Don’t fall for Nneka Ogwumike’s up-and-under. Resist her first—and second—fake to avoid flying into sideline seats, or worse, fouling her for the and-1 as she flexes her biceps and roars in celebration. Those moves helped Nneka collect the 2016 WNBA MVP and two basketball championships in six months. She’s on a winning spree.
Off the hardwood, though, her winning percentage suffers in one particular area: pop culture.
Sitting with her younger sisters in their childhood home in Cypress, Texas, the four-time All- Star for the Los Angeles Sparks is about to take an L during a spirited conversation about popular hip-hop acts.
“[There’s] Migos,” Nneka continues, “Little Yah-CHEE…”
“Lil YACHT-Y!” screams Erica, the youngest Ogwumike sister, laughing at big sis’ mistake.
Erica informs Nneka he’s the one with the red braids. Nneka shakes her head. She’s 27 years young, yet generations removed from sisters Olivia, 21 and Erica, 19, who both hoop for Rice University and school their older siblings in rap phonetics. Nneka has free throws to drain, hook shots to perfect. All of this is just noise.
“I don’t know who anyone is. Is Migos a group?” Nneka asks.
The second-oldest of the Ogwumike sisters, Chiney, 25, flashes a wide smile and steps in to defend Nneka’s honor. “There’s Kwah-vo…”
Erica can’t breathe. “It’s QUAY-vo!”
Olivia’s done. “Let’s stop this.”
Meet the Ogwumikes—the hilarious, hoop-loving sisters. The nation’s only family to boast four Division I players. The Ball family before the Ball family. Well, kinda. None of them will pull up from half court like 15-year-old LaMelo Ball—the Ogwumikes are old school. Fundamentals over flash. Substance over star. They’ll silently stuff box scores with double-doubles by halftime. They’ll pivot toward the basket with such precision you’d think their feet had GPS.
They’ll take on the Ball family, too. “We’ve got some posts and we’ve got some guards—and I think [they] only have guards,” Chiney says, laughing. “Nah, but they’re super talented, I would love to play them one-on-one, three-on-three. See, the problem is, we got four girls so we’re sort of outnumbering [them]. I like our odds.”
There’s no weak link on #TeamOgwumike. “Hurricane Nneka,” as her sisters call her, leads the pack. Not only is she the Netflix and Hulu plug, and the reason they watched Chance the Rapper’s performance in April, but she’s also money from mid-range. At 6’2″, Nneka is a beast on the boards, even if she’s a grandma off the court. (She redeemed herself later that day by knowing Future’s “Mask Off” and putting the younger sisters on to Adidas Shell Toe shoes—Olivia had to Google them.)
Chiney, 6’3″, is a double-double machine who explodes with energy on defense. The Connecticut Sun forward has a soft spot for Breaking Amish, she raps on the side (“#NerdNation never rests”), and she could pen a dissertation on Game of Thrones (“You need a game face for Game of Thrones”).
Olivia, 5’11″, is a hybrid who can bang inside and drill threes from deep. She’s down to challenge anyone who claims Kyrie Irving doesn’t have the sickest handles in the NBA (“It’s like poetry in his hands”). Just don’t judge her for thinking La La Land is one of the greatest movies of all time.
Erica, 5’9″, is the baby, the shortest and the family’s only guard, but she attacks the basket and scores at will. She’s guilty of Snapchatting and rapping Kendrick Lamar lyrics while driving with her sisters. It didn’t matter that Erica was a passenger or that traffic stalled; Nneka scolded her, saying Erica could have distracted the driver.
No sister is going to slip up—not under Nneka’s watch.
The Ogwumikes are the type to play next-after-next-after-next-after-next-after-next in pickup, looking bewildered when everyone else in the gym starts taking off their kicks to call it quits. All four Ogwumike women, whose last name means “warrior” in Igbo, one of the national languages of Nigeria, are relentless. “No matter how we feel when we walk on the basketball court, we all have this sense of pride, so we always work hard,” Erica says.
