Inside the Trail-Blazing Career of Chiney Ogwumike of ESPN and WNBA

Bobby Burack
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Chiney Ogwumike has carved out one of the most unique careers in broadcasting. While simultaneously an All-Star in the WNBA, Chiney is a full-time basketball analyst at ESPN. She opened up to The Big Lead in a conversation about her career. 

Bobby Burack: Chiney, I’ve interviewed several ESPN analysts, but never a WNBA All-Star. Can you take us through the process of how this all happened?

Ogwumike: Well, Bobby, I’ve very glad to be your first. I will try to briefly give you this very long story. I will try to just make it the Spark Notes version just for you. Because we are Millennials, and that’s how we roll.

So, born and raised in Houston and I was fortunate to go to Stanford University and get drafted in Connecticut. When I was in Connecticut, it was one of those cool scenarios when I was drafted in my home court arena. It was super surreal. My big sister, Nneka, was there who was previously a number one pick and it was just one of those things I still get goosebumps about. The thing about being in Connecticut, right in your backyard is ESPN.

So, I had a great rookie season. For those that don’t know, WNBA players play 24/7. You see the WNBA season from May to October, but from October to May, we go play overseas. Because we can go make 2x, 3x, 10x, up to 11x our salaries overseas. But that is a conversation for another day, why we are valued more overseas. But that is the fact of the matter. We don’t play in the WNBA for the money, bro. So, after my rookie year, I went to play in Italy, but then got injured in Italy. I then went home and started rehabbing in Houston. I realized getting down and just defining myself as an injured athlete was not a sane and healthy place to be in. I was just trying to occupy my mind.

I was watching a lot of ESPN, a lot of news programs, and was reading the New York Times, and was just trying to stay up to date on the world. Trying to figure out what opportunity is next. But, guess what? Ball is life. I rehabbed and was out a year and a half and was able to come back the following season. And had a great year. Was Comeback Player of the Year and all that stuff. Everything is great, ball is life. I go play over in China, get injured again. Then I was like, okay, my eyes are getting big. I said, “Maybe I am not built for this. To play basketball 24/7.”

So, the fortunate thing is when I was injured, I was thrown opportunities by ESPN. I say thrown, but I was really gifted. This is where I shout out Lisa Stokes, who works in the talent office at ESPN. While I was rehabbing the first time, and then the second time, she knew me from when I was drafted in Connecticut. I went through the ESPN car wash, went on the shows, and built some great relationships with the people there. The WNBA is in the summer during ESPN’s hiatus time where they are looking for new fresh voices. Being a WNBA player, in Connecticut, with a little bit of time on my hands, they threw me the opportunities of being on First Take and His & Hers.

At the time, I didn’t know much about ESPN, like the details that go into each show. So, I was living, breathing, eating First Take, NFL Live, SportsCenter just to make sure I was as up to date as possible. And also getting to know people. This was the first time I met Maria Taylor and Marcus Spears. That was on His & Hers.

It wasn’t just like I was going in for fun like an athlete on these shows. No, they were actually evaluating me. And I didn’t know that. But I liked it, I thought it was fun. So, during the years I was rehabbing, I worked with women’s college basketball and they gave me 20 or so games. I also worked with the Pac-12 Network and Uninterrupted when it was just starting out. I was thinking, “Would I like to do this after I am done playing?” But in the back of my mind, it was always, ball is life. But I did think, “Chiney, you may need to supplement your career with something other than playing basketball overseas.”  I was playing in the WNBA when they launched SportsCenter Africa and they brought me in to be interviewed as an athlete. But I didn’t know at the time the ESPN international boss, shout out to Sean Riley, was evaluating me.

Days later they wanted me to come shadow the show and then they wanted me to read the prompter. Then they would be like, “Hey, can you do a highlight?” I didn’t know anything like what a shot sheet was. I would look back at it, and it felt okay. They ended up offering me a position as an anchor for SportsCenter Africa. It was unique because I got to learn more aspects of television than just being an analyst. Like being a host. It allowed me to make mistakes because y’all weren’t seeing them in the U.S. I was doing some NBA segments and Lisa Stokes, my fairy godmother, said: “Hey, if you are looking for NBA people in Connecticut, why don’t you give Chiney a shot?” I was shook. Can I do it? Should I do it? But I tried it, and I had a blast. I was just happy ESPN decided to explore my voice so young in my career while I have another career going.

