TWO JOBBIN’ IT
Carlos Watson: I loved you on air, and it’s nice that you’re as fun in person as you are on air. Are you liking it too? Is it fun for you? Is it work? Is it a combo?
Chiney Ogwumike: I feel like it’s a blessing. It’s stressful, I’m not going to lie. It’s very stressful at times, but just to even be able to do both — hoop and also talk about hoop. Be a host, but also a baller, it’s worth the hectic nature.
Watson: Your sister, pronounce her name for me.
Ogwumike: I’ll tell you the name of everyone in our family: Erima, Chiason, I’m Chinenye, my mom’s Ifeymwa, and my dad’s name is Peter. Nigerian heritage and all of us have Nigerian names, proudly. People call me Chiney, and I always tell people, because a lot of people recognize my sister and I, Chiney, Nneka. Chiney, Nneka.
Watson: Which tribe is your family from?
Ogwumike: We’re Igbo, southeastern Nigeria.
Watson: There are three major tribes, right?
Ogwumike: Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba are the three major tribes. It’s tough because every group has their own pride points. Even as someone that’s looking for a husband out here in these streets, I have parents that would love for me to marry an Igbo man. But at this point, they’re just like, “Chiney, just bring somebody, please.” My parents were born and raised in Nigeria and we’re the first generation. They came here to U.S. for school, got their degrees and then moved to Houston for an opportunity. They both had the idea to go back home and run their respective family businesses, but instead my dad got a really cool opportunity to work for Compaq then, HP now. They popped four of us out and we’re first-generation born and raised.
Watson: So we wrote an article on OZY a couple of years ago saying that Nigerians were the most interesting ethnic group in the world today. Why is that? I feel like every time I am looking up, whether it’s some fintech startup, whether it is a new CEO, whether it’s someone in the NFL, what have you, I feel like Nigerians are winning. They won. It happened.
Ogwumike: They have a phrase meaning “never our last.” We’re always trying to be first, and within our DNA and our culture, it’s the idea that you’re going to be excellent at what you do. A lot of times, for a long time, you haven’t had a choice at what you’re going to do. Doctor, lawyer — those were the first things you had to do, and just now I think our parents, the generation of our parents, are understanding that you can be great and follow that same tradition, but also in whatever field, whether that’s athletics, music, acting. It’s just amazing to see so many people push boundaries with innovation in different industries. I would say the reason why Nigerians tend to be at the forefront of like, “Oh, we’re trying to be at the heart of Black excellence as well,” it’s because within our culture, there’s this idea that it doesn’t matter where you come from, you’re going to make something of yourself. You’re going to make your family proud, and education is the way to make it happen.
I would say that the reason why my sisters and I made it was because we saw value in something that required sacrifice. Meaning if you’re going to play basketball, don’t just play it, play it at a high level. Do not waste my time. We grew up in a household where academics were, first and foremost, the most important thing. But then four girls in one house, I know because you have three sisters, that can get a little rowdy, right? So they put us into something constructive to sort of kick our energy and that was at first gymnastics, which was hilarious. But then it turned into basketball after one of my mom’s co-workers was like, “Your girls are way too tall for gymnastics. Put them into basketball.”
WHAT’S UP, DOC?
Watson: So tell me about this documentary, because I was intrigued … when I heard that you were doing it. It made me really think about this last year and how important the WNBA was arguably in helping change the tide of our politics.
Ogwumike: The documentary is called 144. This documentary shows the value of that priority of diversity and representation because by being a WNBA player and knowing the amazing 144 women in this league, and also by working at ESPN and knowing that we have the ability to tell some of the best stories, by existing in both of those spaces, now we have the first-ever ESPN films documentary on the WNBA. Unfortunately I had to opt out of the WNBA season because of my two previous injuries. We all left our houses in pandemic, and I had two weeks to prepare for a season. Your girl needs six to eight weeks, so I was like, I can’t put my body in that type of risk again. And so the bubble, the WNBA bubble, started, and I’m a part of the executive committee. I’m a vice president of the WNBA Players Association. When we started the bubble, it was like we have 144 women in one site trying to accomplish a season in the midst of pandemic with coronavirus, in the midst of social unrest based on Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the names that we all unfortunately came to know. This was going to be the most challenging season ever. We should tell that. So we were able to get a camera in the bubble that was a fly on the wall throughout the season that not only crowned a champion but also created real lasting change.
Watson: Was there anything that surprised you or did you get any new or different views? Kind of being on that side of the camera instead of the other? Ogwumike: I was extremely surprised that the women were extremely vulnerable. We are women’s basketball players. And so we always have to keep our guard up because people just see WNBA like a joke. We’re approaching our 25th anniversary of the WNBA, the longest tenured women’s professional sports league. So we need that thick skin to be able to deal with what we constantly face. Our game being compared to the men, people saying that we’re less than, and I think just the authenticity of the women being vulnerable and just, you’re seeing athletes talk to a camera about things that would make them cry. And you’re seeing women cry but at the same time, you’re seeing women being badasses.