Fire And Ice

by October 01, 2013

by Aaron Fischman / @aaronhartf

It’s easy to get overlooked when playing alongside 2013 WNBA MVP Candace Parker, who has been the face of the league since she was drafted first overall in 2008 out of powerhouse Tennessee. While Nneka Ogwumike may not garner the name recognition of, say, Candace Parker, Brittney Griner or Elena Delle Donne—few do—since entering the league two seasons ago, she has undoubtedly morphed into one of its top interior players. The scary part? She may not even be the best player in her family when all is said and done.

Nneka and her younger sister, Chiney, started out as gymnasts. When they grew too tall for the sport—Nneka, 11 years old, and Chiney, 9—their mom’s coworker recommended they try basketball.

Having never played basketball before, both girls were extremely raw. Nneka persevered through the awkwardness and continued practicing with the other players. Her younger sister, however, felt too embarrassed to continue. “I ran away,” Chiney recalled. “I hid in the bathroom for the rest of that practice.”

That entire first year, Chiney would sit in the gym and observe her big sis play the game that gradually became less and less foreign to her. “When we’d go home, Nneka would say, ‘Hey, this is what we learned,’ and she’s showing me.”

Big Sis Arrives

After leading the Stanford Cardinal to four consecutive Final Four appearances, Nneka was taken by the Los Angeles Sparks with their No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 WNBA Draft. Less than two months into her inaugural pro season, Nneka grabbed 20 rebounds, including 12 on the offensive glass, in a three-point win over the Fever. Ogwumike earned Rookie of the Year honors, as the Sparks’ winning percentage jumped from .441 before her arrival to .706, third-best in the league. She finished the season with averages of 14.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals on 53.5 percent shooting.

Following the season, Nneka went to Poland, where she continued to improve her game. In a league that featured 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles, Ogwumike led her team to a 23-1 record, while recording a league-high 18.3 points per game. Her dominant play continued throughout the postseason, culminating in a four-game Finals sweep of Charles’ squad.

During the ’12-13 campaign, her second season with the Sparks, Nneka’s scoring and rebounding increased despite a slight decrease in playing time. Most notably, her free-throw and field-goal shooting improved by 9.2 and 3.1 percent, respectively. For her efforts, Nneka made her first WNBA All-Star team and was later invited to train with Team USA this fall. In fact, Chiney was also invited, but chose not to accept in order to focus on academics and preparing for her senior season at Stanford.

Chiney’s Turn

Connecticut and Notre Dame came calling, among other schools, but Chiney decided to follow her older sister to Stanford, where the two would play together for a couple seasons. Just nine years after having been terrified to even step foot on to a basketball court, Chiney posted 11.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game as a freshman. Boasting a pair of Ogwumike sisters, the Cardinal came within one point of playing in the 2011 National Championship game.

After Nneka graduated, Chiney was left without her sister, whom she relied upon heavily.

“Chiney was hit with that reality of, ‘Ok, I’ve got to take care of myself,’” said her mother, Ify. “It was tough for her for a little while ’til she got her bearings. She lost a lot of weight, because she didn’t know how to think about food. Nneka just took care of her [while at Stanford].”

If she had a frustration or something she wanted to discuss, Chiney could no longer leave her dorm to quickly find her trusty older sister. At the same time, Nneka’s departure forced Chiney to take responsibility for herself, both on the off the court.

“Her not being around has helped me mature and that helps me mature on the court as a player,” said Chiney. “I would always think to myself, What would Nneka do? What would Nneka do in this situation?”

In Chiney’s first season without Nneka, her junior year, she averaged 22.4 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, ranking her in the top seven nationwide in each category. She also managed to record 1.7 blocks per contest. Despite her phenomenal individual contributions, Georgia upset Stanford in the 2013 Sweet 16.

A year later, Chiney looks forward to her senior season, where she hopes to bring the Cardinal a National Championship, something her older sister couldn’t accomplish. She says she’s getting stronger and has been working on her perimeter skills, such as ball handling and developing her outside shot.

Fire and Ice

According to their mom, Nneka and Chiney are total opposites: “Nneka is very cool, calm and very introspective, and Chiney wears her emotions on her sleeve. If she’s excited and happy, you’re going to see it.”

That’s why people who know the sisters well refer to them as fire and ice. Chiney heats things up, while her older sister calms things down.

Because Nneka is understated and extremely humble, Chiney has gladly taken on the role of Nneka’s unofficial promoter.

“I’m the one who has to hype her up [and] keep her confident,” says Chiney. “She keeps me realistic.”

Chiney claims to be Nneka’s biggest fan “by a long shot,” and one cursory glance at her Twitter will prove it. After the Sparks stole Game 2 in Phoenix during the opening round of the 2013 Playoffs, Chiney tweeted, “@Nnemkadi30 with 15 & 11 and the Sparks live another day! CP showing everybody why she is MVP! #TeamO.”

