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Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike determined to rise after injury, Olympic snub

Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike warms up before a game.
Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike warms up before a game against the Dallas Wings at L.A. Convention Center on May 14.
(Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

When Nneka Ogwumike had every reason to shrink away from the spotlight, the Sparks forward kept a brave face front and center.

Nursing a knee injury last month, she was still cheering and coaching her teammates during a six-game losing streak. She did media events as a star in “Space Jam: A New Legacy” and spoke to kids about her experience in the movie. She never let on that she was dealing with the personal and professional disappointment of a third consecutive Olympic snub and the longest injury absence of her career.

On Monday, it became too much to bear.

“I just want to play basketball,” Ogwumike said through tears while discussing the last two months that have been among the most trying of her illustrious career.

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First there was a Grade 2 knee sprain that sidelined the star forward for more than a month. Then came USA Basketball’s controversial decision to keep Ogwumike off the Olympic roster despite earning most valuable player of the 2019 qualifying tournament. When she tried to make lemonade out of the sour situation by looking for an opportunity to play for Nigeria, FIBA denied her waiver request. She is still the only WNBA MVP to not be named to an Olympic roster.

The continued setbacks tested Ogwumike’s spirit and had the WNBPA president second-guessing her place in the game despite having become one of the league’s biggest stars.

Sparks star and WNBA leader Nneka Ogwumike fit in well among the stars of the movie ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy.’ A look at why.

“I’ve always been described as resilient,” Ogwumike said, “and I think I had to kind of tell myself that a lot to make sure that I believed it because it’s been a few weeks of feeling unvaluable or unworthy.”

For the Sparks, who restart their season Sunday after the Olympic break, Ogwumike is invaluable. She averaged 16.4 points and seven rebounds per game while shooting 58.6% from the field before getting injured.

“She’s one of the foundational pieces of this team, her leadership, her positivity, her athleticism, her IQ, her experience,” guard Kristi Toliver said. “Just to have her presence back on the floor will speak dividends for us, whether she’s 100% or not, it really honestly doesn’t matter because her presence on the floor is gonna be a game-changer for everybody.”

Ogwumike sustained the injury on June 1 against the Dallas Wings. She rested for a week before returning to the weight room and was cleared to return to the court four weeks after the injury and participated in a shoot-around with the Sparks during the last week before the Olympic break. When playing for Nigeria’s Olympic team looked like a possibility, Ogwumike was healthy enough to practice with the squad in Las Vegas.

Instead of playing in Tokyo, where Team USA won its seventh straight Olympic gold medal, Ogwumike tested her knee during personal on-court workouts before the Sparks reconvened as a team.

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Each day is incrementally better, Ogwumike said. She sticks to a strict routine involving daily vitamins, activation exercises and workouts. After a lukewarm relationship with the weight room earlier in her career, the 31-year-old has gained an appreciation for weightlifting and kept it as part of her recovery regimen. She worked on trying to speed up the release on her shot.

“For me, it was less about, ‘OK, I gotta get back to Nneka’ and more about, ‘OK, [which] Nneka is about to rise from the ashes out of this?’” Ogwumike said.

Erica Wheeler, the only undrafted WNBA player to win All-Star game MVP, is authoring the latest act of her unexpected career with the Sparks.

Like their star player, the Sparks are looking for a rebirth in the second half of the season. Struggling with injuries to Ogwumike, her younger sister Chiney and Toliver, the team is tied for second-to-last place in the WNBA standings. Toliver, who missed the last six games because of an eye injury, is expected to return Sunday. Chiney Ogwumike is questionable with lingering right knee soreness.

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The Sparks are optimistic about their chances to make a playoff push with their stars back. They know which version of Nneka Ogwumike they will have after this summer’s adversity.

“Nneka is always that light for herself, for us,” Toliver said. “Any room she steps in, any court she steps on, her presence and positivity is going to be known and felt and I’m proud to be her teammate.”


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