Column: Chiney Ogwumike is ready for challenge of rebuilding with Sparks

Sparks' Chiney Ogwumike dribbles next to Connecticut Sun's Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas.
Sparks’ Chiney Ogwumike, left, dribbles next to Connecticut Sun’s Brionna Jones, center, and Alyssa Thomas during the second half on May 31, 2019 at Staples Center.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Opting out of the WNBA’s pandemic-shortened 2020 season was a difficult decision for Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike, but her history of microfracture surgery and a torn Achilles tendon demanded that she get more time to prepare than the condensed calendar allowed. Although she was physically distanced from the bubble that operated in Bradenton, Fla., her emotional connection to her teammates remained strong.

“I’d be watching and be like, ‘Man, set some screens, get some rebounds,’” she said.

This season, she will be able to tell them that in person.

Ogwumike, a two-time WNBA All-Star and a vice president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Assn., last week signed a two-year deal to return to the Sparks. Her older sister and teammate, six-time All-Star and WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike, has reached a verbal commitment to return in 2021.


The schedule for the WNBA’s 25th season hasn’t been announced, but Chiney Ogwumike is perfectly positioned to break the news when it’s released. The 28-year-old Texas native began taking steps toward a future in broadcasting early in her basketball career, appearing on camera for ESPN while she played for the Connecticut Sun, and last year she became the first Black woman to co-host a nationally syndicated show on ESPN radio.

That makes for a hectic schedule that takes her from the gym to radio and TV studios, and yoga sessions when she can fit them in. She also does extensive preparation for the variety of topics that come up on her radio show with Mike Golic Jr. “Your girl isn’t just talking about basketball anymore,” she said with a laugh during a webinar with the media on Monday.

Chiney Ogwumike, a two-time WNBA All-Star known for her social justice advocacy, has re-signed with the Sparks ahead of the 2021 season.

Her world has grown beyond the court, but the game and the opportunities it has given her to shape her life and improve the lives of others remains at its center. Working with the players’ union to raise their collective voice for social justice — she was an election poll worker in her hometown of Houston in November — and discussing social issues on the air are as natural to her as refining ways to break down defenses.

“They’re all just passions of mine and they all stem from basketball so it doesn’t feel like work,” she said.

That’s why she didn’t consider retiring to pursue broadcasting full time and has chosen to rebuild her body and her conditioning with a return to the Sparks after about a year-and-a-half off the court.

“I just opted out this season. And I know a lot of people will bring these questions because I’ve missed a couple of seasons due to injury, so it’s not like I’ve had that consistency,” said Ogwumike, who sat out the 2015 and 2017 seasons while with Connecticut.

“I never once wavered. I’m always going to train. That just has always been a part of my routine. When the team was in the bubble it was [a matter of] getting as healthy as possible so that the next season I’ll be in a better position than I was before. It’s never crossed my mind, even though a lot of people have asked and I just sort of brush it off like, they just know me probably just on TV or from broadcast. I’m just glad that being on the court with the Sparks will give a resounding answer.”

Sparks' Chiney Ogwumike practices with Sparks Player Development coach Jamal "Dash" Lovell.
The Sparks’ Chiney Ogwumike practices with Sparks player development coach Jamal “Dash” Lovell on March 9, 2020 in Los Angeles.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Ogwumike, who averaged 9.6 points and 5.8 rebounds in 21.8 minutes in 2019, will return to a revamped lineup. The Sparks, who were eliminated in the second round of the 2020 playoffs, suffered major losses when starters Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray left as free agents. New additions include All-Star point guard Erica Wheeler, who sat out last season after testing positive for COVID-19, and center Amanda Zahui B., who Ogwumike called “a sniper, pretty much a guard in a post body.”

It will be a different team, one that likely will need time to find chemistry and hit its stride. Making the playoffs looms as a challenge too. “While many people might be focusing on what we do not have, what we do have actually can hold us together pretty nicely as a team and I think everyone has a chip on their shoulder here, as well,” she said.

The Sparks introduce their newest player, center Amanda Zahui B., the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft who had a career year last season.

She expects her sister Nneka to be in the forefront. “She’s a natural-born leader,” Chiney said, “and I am most qualified to say that because she has led me ever since I’ve taken my first breath of life and I continue to have fun riding her coattails and following my big sis through every step of the way.”

Chiney Ogwumike’s path has led her to places she never imagined going. “My journey with the WNBA has not been a linear line,” she said.

That line has looped back around to the court, good fortune for her and for the Sparks.

“I’ve had extended periods of having to not have access to a gym the way I’d want to wake up and go and hoop like everyone else could,” she said of her past injuries, “and so I think that’s why I probably have a huge appreciation not only to play the game but talk about the game because I know it can be taken away at any time.”