Sparks, Nneka Ogwumike share vision for bright future
Few people from Nneka Ogwumike’s professional life have visited her home in Houston. The Sparks’ star forward, who was drafted by the franchise in 2012 after four years at Stanford, is so entrenched in California that she says some might forget her Lone Star State roots.
That’s why it meant so much that new Sparks general manager Karen Bryant and new coach Curt Miller made the trip to meet with Ogwumike in Texas during this critical offseason.
After she was designated as a core player by the Sparks in recent years, meaning she could not negotiate with teams in free agency, Ogwumike wanted the experience of being an unrestricted free agent and be courted by teams. Bryant and Miller showed up, getting a tour of Ogwumike’s high school gym at Cy-Fair High and seeing a mural that was painted in her hometown.
The extra efforts contributed to Ogwumike’s decision to re-sign with the team Friday after what she called the most enjoyable free agency of her career. And it wasn’t just about playing tour guide to Sparks executives. Ogwumike became a partner in the Sparks’ rebuilding process as she, Bryant and Miller shared their visions for the franchise.
The coach and GM are tasked with restoring a team that went 25-43 over the last two seasons, missing the playoffs for the first time in Ogwumike’s career.
Ogwumike wants sustained winning that inspires people in the community to get excited about basketball and women’s sports. She envisioned a team that is culturally relevant and supports its players during their careers and continues to empower them after.
“I want us to be the North Star,” Ogwumike said Monday in a videoconference.
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Once the former most valuable player agreed with team executives that she would be back, she quickly shifted into recruiting mode. She helped bring in free agents Azurá Stevens and Stephanie Talbot from the Chicago Sky and Seattle Storm, respectively.
Though Ogwumike loved reading the headlines about stars ushering in a new era of WNBA super teams — Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot teaming with Jonquel Jones in New York or Candace Parker joining the defending champion Las Vegas Aces — she took a different strategy.
“A lot of players leaving different places to go to one place. But my approach is, who wants to play here?” Ogwumike said. “So a lot of my communications and a lot of how I conduct myself in free agency, whether it’s for me or to get other players, it’s not about, ‘Hey, let’s go build this team, let’s go here.’ It’s just like, ‘Hey, this is what we’re about, if you’re for it, come through.’ And if not, everything’s not for everybody.”
Her loyalty to the team that drafted her came at a price. Her one-year deal is worth $169,500, according to a person with knowledge of the team not authorized to speak publicly, a pay cut and far less than the supermax of $234,936. She had no qualms about the money. She said Bryant and Miller fought her on the numbers, but the seven-time All-Star told them, “wherever you need my number to be to get who we need to get, let’s just do that.”
Ogwumike not only will remain in L.A., but she will do so with her younger sister Chiney, who re-signed with the team Tuesday. With a blossoming media career, Chiney, who also was an unrestricted free agent, easily could have transitioned into her post-basketball life. She extended her contract with ESPN last year and now regularly appears on “NBA Today” and “NBA Countdown.” When she spoke to reporters last week on a videoconference, she did so from the ESPN studios.
Wearing her workout gear fresh off a training session, Chiney was adamant that she still has something to prove on the court.
“I wanted the opportunity to reclaim my own career,” she said. “The last few years haven’t been the easiest for me. I’ve had a lot of questions about how to put my best self out there, even confidence-wise. But I think with this group, I have family and so I think it’s the best environment to feel myself and be back to being productive in the way that I can be.”
Chiney, who had microfracture surgery on her knee and tore her Achilles tendon in consecutive seasons early in her career, opted out of the 2020 pandemic season, and the extended time off limited her in 2021 when she appeared in only seven games.
Last year was the first time she played in more than half of the games since 2019, appearing in 26 of 36 games while averaging 7.0 points and 5.5 rebounds. To improve this offseason, Chiney said she gets up at 5:30 a.m. each day to do hot yoga and basketball training before going to work at ESPN.
“Chiney works. That’s the narrative that needs to be out there,” Miller said. “She is a really hard worker.”
Miller is one of the few people to coach both Ogwumike sisters. A former Sparks assistant, Miller got his first WNBA coaching experience with Nneka in 2015 before taking the head coaching position in Connecticut, where Chiney was drafted No. 1 overall in 2014.
Miller’s arrival in L.A. felt like a sign to Nneka that the Sparks were back. After the sisters teamed up in 2019 with hopes of winning a championship in L.A., reuniting with Miller felt like confirmation that their hopes could come true soon.
“Understanding where Chiney is in her career, where I am in my career, there’s certainly more years behind us than in front of us,” said Nneka, 32. “For us to be in a situation where we’re on a team, the pieces are kind of coming together, I would say that was certainly signifying that something was really getting assembled here.”