At 6 feet, 3 inches tall, Chiney Ogwumike is hard to miss.
As a basketball analyst at ESPN, the Los Angeles Sparks forward has an expanding media foothold that will gain greater exposure when she becomes the first Black woman to co-host a national show on ESPN Radio. Her daily 4-7 p.m. time slot with Mike Golic Jr. debuts next month as part of the company’s revamped lineup.
Ogwumike and those around her sometimes joke that she is “hiding in plain sight.” That won’t be the case much longer.
“There are so many aspects of my story that I didn’t even realize are important and matter now,” Ogwumike said by phone. “So with this opportunity, I can’t hide anymore.”
Under normal circumstances, Ogwumike would be in the middle of the WNBA season, playing for the Sparks alongside her older sister, Nneka. This year has been anything but normal, and the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the WNBA to play a 22-game season on the campus of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Having battled back from two debilitating injuries suffered playing overseas earlier in her career, Ogwumike prioritized her body and made the difficult choice to forego the 2020 season.
“I thought that the hardest thing would be to sit out this season,” she said, “and then next thing you know…”
Ogwumike, 28, now finds herself preparing to use her platform to help unite a generation.
“I think the world is moving too fast for us not to try to speak to our generation and prepare the next generation and have voices of our next generation in formation,” she said. “I’m glad ESPN has finally recognized that, because I think for so long, you know, it feels like you have to grind, grind, grind forever to get an opportunity, and now they’re creating opportunities for us, which is, like, novel.”
A ‘typical’ day
The 3:30 a.m. (OK, sometimes 4 a.m.) alarm to make it to Bristol, Connecticut, by 5 to do the last hour of Golic Jr.’s 4-6 a.m. show was just the beginning of a typical day for Ogwumike. Those early mornings going back-and-forth on air are the bedrock of the friendship ESPN is hoping will translate through their show.
“I couldn’t be more excited to get to hang with Chiney every day,” Golic Jr. said in a statement. “We had a chance to work together back when I was on early mornings, and she was always such a shot of life for the whole studio.”
Ogwumike would sometimes hang around the first hour of “Golic & Wingo” with Golic Jr., or appear on the 7 a.m. “SportsCenter.” The hits kept rolling on the 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and noon versions of the show before sometimes doing a segment on “Outside The Lines,” which ended at 1:30 p.m. She’d wrap up with the producers — in TV, Ogwumike realized, no feedback was good feedback, but you must seek it out to become great — and work out from 3:30-5 p.m. But she still wasn’t ready to call it a day.
She watched basketball games tipping off at 7 p.m. on the East Coast until the final horn on the West Coast, meaning lots of bed times around 1 a.m. with that 3:30 a.m. wake-up looming.
“People don’t know all of the reps you do,” she said. “That’s the beautiful thing you get from sports.”
Say her name (correctly)
Behind her name (pronounced “Chin-ay Oh-gwoo-me-kay”) are stories and life experiences as a Nigerian-American who played for the Stanford Cardinal and graduated as the top scorer in Pac-12 history — that goes for men’s basketball, too. She was the first overall pick in the 2014 WNBA draft and won Rookie of the Year. When she signed her first multi-year contract as an ESPN analyst in 2018, she made her second All-Star team. That season was her first since 2015, as a left Achilles rupture in 2016 and a right knee microfracture the year after cost her back-to-back WNBA campaigns.
With fresh memories of her rehab experiences, Ogwumike knew her body could not handle a 22-game sprint in 2020, let alone the accelerated training required to be ready.
“I think it built toward this current moment for me to be able to step into my own self,” she said. “It feels right and it feels necessary, considering the voices we need to amplify.
“I’m not a typical experience. I’m Nigerian-American. I’m a nerd from Stanford. But at the same time, in America, I’m still a Black woman. That will always come first because my representation is what matters most. That’s what opens doors.”
Black women have shaped who Ogwumike is and aspires to be. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice served as her mentor at Stanford. Lisa Leslie has taken her under her wing professionally — in basketball and media. Her mother advanced from special education teacher to superintendent of the school district the four Ogwumike girls grew up in, instilling a premium on education.
