the Sparks one of the favorites to win the WNBA title this year. Their season begins with a Sunday evening matchup in Las Vegas against the Aces.
“To be honest, I mean, we got her for ... a couple coins and a bag of chips, really,” Nneka, 28, said of the trade, laughing at Sparks media day with her sister seated beside her. She added that general manager Penny Toler “knows what the heck she’s doing.”
The decision to trade for Chiney, a 6-foot-4 forward-center, was a “no-brainer,” Toler said. With Nneka, a 6-2 forward, entering her eighth season with the Sparks, Toler was well aware of the Ogwumike family’s work ethic. Nneka “knows one speed,” Toler said. “100.”
She could imagine having a second player like her. It will be important to start the season because star forward/center Candace Parker is sidelined with a left hamstring injury.
“They’re blue-collar workers,” Toler said of the sisters. “They will do whatever it takes to win, even if it meant mopping the floor. They wouldn’t even ask; they would grab a mop. That’s their type of character.”
Apart, they push their teammates. Together, they awe them. Nneka and Chiney have a “secret language” on the court, Fisher said. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer saw it when she coached the sisters. By the time of their senior seasons, two years apart, each averaged more than 20 points per game and had collected more than 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds.
Every hurdle Chiney faced as she adjusted to college basketball, Nneka was there to talk her through it. They were close but inclusive to the rest of the team. Chiney had explosive power, Nneka a refined finesse. They pushed each other to excel by going all-out against each other in practice. Sometimes VanDerveer believed Nneka pushed Chiney harder than the coaching staff did.
“You don’t have enough ink or paper for all the things I could say about those two and their family,” said VanDerveer, who recruited the Ogwumikes from Cy-Fair High in Cypress, Texas. “They’re really, really special. I’m so excited that they’re playing together, but also that the fans in L.A. get a chance to watch women that are talented but also, you know, they’re team players. They have the whole package.”
As professionals, the two embraced unique passions, leading teams on opposite coasts. Nneka is the president of the WNBA players’ association, advocating for the game’s growth and for better treatment of players. Chiney turned injury struggles early in her career into an opportunity to prepare for life after the WNBA by joining ESPN as an analyst.
The possibility of playing together again seemed slim.
“I knew the only way it would happen was if she came here,” Nneka said.
When Chiney learned of the trade, the first thing she told Nneka over the phone was, “I want to win a championship with you.” The buzz once the news went public was similar. At the Sparks’ media day, Nneka outlined all the ways Chiney was the missing piece for the team. Chiney began, unprompted, to argue why Nneka was the better basketball player and described how her older sister was her “goal model,” the family trailblazer.
“Their unconditional love for each other and support for each other …” VanDerveer said, “just defines sisterhood.”
For the first time since college, the Ogwumikes will take to the court Sunday wearing a jersey for the same team. They reached the Final Four in both of their seasons together at Stanford but did not win a title. With the Sparks, they have another chance.
“It’s always been one of those things where, if Nneka can’t win a championship, I want to win a championship,” Chiney said, “and if I can’t win a championship, I hope she wins a championship.