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The Essence of Excellence: Nneka Ogwumike on Nigerian culture, WNBA leadership, and Olympic pursuits

Representing Africa on the world's biggest stage
This summer, Mary Omatiga elevates the voices and names of Africa's biggest sporting figures ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

WNBA star Nneka Ogwumike, 33, wears many hats: Seattle Storm forward and Women’s National Basketball Players Association president to name a few. But whether she’s dropping 26 points in a game or championing gender equality, the Tomball, Texas native has made it a priority to bring consistent excellence and her own high standards to all her pursuits. It’s this unwavering dedication that has affectionately earned her the moniker “Dependable Nneka”.

Ogwumike delves into her Igbo-American culture, the weight of a name, how she juggles being both a player and president, why the Seattle Storm was the right fit for her, what missing out on the Rio and Tokyo Games taught her, and her aspirations to represent Nigeria at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mary Omatiga: What’s your full Nigerian name and what does it mean?

Nneka Ogwumike: My full Nigerian name is Nnemkadi Chinwe Ogwumike. My first name basically means “My mother is here, my mother remains”. My middle name means “God gives”. My last name Ogwumike, doesn’t directly translate but loosely it means “warrior”.

What was it like growing up in an Igbo household? What are the pillars of your culture that formed you into the person you are today?

Ogwumike: Discipline, respect, and the importance of family are some of the major pillars. I think that really permeated all aspects of life, more specifically, within our immediate family unit. Then, of course, the next most important thing is education which leads to opportunity.

We grew up in a household where doing your best was the standard and a lot of times that translated to getting good marks in school and being able to excel in anything that we’re doing, and that ended up being sport.

Also, having a presence in our community in some way that was more than just playing a sport and coming home. Being able to find out what our interests were and how we could impact the community.

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Nneka’s Instagram via Stanlo Photography

Can you talk about the importance and expectations of being a firstborn in Nigerian culture?

Ogwumike: Not only that but being a firstborn daughter is quite heavy. I think it shapes the identity of Nigerian kids. There comes a lot of responsibility with being the firstborn son as well, but I think specifically being a firstborn Nigerian daughter comes with responsibility and expectation that I don’t think is paired with the flexibility of being a son.

Your mistakes are a reflection of the future of your siblings and just making sure that you can serve as a great example for them. Bringing honor to the family and still somehow maintaining your own identity is kind of the adventure of it all.

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Nneka’s Instagram via Stanlo Photography

Where does this nurturing and protective quality come from and how much of it do you attribute to your Nigerian culture and that firstborn responsibility?

Ogwumike: I attribute a lot of it to my upbringing but I’m also naturally nurturing. My zodiac sign is Cancer, so family is really important to me. That paired with being the oldest daughter in a Nigerian family makes for a lethal combination. It’s just really a part of my fabric and I try my best to be a resource to people and to be helpful.

I want to add value to people’s lives even in the smallest way and I think that perspective also helps me learn a lot about different people in my life—the people that I work with, my own family members, and people that I don’t know. It lends to a propensity towards leadership, change, and progress which are all also reflective of the pride and the discipline that is to be Nigerian.

I really wouldn’t undo it. I enjoy the challenges that are presented and also the joys and successes that I experienced with my perspective and with who I am.

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Nneka’s Instagram

It’s one thing to be able to lead. It’s one thing to be able to care for others, and it’s another thing to be able to listen. But you do all of those things exceptionally well which is why I think you’ve been able to thrive in everything you do.

Where did you learn those from qualities from? I’ve heard your sisters say they all had you to look up to. Whether it was paving the way in your basketball career or doing it academically, you were their role model. Who set the bar for Nneka and where does that hunger for excellence come from?

Ogwumike: I think that I just want to have some type of impact in anything that I do and on the people that I do it with—even those who don’t know what I do. If there’s any level of impact to educate someone in some way it’s insatiable in nature for me. I don’t ever feel as though I’ve mastered anything and I don’t want to feel as though I’ve mastered anything.

