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Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike proves most valuable off the court in challenging times

The Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike is shown during the 2019 season.
The Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike, shown last season, has been getting ready for the pandemic-shortened WNBA season in Florida while also serving as players union president.
(Gregory Payan / Associated Press)

Nneka Ogwumike was named the WNBA’s most valuable player in 2016, but in 2020, amid labor discussions, social unrest and a pandemic, the Sparks forward is proving why she’s another type of league MVP: its most valuable president.

In her role as players association president, Ogwumike helped lead conversations for the WNBA’s delayed season, ensuring players felt comfortable with the unprecedented circumstances and the league could meet any demands. Seven months after the WNBA announced a celebrated collective bargaining agreement, the latest hurdle was another learning moment for the veteran forward.

“It’s been quite challenging, really, just because of what’s on everybody’s plate,” Ogwumike said on a virtual news conference from Bradenton, Fla., as the WNBA started training camp this weekend. “But I have an amazing team on the executive committee and of course the staff and then working with [Commissioner] Cathy [Engelbert] and the league, it’s been a great experience really. I feel as though we’re kind of redefining this relationship between the players and the league.”

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Although Ogwumike was at the forefront of discussing the league’s return to play, it did not mean she was an automatic “in” for the bubble. With players opting out of the season, including Sparks guard Kristi Toliver and Ogwumike’s own sister Chiney, Nneka said she “had to be more deliberate in how I decided to kind of navigate the negotiations.”

Health was a top priority, she said. Not only coronavirus-related health but also any risk of injury after not playing for five months. Then there was the desire to speak on issues concerning racism and injustice. That was “nonnegotiable,” Ogwumike said.

But as she stood in front of an L.A. Sparks backdrop and spoke into a webcam Saturday night, Ogwumike said she was happy to have entered the bubble, where the WNBA plans to highlight social activism during its season and hopes to create a relative pandemic safe haven, even if the bubble is surrounded by chaos. Florida reported 95 resident deaths Saturday, the third consecutive day with more than 90 fatalities.

In addition to announcing plans on how it plans to address the issues of social inequality, the WNBA also revealed COVID-19 testing results for players.

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After quarantining for several days, the Sparks had their first physical team meeting of the season Friday. It was “dope” to see her teammates face to face after months of Zoom calls, said guard Brittney Sykes, acquired by the Sparks in February. But it was also awkward. Social distancing rules still apply. No hugs. No daps.

As the team returns to basketball normality, Ogwumike still juggles her responsibilities as WNBPA president while preparing the Sparks for the season, which is expected to tip off July 25. It’s a balancing act, she said, not only for herself but also for the team that needs her for a championship.

“We have to watch her energy levels and not have her wearing too many hats over the course of the season,” Sparks coach Derek Fisher said. “We know how important she is to everyone.”


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