Sister Act 2
Behind siblings Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike, Stanford’s women’s program is chasing its fifth straight Final Four appearance.
by Clay Kallam | images courtesy of Dani Vernon/Stanford Athletics
Step one is to learn how to say the last name correctly: “oh-gwu-mi-kay.”
Step two is the first names: Pronounce “Nneka” as if there’s only one “n.” “Chiney” is basically “shin-ay.”
Step three is to familiarize and memorize, because the Ogwumike sisters are not only going to be one of the biggest stories in the upcoming collegiate season, but both, barring disaster, will be mainstays of the WNBA and US Olympic teams for years to come.
In the present, they’re the foundation for Stanford’s powerful women’s basketball program, which, despite losing Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen to this past spring’s WNBA Draft, are once again expected to dominate the Pac-12 and go deep into the NCAA Tournament.
For that to happen, the elder Nneka, a 6-2 senior, will have to step up more as a leader, and the younger Chiney, a 6-3 sophomore, will have to add to her game.
“I’m going to have much more responsibility,” says Nneka, clearly referring to added off-court duties, as she posted averages of 17.5 ppg and 7.6 rpg while shooting 58.6 percent from the floor as a junior.
“She’s an analytical person,” says Kate Paye, an assistant at Stanford, explaining why Nneka shouldn’t have a problem adjusting to her expanded role. “She asks a thousand questions.”
As for the more free-spirited Chiney, well, even her older sister is pleased by her progress. “She’s matured more than I thought possible,” says Nneka.
Of course, Nneka talks to her constantly, and some of it’s bound to sink in. “They have what they call ‘sister speak,’” says Paye. “They complement each other well.”
And though there are differences in their styles, they both know what they need to work on. “My number one priority is to work on my perimeter game,” says Chiney. Nneka echoes that. “With every year, we try to develop our games more and more.”
Since the sisters are two of the most dominant post players in the country, teammates or otherwise, clearly development will take place away from the basket—which will make them even more of a nightmare for opposing coaches.
“They’re both so explosive inside,” says Kelly Graves, coach of last year’s Elite Eight Gonzaga Bulldogs, who lost to Stanford twice. “You can’t play Nneka one-on-one, so you have to run some help at her, and usually that comes from the weak side post.”
Which means, to translate from coach speak, that a team that doesn’t focus on Nneka will get beaten by her, and a team that focuses on Nneka will get hammered by Chiney.
But despite the similarity in their stats—Chiney averaged 11.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg and shot 57.4 percent from the field as a freshman (23.6 mpg)—the two are different players. “They are very different personalities and have very different games,” says Paye. “Chiney isn’t the pure athlete Nneka is.”
But in terms of their first year at the collegiate level, Chiney found the road a little smoother. “Freshman year was a challenge for Nneka,” says Paye. “Chiney picked things up quickly. We don’t like to throw freshmen into the fire, but Chiney made it impossible for us to take her off the floor.”
Though the two will definitely be on the floor a lot this year, just like last season, the ’11-12 version of the Cardinal will be noticeably different. “We’re bringing in a new kind of athleticism,” says Chiney. “Amber [Orrange], Jasmine [Camp] and Toni [Kokenis] are all fast. It’s a huge difference. One of the reasons we struggled last year was that our system was so strong, we weren’t flexible.”
“It’s a brand new puzzle,” says Paye, who like all coaches is a little more cautious in her evaluations, “and it’s exciting to put it together.”
Despite the influx of guards and speed, the final assemblage will lean heavily on post play, and that means the Ogwumikes will play a pivotal role in shaping the Cardinal’s personality.
“What I like about them is that they’re great competitors,” says Graves, “but they do it the right way. They knock you down, but then they pick you up—with a smile on their faces.”
“They’re a ton of fun,” says Paye. “They have so much passion for basketball and life. They’re bright lights.”
No matter how badly you butcher the pronunciation of their names.