The Matriarch

When Nneka was in third grade and Chiney was in first, their father, Peter, took a technological consulting job that required him to split his time between Nigeria and the United States. As a result, Ify Ogwumike frequently operated as a single mother in Cypress, TX, the Houston suburb where four Ogwumike girls were raised. Like Nneka and Chiney, Olivia, 17, and Erica, 16, also play basketball. Naturally, Ify had her work cut out for her, but her girls never had to miss a single practice. She was always there.

Ify, who’s worked in education for the last 30 years and is currently a high school principal, never thought twice about putting optimal effort into raising bright, hard-working, well-adjusted girls. “When you make that decision and that commitment to have children,” said Ify, “your needs become secondary at least ’til they leave home and go to college and become adults. I’m not saying that you lose yourself, but you become secondary.”

After growing up with a mother who imposed strict academic standards on her daughters, Nneka and Chiney both excelled in their classes at Stanford. Nneka graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. Chiney is finishing up her degree in International Relations.

To this day, Ify is the last person Nneka and Chiney call before a game. Win or lose, she’s also the first person they call after a game.

After the Mercury eliminated Nneka’s Sparks from post-season play last week, Ify had words of wisdom for her eldest daughter. “I tell Nneka, We’ve had a lot of successes, and we’re going to have a lot of opportunities,” said Ify. “I never call losses ‘losses.’ I call them learning opportunities, because you don’t learn from winning. You celebrate when you win. When you lose, you learn.”

“You Better Watch Out”

Both sisters agree that Nneka is the better athlete, but that Chiney has incorporated more fundamentally sound skills into her game over the years. When you watch the two play, it’s apparent that Nneka can finish more smoothly at the rim. Chiney, on the other hand, is craftier and always seems to find a way to score.

People often find this hard to believe, but the sisters have never played against each other in an organized game.

Chiney recalled the last time they played against each other, which was during a full-court scrimmage at a Stanford practice: “I was guarding Nneka. I don’t think she scored. She claimed that I elbowed her in the chest in order to score. And on the way running back, she’s like, ‘You better watch out.’ I immediately ran off the court and told the coach to sub me out. Ever since then, we never really compete like that.”

As kids, they rarely played each other one-on-one. According to Nneka, “We were more of a collaborative effort, rebounding each other’s shots. And we always went to the gym and worked out with each other, just kind of made each other better.”

Considering where Chiney is expected to go in the 2014 WNBA Draft (potentially as high as No. 1, like her sister), the Sparks’ low draft position and the Sparks’ positional strengths (they already have Nneka and Parker up front), it’s very unlikely that the sisters will be reunited at the WNBA level, at least in the near future.

The Stanford scrimmage aside, don’t expect to see the sisters brawling on the court. According to Chiney, “We’ve never gotten into a significant fight. We’ve had serious disagreements, but I can probably count those on one hand.”

With regard to facing each other in the pros, Chiney added, “I think we’ll have a nice little system. We’ll talk about it before we play each other. Trust me.”

They’re Taking Over

Nneka expressed excitement over the prospect of Chiney landing with a Western Conference team: “That means I’d be able to see her more often.” She also hoped that the two could link up overseas.

As Chiney’s been in college, she’s become increasingly curious about the professional game. “She’s always wanting to come down here and kind of experience what I’m experiencing,” said Nneka, “because you know she’s still in school.” They’re in constant contact with each other via text message. They also Facetime at least two to three times per week.

Since they were young, Chiney has always wanted to emulate her big sister. In addition, Nneka has taken an active role in encouraging Chiney to accomplish her goals.

“She [Nneka] does something, and she’s waiting for me to come along and she knows [I will],” said Chiney. “She’s always talking like, ‘Chiney, when you get here. When you do this. When you make it to the league hopefully’ and stuff like that, so it’s a very exciting time, because she knows how special playing in college is, but then she’s also very excited to share that chapter of being a pro player with me. It’s a very exciting time for our family.”

In American women’s professional basketball, there really is no precedent for what Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike are trying to achieve. As sisters, they are well on their way to becoming two of the top players in the WNBA within the next few years. Twin sisters Kelly and Coco Miller played in the league for more than a decade apiece, but were never considered among the league’s elite. There have been other pairs of sisters in the league, but none that ever materialized into bona fide stars.

With players like Tamika Catchings, Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson and Diana Taurasi on the wrong side of 30, the Ogwumike sisters (23 and 21 years old) could become the new faces of the WNBA alongside Griner and Delle Donne. Although the “3 to See” received the bulk of the past year’s marketing hype, the league would be wise to start pushing the Ogwumike brand next summer. Nneka may be humble when it comes to her post-game words and Chiney may not have entered the league quite yet, but there’s a bunch to be excited about with regard to these sisters’ games. If the WNBA is looking to promote ideal role models, they both epitomize the scholar athlete as well.