Part of being educated, in Ogwumike’s mind, is understanding current events. She listens to The New York Times podcast “The Daily” and is in the middle of the “1619 project,” her current “passion podcast.” On the night of May 28, into the early hours of the next day, Ogwumike remained glued to the news, watching protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis while in police custody.
She stayed up, pained, until 4 a.m., with an appearance on “Get Up” scheduled a few hours later. Ogwumike backed out.
“That’s one thing about me: I don’t speak unless I’m ready,” she said. “I think the past few months has me in a position to be ready.”
But not on May 29.
“I felt like I was doing a disservice as a Black woman at a time there was so much unrest. For me to just go on there and talk about the NBA schedule? It was hard for me to reconcile that.”
Her silence did not last long, making appearances on MSNBC and “Good Morning America.” Ogwumike envisions herself as a mouthpiece for younger millennials and older members of Gen Z.
“If you’re going to be a voice of this generation, you can’t hide from tough conversations, or even just hide from your perspective, because everyone’s perspective matters,” she said. “I think that’s what the times are showing. Whether you’re young, whether you’re old. Whether you are Black, whether you are white. No matter who you are, you are valued and your experience is valued.”
Laid up with her busted Achilles for most of 2016, before re-learning how to walk, jog, sprint and eventually play the game she loves, Ogwumike settled into a different type of routine: Wake up, eat a small breakfast, watch the news and then “First Take” with Stephen A. Smith.
“I was like, ‘Man, that man Stephen A. is crazy,’” Ogwumike recalled.
Two years later, she was sitting across from the man himself at the “First Take” desk. She perceived the journey during those years as somewhat serendipitous, but people who watched her along the way said it’s a testament to an insatiable work ethic that progressed into a passion.
Already a contributor on the network, Ogwumike received a tip from ESPN reporter Jackie MacMullan during a service trip to Rwanda — “SportsCenter Africa” was looking for an anchor.
“She had, as we say, ‘all the tools,'” MacMullan wrote in an email.
Connected to her Nigerian roots, Ogwumike felt compelled to learn more, and a shadow session morphed into an audition — a producer put a shot sheet in her hands, baseball highlights played, words appeared on the teleprompter and the camera rolled.
“I didn’t know if it went left or right or up or down … I just felt like I was a hot mess,” she said.
The bosses called with an offer as she was boarding a flight to L.A. On “SportsCenter Africa,” Ogwumike learned the basics, like how to line produce and run a teleprompter. She also wrote NBA and WNBA segments into her shows, and those clips began appearing on the ESPN app. Within the company, higher-ups noticed the tall woman who broke down ball in her own way.
“ESPN viral, if that’s what you want to call it,” she said.
Above all, she caught the eye of ESPN senior vice president of product David Roberts, who called Ogwumike “one of the smartest, most knowledgeable talents I’ve come across in my career” and was instrumental in orchestrating “Chiney & Golic Jr.”
Producer Lisa Stokes suggested Ogwumike to the morning “SportsCenter” producers, since she was already on campus for Golic Jr.’s radio show. In December 2018, Ogwumike made her debut, showing up with two pages of notes and specific highlight requests for a two-minute hit on a Houston Rockets game.
“No matter what she’s done, you can see the effort she puts in and the commitment she makes and the exemplary work ethic she brings to the table,” Roberts said.
“Chiney & Golic Jr.” won’t follow a boilerplate sports talk radio show, although a natural Stanford-Notre Dame rivalry (Golic Jr. played football for the Fighting Irish) exists, and both can go in-depth on their experiences playing the country’s two most popular sports. It’s going to be loose and fun, Ogwumike said, with “the dialogue that’s necessary.”
“Us being young voices, diverse voices, having that academic background for us to go back and forth,” she added. “We can talk many different ways. We can talk about what’s happening in the streets. We can talk about what’s happening in the classrooms for students. We can also talk the game.”
Speaking of the game — Ogwumike is not done with ball. She wants to win a championship with Nneka and the Sparks.
For now, she said she’ll enjoy one career while the other is on hold and figure it out when the time is right.
“It’s not just a job,” Ogwumike said. “It’s a calling, honestly.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.