One thing manifested into another to now being a full-time NBA analyst. As well as things like filling in on Get Up when Jalen [Rose] is out. On The Jump with Rach [Rachel Nichols], who I love. Outside the Lines with that group that is fantastic. Oh, I can’t not mention [Mike] Golic and [Trey] Wingo. They would say, “You never give us love.” Well, it is too early to give you love. Anyway, that is my journey.

Burack: When I look at what you are doing, and I mentioned this in my piece regarding the 19 Sports Media Talents Set to Break Out this year, it is paving the way with for others. But, as I am sure you know, that comes if you have success. So, do you feel pressure because of that? 

Ogwumike: I absolutely do feel like there is pressure on me for me to succeed. The funny thing is, [the level of pressure] it’s like .00001. The real ones like Doris Burke and Rachel Nichols, those are the ones have gone through the fire and created opportunities for us. Nancy Lieberman, those women. Ann Meyers, who will still shoot you a message to cross your hands here. I love that feedback. These women know, they’ve been through so much to get to where they are. And the only reason I am having this great opportunity is because of them.

These women, and we all consider Doris the G.O.A.T., I just can’t even imagine what it has been like for her career. It is one thing to make a mistake as a woman, but it is another thing to make a mistake in a male-dominated sport as a woman. They are looking and waiting for us to make a mistake and fail. I just don’t know how she did it, man. She is not just one of the smartest voices in basketball but just in sports. And we love her. The shirt just came out, “Doris Burke is the G.O.A.T.” She has always been credible, she has always been great. I have to constantly be on my game because these women have been through it. We are all a reflection of each other. There are some awesome women in this business. Sage Steele has pulled me to the side and told me about the struggles she has been through just so I wouldn’t go through the same. Josina Anderson is the same way, she works in the NFL. These women may not know, but they are doing so much for me just doing what they are doing. I am just in awe. They have always been great, but society is just now opening their eyes and noticing it.

Burack: You have spoken about the advice you have been given. Now, what advice would you give someone wanting to do what you are doing? 

Ogwumike: Stay true to your voice. I remember when I first started working at ESPN and was sitting in that anchor chair. I was like, okay, I have to talk like them. Maybe?  I caught myself sounding more and more like an anchor. With those typical mannerisms and stuff you would see on the local news. I would make myself small. But then when I would make a mistake, or need to learn from something, and I would be like, “Man, that wasn’t even me.” It wasn’t even authentic. I would rather make a mistake being me, and doing me, than not make mistakes being someone else. I made that decision like really quickly. It’s one thing to fail and make a mistake, but it’s another to fail in front of millions. So, I was like the only way I can sleep well at night is literally to do what I do on the court, right? Go as hard as I can, prepare, be early, be a team player, and just be me doing me. It’s okay to be yourself.

At the end of the day, you don’t want to fail being someone else. Being yourself, you can only fail upwards. Perfection is overrated. Authenticity is everything that matters. You may see me do some crazy stuff like throwing some dance moves, and say something that makes people say, “Look at the youngin talk.” That is just who I am. This industry will quickly try to change you. I think the most successful have stayed true to who they are from the jump.

*Interview continues on the next page:

Burack: You, your mom, and your sisters take part in a non-stop text chain where you guys, spread all over the world, are communicating sometimes even until 3 a.m. your time. Can you explain to us the impact this group chat has had and how it helped you at the point of your injury? 

Ogwumike: The Ogwumike group chat is with me, my parents, and my sisters. And, yes, it is going off all night even past 3 a.m. At this point in our group chat, during my injury, my dad was working because his company at times works out of Nigeria. So, my dad was in Nigeria, my mom was home in Houston, my little sisters might have been in California as they were leaving Pepperdine University, and Nneka was in Russia. So, we had multiple family members in multiple continents. Yet, they had already coordinated by the time I got home in Houston. So, I left the road, got back the next day into my hometown in China, the next day I traveled on a direct flight from China straight to Houston. So, this is less than 72 hours after I was injured on the road. By the time I landed, my parents and Nneka had coordinated for me to land, and go straight to the doctor’s office. Shout out to doctor Kevin Varner, the Houston Rockets’ doctor. I got injured, 72 hours [later and] fresh off a plane, I had surgery and repaired my Achilles.

It was just one of those moments, like, it was just one of the moments where I am like, man, I love my family. Because mentally was going through a lot, you know. After having micro-fracture surgery just two years before, and being in China by myself, I was just basically trying to live by the hour. It was like, okay, I am going to this doctor, then I was going to go back home to my hometown, then I was going to fly to Beijing. Then I would fly from  Beijing directly to Houston. Meanwhile, I’m wondering about things like my foot. You just don’t know the situation. Is it okay to fly? I just know I have to get home to get evaluated. Just the fact that I had my family there live, Nneka, my mom, my dad all live on the phone and coordinated with my previous doctors to make my current doctor available. That is just the power of our little Ogwumike group chat. Now granted, most of it is us throwing shade at each other all the time, and having fun, and all that stuff. But, to me, it is that.

