As Stanford Teammates, Sisters Excel on the Basketball Court, Classroom

To hear Stanford University basketball player Chiney Ogwumike talk, it’s easy to see why her disappointment over falling short of a national title this past spring is diminishing.

Consider this: She has two more years to compete for a college championship. As a sophomore, she was named an Associated Press All-American and will likely pile up more honors over the next two seasons.

Best of all, she says, her older sister and just-departed teammate Nneka Ogwumike recently started as a rookie with the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA, offering Chiney unique insight into a professional player’s career. Chiney and her friends on campus are already mapping out the Sparks’ home games this season for which they’ll make the 11-hour round-trip drive to cheer on Nneka.

“I came to rely on Nneka for guidance on the court and will definitely miss that,” Chiney says. “But her move to the WNBA is a great opportunity and exciting new chapter. I’m really happy for her.”

The Ogwumikes made history when both were named All-Americans, Nneka to the first team, Chiney to the second team. They were the first sisters to achieve this the same season, and the feat has yet to be accomplished in men’s college basketball. Nneka and Chiney are both forwards and at Stanford were a formidable frontcourt.

The Cardinals advanced to the Final Four this past season before losing to Baylor University, and this year marked Nneka’s fourth straight trip to the Final Four. A three-time All-American who was the No.1 overall draft pick in the WNBA this year, Nneka holds no regrets about her college playing days, saying, “The journey is what it was all about, not so much the outcome.”

The Ogwumikes’ parting as teammates is a familiar process. They grew up playing basketball at home in a Houston suburb, and won a state championship as high school teammates. In college, they found themselves campus celebrities for their on-court accomplishments, which included Nneka averaging 22 points per regular season game this past year and Chiney 15 points. Off the court, they were almost inseparable, eating most of their meals together, doing homework together.

The only hints of downside occurred on the court, Chiney says, explaining almost ruefully, “Nneka is such a spectacular offensive player, it’s hard not to just give her the ball and see what she does with it.” She adds, “Times like that, it’s like our team was watching Nneka play, rather than playing the game along with her.”

Still, Nneka appreciates having had the opportunity “to watch Chiney grow as a player and as a person. She taught me things about the game, too, like different ways of running plays.”

The young women regard themselves lucky to get along with each other so well. Some siblings in sports don’t, which Nneka considers sad, noting, “Sometimes your family is all you have.”

Both of them are aware of the distant back seat that women’s basketball takes to the men’s game in the public consciousness. Still, they remain optimistic the women’s sport can cultivate a strong following, especially through players like them using Twitter and other social media to connect with fans. “The future is bright,” Nneka says.

Chiney adds, “If fans see that players have personalities beyond the wins and losses, they’ll get invested in the sport.”

Nneka, who’s graduating with a bachelor’s in psychology, is considering pursuing an MBA. Chiney recently decided on international relations as her major. Her primary specialization is Africa with a secondary specialization in comparative international governance. Her academic advisor is none other than Dr. Condoleezza Rice, political science professor and former U.S. Secretary of State. Chiney sought her out for the role.

Rice, who’s been sighted among the famous faces attending Stanford home games, had previously met and chatted with Chiney, telling her “call me if I can help you,” Chiney says, “so I reached out to her.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise then, when Nneka jokingly concludes that on and off-the-court, “Chiney will be just fine without me.”