Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike are the only siblings other than Peyton and Eli Manning to be drafted No. 1 overall in American professional sports. Here, they reflect on their journey to the WNBA, and document their plans for the future.
Our upbringing as two sibling-future WNBA No. 1 draft picks was about as unconventional as it gets. There were no epic one-on-one battles for sibling supremacy or bragging rights. Instead, our connection through basketball began with us wearing embroidered jorts to a YMCA league when we were 10 and 11 years old. We got in there and these girls are doing two-ball dribbling drills. We didn’t know how to handle a basketball at all. I got embarrassed and ran into the bathroom. I stayed there the entire time. Nneka toughed it out and finished the practice. She’s the protective one. She tries a lot of things — I call her the guinea pig of the family. As we got better and developed our skills in that league, there was always the question from our teammates: Who’s better? When are you guys gonna play each other?
Many sibling pairs in sports have epic tales of battling one another growing up, from one-on-one games in the backyard to tense battles during team scrimmages. We never experienced that. Not even once. Anytime a coach tried to pit us against one another in practice, it became painfully awkward. We’re competitive but we’re more collaborative than anything else. We don’t strive to be better than one another but, rather, aim to use each other to better ourselves.
Doomsday came on July 13th last year when my team, the Los Angeles Sparks, played Chiney’s team, the Connecticut Sun. It was something we had known was coming for a while. When Chiney got drafted, we knew she wouldn’t get drafted by Los Angeles because she was the projected No. 1 pick, and the Sparks had made it to conference semifinals in 2013. We knew that at some point in the 2014 season we would have to play each other.
Right after tip-off we were running back on the first play and I said, “Oh my God, this is happening!” Nneka didn’t even hear me. She was so focused and in the zone. From that point I was like, OK, we just have to play. The awkwardness didn’t stop there; Nneka made a free throw and I caught myself clapping. That sibling support is always there. Everyone wants to see a sibling rivalry. For us, it’s not. My team [Connecticut] ended up losing to the Sparks in the July 13th game to the tune of 90-64. Nneka had 24 points and seven rebounds. I had 18 points and six rebounds. When the game was over we didn’t scour over our stats, and there was no bragging about who won or who would get revenge next time.
Honestly, it was very exciting but also very weird. When it comes to basketball, it’s a whole other beast. You’re matching up one-on-one. That day we had our allegiance to our team rather than each other, for 40 minutes. It was a cool moment for the league.
Though basketball has brought us closer together, it’s also proved as an avenue for us to find our own identities. We both spent time overseas after the 2014 WNBA season. Like most of the players in the league, we play in foreign countries during the offseason to supplement our income. Chiney went to Italy. I went to Russia. You truly begin to find out more about yourself when you play away from home.
I am very social, and into fashion and culture. Chiney has an interest in politics and world issues. We balance each other out. In finding out more about ourselves, we also found out that those differences complement each other.
As we continue our careers in the WNBA and overseas, we hope to bring in more fans and athletes to the game. Whether it’s through commentating, speaking engagements, appearances or non-profit endeavors (such as our partnership with UNICEF), we are all about growing the game. We want to show the world the power of sports and how far it can take you. As first-generation Nigerian-Americans, we have tremendous identification with and desire to help empower and educate current and future hoopers in Africa. Our goal is to help use basketball as a global platform to truly make an impact on anyone and everyone we can come into contact with. If we can make a difference in the lives of others, then we are doing our jobs as professional athletes. I will actually be headed to Nigeria in the next couple of months, planning to work with NBA Africa and several other organizations to run camps and clinics in effort to really make an impact on the ground with all facets of basketball in the country — professional and grassroots.
From rocking jorts at our first basketball practice to becoming No. 1 WNBA draft picks, Rookies of the Year and All-Stars, we have come a long way and have much to come ahead in our professional basketball journey.