Last season, Chiney took a nasty elbow to the mouth. She felt her tooth shake—it fell out the next day—but she kept playing. Only now has she set up an appointment for an implant. Nneka has a three-inch scar on the right side of her body from diving into the scorer’s table while playing for the Polish team CCC Polkowice in the Final Eight of Euroleague in Russia. She hopped right back in the game. Olivia has been whacked in the head as an undersized forward more times than she’d like to remember. Erica is the only Ogwumike to wear a mouth guard, as she boxes out players a head or two taller than she in the paint.
“We’ve all had our battle scars,” says Chiney, who is sitting out this season to rehab a left Achilles injury.
Don’t try any of them. Come for one and the other three will come for you. “Nneka was willing to throw down for me,” Chiney says. She remembers when Nneka almost beat up someone in high school for making fun of her for delivering lunch announcements in Cy-Fair High School’s cafeteria with the tenor of a State of the Union address (she was the president of the student council).
And if you foul Chiney nowadays, the Hurricane will thunder the next time you face L.A. “Nneka will use up her four fouls,” Chiney says.
But as young girls, Nneka and Chiney ran from competition. Actually, it was just Chiney, who at nine years old, hid in the bathroom during their first AAU practice while Nneka, 11, grudgingly endured the two-hour ordeal. “She was brave,” Chiney says. Nneka disagrees. She didn’t have a choice; one sister had to show face.
“Mom drove all the way up there,” Nneka says. “(The coaches) were like, ‘She’s tall, she has to do something.’” The other girls were two-ball dribbling while Nneka and Chiney were just trying to catch one ball in stride and make a layup without wobbling like penguins. And while the other girls wore muscle tanks, headbands and arm sleeves, Discovery Channel aficionados Nneka and Chiney hooped in glasses and jorts.
“Jorts?” Erica says. Chiney rolls her eyes. Jean shorts, duh. “No one uses that.”
Olivia chimes in for backup: “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of that.”
The shade begins: “I think [watching Nneka and Chiney] encouraged us,” Erica says, “because if they started like this…”
Chiney isn’t having it: “We weren’t that bad.”
Erica smiles. “At least we heard of basketball.”
Erica and Olivia, sporting bandanas and flip-flops with tassels, cheered on Nneka and Chiney at their AAU tournaments. The younger sisters were actually chubby “mascots,” as Nneka recalled, “running around with their little bellies.”
Nneka and Chiney can’t believe the younger two are adults now, ready to ball out for Rice after transferring from Pepperdine and redshirting the 2016-17 season. Chiney has “heart attacks” watching them. “She’s not exaggerating,” Olivia says.
Nneka can’t handle it sometimes. “I feel like we’re watching baby giraffes,” she says. “You don’t want to see anything happen to [them].”
The Sparks trailed the Minnesota Lynx, 76-75, with less than 15 seconds left in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals last October. L.A. had the ball. Chelsea Gray missed a jumper, but Nneka leapt up and ripped down the offensive rebound for a putback. She was blocked. She retrieved the ball and put another shot up.
Meanwhile, Chiney, playing in China for Henan Yichuan, ran out of a drill during practice to check the live stream of Nneka’s game on her translator’s iPhone. She watched as Nneka held her follow-through, fell back and landed on the floor as the ball reached the bottom of the net to give the Sparks their first WNBA championship since 2002. Nneka was mobbed by her teammates. Chiney jumped up and down in Luoyang as if she had been the one to drain the push-shot layup. Her teammates yelled in Chinese: “What’s going on? What’s going on?”
Though the two are often ballin’ in different time zones (thankfully there’s FaceTime, even though Chiney sometimes calls at 3 a.m. without realizing; Nneka picks up no matter what), they are as close as ever. The first time they battled as pros—Chiney for the Sun, Nneka for the Sparks—Chiney instinctively clapped in the lane when Nneka drained a free throw. In May, Chiney surprised Nneka, who was returning from Russia, at the airport with dollar-store balloons and twirled the strings in her hair.
The Stanford grads have always been in sync. Both were drafted No. 1 (2012 and 2014), and both earned WNBA Rookie of the Year honors.
“When they played together, they had a sixth sense of where the other one was,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer says. But for the moment, their careers seem to be moving in different directions.
