Few people from Nneka Ogwumike’s professional life have visited her home in Houston. The Sparks forward, who was drafted by the franchise in 2012 after four years of college at Stanford, is so entrenched in California that some may forget her Lone Star State roots.
That’s why it meant so much that Sparks general manager Karen Bryant and head coach Curt Miller made the journey to face Ogwumike in Texas during this critical offseason.
After being designated as a core player in recent years, which meant she couldn’t negotiate with teams, Ogwumike wanted to honor the process as an unrestricted free agent and be courted by teams. Bryant and Miller showed up, got a tour of Ogwumike’s gym at Cy-Fair High, and saw a mural painted in her hometown.
The extra effort, in part, led to Ogwumike re-signing with the team on Friday after what she called the most fun free-agency trial of her career. Still, the discussions weren’t just about playing guide for Sparks executives. Ogwumike quickly became a partner in the Sparks’ rebuilding process as she, Bryant, and Miller shared their visions for the franchise.
Win, obviously. But Ogwumike wants sustainable winning that inspires people in the community to get excited about basketball and women’s sports. She envisioned a team that was culturally relevant and supported the players throughout their careers and continued to strengthen them afterwards.
“I want us to be the north star,” Ogwumike said during a press conference on Zoom on Monday.
Once the former Most Valuable Player agreed with the team managers that she would be back, she quickly switched to recruiting mode. She helped bring in free agents Azurá Stevens and Stephanie Talbot from Chicago Sky and Seattle Storm, respectively.
While Ogwumike loved reading the headlines about stars ushering in a new era of WNBA super teams — Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot teaming up with New York’s Jonquel Jones or Candace Parker joining the defending champion Las Vegas Aces — she chose a different strategy.
“A lot of players start from different places to go to one place. But my approach is who wants to play here,” Ogwumike said. “So a lot of my communication and a lot of how I conduct myself in free agency, whether it’s for me or to get other players isn’t about, ‘Hey, let’s go build this team, let’s go over here.’ It’s like, ‘Hey, this is what we’re about, if you’re for it, come through.’ And if not, then not everything is for everyone.”
Ogwumike’s loyalty to the franchise that drafted her came at a price. ESPN reported her one-year deal is worth $165,000, significantly less than the $234,936 supermax. She had no problem with the money. Ogwumike said Bryant and Miller fought with her over the salary numbers, but the seven-time All-Star told them, “Wherever you need my number to get who we need, let’s just do that.”
Ogwumike will not stay in LA alone, but will do so together with her younger sister Chiney, who re-signed with the team on Tuesday. With a thriving media career, Chiney, who was also an unrestricted free agent, could have easily transitioned into her post-basketball life. She renewed her contract with ESPN last year and now appears regularly on “NBA Today” and “NBA Countdown.” When she spoke to reporters at a Zoom conference last week, she did so from the ESPN studios.
Wearing her training gear fresh from a training session, Chiney was convinced she still had something to prove on the pitch.
“I wanted the chance to win back my own career,” she said. “The past few years have not been the easiest for me. I’ve had a lot of questions about how to bring out my best self, even in terms of confidence. But I think I have family with this group and so I think it’s the best environment to feel myself and be productive again in the way that I can be.
Chiney, who underwent microfracture surgery on her knee and tore her Achilles tendon in consecutive seasons early in her career, withdrew from the 2020 season, and the extended time off limited her in 2021 as she played in just seven games.
Last year, she played in more than half of games for the first time since 2019, appearing in 26 of 36 games while averaging seven points and 5.5 rebounds. To improve this off-season, Chiney said she gets up at 5:30 a.m. every day to do some hot yoga and basketball practice before joining ESPN.
“Chinese works. That’s the story that needs to be there,” Miller said. “She really is a hard worker.”
Miller is one of the few people to have coached both Ogwumike sisters. Miller, a former Sparks assistant, got his first WNBA coaching experience at Nneka in 2015 before assuming the head coaching position at Connecticut, where Chiney was drafted No. 1 in 2014.
Miller’s arrival in LA felt like a sign to Nneka that the Sparks were back. After the sisters teamed up in 2019 in hopes of winning a championship in LA, reuniting with Miller felt like confirmation that their hopes could soon come true.
“When we understand where Chiney is in her career, where I am in my career, there are certainly more years behind us than before us,” Nneka said. “When we’re in a situation where we’re on a team, the pieces kind of come together, I’d say that definitely meant something was really put together here.”