I still get a little emotional about that because I don’t know mentally how I would have been if I wasn’t on my way healing three-four days after that whole situation happened. That is the hardest thing as an athlete. Not going through an injury once, but twice is just so hard. But having my family have my back, it was just like, to this day the power of positivity.

Burack: Chiney, let’s look forward some. What is it you want your legacy to be? What do want to accomplish next? 

Ogwumike: That is a tremendous question, it really is. I think, for me, I’ve never really sought things out. Maybe with the exception of basketball. Because growing up in Houston, Texas, my parents, born and raised in Nigeria, then moved to the U.S. and started a family in the U.S. They actually plan on going back to Nigeria to run their respective family businesses, but they just had a good opportunity in Houston, Texas. They got married and had us. So, we just fell into basketball, fell in love and I just give a lot of kudos to my big sis, Nneka. Because she was a guinea pig. Like, I am the type of person who wants to be a perfectionist with everything. I don’t do things that I know I am not going to be good at. Like, to this day, you can barely find me going out and bowling with people, or playing pool, or even playing NBA2K. I just can’t do that. Because I haven’t even started to be great at it, right? Nneka started basketball, we started our first basketball practice together. But I was just like, “Oh, I can’t do this.” These girls have a head start on me. Nneka was like 11 and I was 10 at the time. So, I didn’t play basketball the first year I was introduced to it, but Nneka did. And she went through it, man. She just went through it. Like, I am talking air balls, worst person on the team. She couldn’t catch the ball. But for some reason, my parents really saw a true value in playing basketball. I mean, obviously, we had to take care of our homework, that was first. You know, Nigerian parents, of course. But my parents saw the work ethic and how you to strive for a goal with people in basketball. And also understand leadership and taking care of the first as much as the last. They saw the big picture value, the core values of sports. They pushed Nneka to be the best she could be at it.

After that first year, she came back and taught me everything she knew. Like at home, she would go to practice and be like, “Hey Chiney, this how you go into it. This is how you dribble. This is how you go in between your legs.” Then the next year, I was able to play and felt better and was like, “I can do this now.”

But, yeah, Nneka was a guinea pig. She set the bar for me so high. Going to Stanford, getting a scholarship there, and then on top of it being drafted number one. Throughout this whole journey, she has not been that competitor. Everyone assumes: “Oh, you had a bunch of battles with your sister.” We probably played like one game together in middle school. And it was me and the little ones who were like babies at the time vs. Nneka who was the only one who knew how to play at the time. That was like the only time. And we just played together for fun, as a family. That and one other time at Stanford and our coach learned to not do that again.

Nneka set that bar high for me. But she was also the caring, loving older sibling, you know? It was like, “Anything I can do, Chiney, you can do too.” She empowered me and gave me the blueprint for everything. Without her, I really don’t know what I would be doing.

My legacy is really our legacy. We share it. You know, being Ogwumike sisters. The reason I bring this all up, we fell into basketball. We were in gymnastics until my mom’s co-worker was like, “Hey, your girls are too tall. Put them in basketball.” Similarly, I sort of fell into ESPN. Who knew I would get drafted in Connecticut? And who knew I would meet some great people that would connect me and give me opportunities and a shot so young? The number one thing I always tell people, when you have a passion, for me it’s being a sister, it’s being a nerd, it’s being Nigerian-American, and it’s being a basketball player. I just attack that passion. I want to be the best at everything I do, but I also want to empower people. Being Nigerian-American is the best of both worlds. America is the land of opportunities. In Nigeria, we have our lineage and it makes us grateful. Who knew being a female athlete and Nigerian-American would make me a prime candidate to host SportsCenter Africa? If it wasn’t for my injuries, I probably would have never even thought about broadcasting. I never planned any of this. I’m thankful to the so many amazing women like my sisters, my mom, Cassidy Hubbarth, and Doris Burke. There are just so many great people who have been there for me and have motivated me. I mean, Tara VanDerveer and Condoleezza Rice. It’s great especially when it’s women. It gives you that added edge.

I guess what it all means is, been through what I’ve been through, I have to play every possession like it’s my last. I know there are girls in the U.S. and in Africa that would love to have the chances I’ve had. It is a larger purpose in life. At the end of the day, I just feel really blessed.

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