Nneka has transformed from sidekick to star over the past five seasons. She is no longer the second option to Candace Parker, no longer just a defensive standout. By grinding to develop a perimeter game, she shot 66.5 percent from the field in 2016, the third-highest mark in WNBA history, and dropped a career-best line of 19.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
“She fought for her position. She fought every day to be considered MVP,” Chiney says. “People had no reason to doubt her anymore.”
Nneka hasn’t let up in 2017. She led Dynamo Kursk (Russia) to the Euroleague championship in April and has since upped her scoring output to 20.1 points a game this season, third-highest in the WNBA. In a league saturated with young talent, Nneka is as dominant, tenacious and poised as ever.
Chiney is rehabbing from her second major pro setback: an Achilles injury she suffered in China in November 2016. She had microfracture surgery on her right knee in 2014 and sat out in 2015. But she returned in 2016, averaged 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game for the Sun and was named the Associated Press WNBA Comeback Player of the Year. She often turns to words from her father, Peter: “Every disappointment is a blessing.”
“If Kobe can come back from an Achilles at age 38, and still play and hoop and drop 60 whatever in his final game,” Chiney says, then she can bounce back too. Her injuries have allowed her to blossom as a broadcaster for ESPN and the Pac-12 Network, and as a go-to voice for hoops and culture. This season, she’s anchoring ESPN International’s edition of SportsCenter, distributed to millions across Africa, and serving as an in-studio basketball analyst for ESPN2′s WNBA coverage.
“It’s extremely natural, which is what confuses me when she’s like, ‘Oh, oh, I don’t know,’” Nneka says when Chiney starts doubting herself. Chiney laughs. “This is coming from the same person that says, ‘Oh, oh, I can’t do this in a game,’” Chiney says. “I’m like, ‘Bro. You da GOAT.”‘
Expectations have followed Olivia and Erica since they lit up the scoreboard at Hamilton Middle School, with Olivia reaching the 200-point milestone in 2010 and Erica surpassing 250 in ’11, certificates that still proudly hang in the family’s trophy room. They never had their older sisters’ height, but they shined with versatility, high basketball IQ and creativity. Erica led Pepperdine with 18.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game in 2015-16, while Olivia chipped in with 9.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. But both wanted a fresh start closer to home. Rice, the reigning Women’s Basketball Invitational champs, won 22 games last season, tying the second-most in the program’s history.
Olivia, a junior, and Erica, a sophomore, are ready to carve out names for themselves. They aspire to be doctors and aren’t chasing the WNBA. But when they step on the court, they command respect. Most Rice practices begin with the same shooting drill: catch the ball, face the basket, make a move, shoot. Other players might go through the motions at half-speed;
Erica and Olivia jab hard, one, two, three times, sweeping the ball through like they’re being hounded by Kawhi Leonard.
“They don’t take plays off. They don’t take moments off,” says Rice coach Tina Langley. “They push one another to be great.”
The Seattle Storm held a two-point first-half lead over the Sparks during this year’s season opener in mid-May. Nneka set a screen for Gray at the top of the key, but instead of rolling to the basket, Nneka stopped at the three-point line and called for the ball. Gray whipped her a laser pass, and without hesitation, Nneka released a rainbow and held her follow-through as she took two steps back, almost like she knew the ball would drop in.
Chiney, sitting courtside at Staples Center donning a bright yellow crop top with “MVP” across her chest, knew too. She raised her left hand in the air and held up three fingers, a follow-through salute. Olivia and Erica, two rows behind, beamed, watching Big Sis drain a shot they have rebounded for her for years, back to when all four played H-O-R-S-E on the family’s concrete driveway court, sometimes attempting trick shots, like throwing the ball off the backboard and kicking it twice before shooting.
They always return to their Cypress home, even if just for a week, for Christmas. This is where Nneka’s WNBA MVP trophy sits, as does Chiney’s Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award, as do three-on-three trophies from as far back as ’06.
But the sisters have never hooped for hardware.
“Our parents told us they didn’t care if we scored 50 points, like Nneka has, or zero points,” Chiney says. “It’s how you play. We just pride ourselves on playing hard and playing for each other.”
Mirin Fader is a writer based in Los Angeles. She’s written for the Orange County Register, espnW, SI.com, SLAM Magazine and SB Nation. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.
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