I learned so much from those around me. Maybe contrary to Nigerian culture, I think there’s so much to be learned [about] the people that are coming after you. Because I think it keeps you sharp, it keeps you fresh, and allows you to grow in the present, for the future, with the wisdom of the past.

Closing myself off to the possibilities just because it’s something I may not understand or because it’s something that has evolved outside of my own experience only limits me from being as great as I want to be.

I know firsthand that academics take precedence in an African home and in reading about your journey, you initially wanted to be a medical doctor. Even as a senior at Stanford, playing professionally wasn’t at the forefront of your mind. So what was it like for you to see how far your gifts and talents on the court could take you and discover that path?

Ogwumike: I think there were different stages to my self-understanding. I think because of how important family is to me, I developed kind of an arbitrary relationship with comfort and a need to be consistent, which can sometimes be manifested as not wanting to change too much and creating a foundation early on so you can build off of it.

A lot of my aspirations to become a doctor were from that and also from that being one of the three tracks [doctor, lawyer, engineer] that most African kids follow. I most identified with that. When sports entered my life, I started realizing that you can be great in so many different ways. It’s not to discourage anyone from taking any one of those three tracks or to demean our parents’ generational perspective of knowing what that success would mean—which is stability, safety, and prosperity in a way that was real and honestly quantifiable based on what they were experiencing.

But I think as I was learning more about myself I realized that excellence was not categorical. I think that I can be excellent at anything that I do. Learning to love things that I discovered and be excellent at them was a part of the journey. That’s something that followed me throughout my career.

I realized I could do sports and that education is key. Sports can give me a free education, and not just a free education, but a free education at Stanford, which ultimately led to this robust basketball career where I can make a great living and build a business that is me, build a brand that is me, and discover so many different ways to do things, to learn things—different ways to develop relationships and make change. I really do love that I lean into that process. I’m very analytical to a degree. But I also love the unexpectedness of discovering things that you can continue to expand your excellence upon.

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Nneka’s Instagram

When you look at how your path has unraveled so far, you have not only accomplished so much but you’ve excelled and I feel like you don’t often get the credit you deserve. In 2021, you said, “If your name were different, your career might be different.” Do you still feel like that is true?

Ogwumike: I definitely think that and I can say that not just for me, I could say that for anyone—not even just limited to being African. There are just so many different layers to identity especially in the Western world. It’s a sad reason to keep people from thriving in ways that ultimately contradict the existence of this country that we live in. It’s supposed to be the land of opportunity, but that opportunity is very much still blockaded by things that people cannot control. I use my name as a small example of that.

Even on broadcast, it’s taken several years for people to actually take the time to pronounce my name. My name isn’t even really one of the harder ones. It was amazing to me that people started learning how to pronounce [Arike] Ogunbowale. That’s not something that I ever expected to happen and I was so happy to be around to see that and to even be in community with someone like that who is a phenom, and also heavily identifies with her culture and upbringing.

I’m just diving into the intricacies that is to be of two different cultures. There’s also the misidentification of Black people in culture and having a name that “sounds Black” keeps people from opportunities as well. It’s part of a much larger tangle of just people being excellent in their ways and things that are out of their control that keep them from being able to have the success, the life, and the opportunity that is promised to them. I think that we are here to do that in spite of, to do that despite, and it’s being done.

If I can serve as someone who is proof of that, if I can serve as someone who is a representation of what that looks like, I will gladly do it. I’m not saying that I necessarily am, but I hope that I can be on the right side of that story when history goes down.

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Nneka’s Instagram

Are there any specific things that you feel would be different in your career if your name were different?

Ogwumike: I really do hang my hat on earning a lot of, if not everything that I’ve done. But I think a lot of athletes really could probably have more off-court deals and they could have more opportunities to pursue things that don’t have to directly do with their sport if things were more palpable. I also think there’s a level of overcompensation as well as we’re experiencing that all things “Afro” and African are now trendy. These are not things that were celebrated of me or my peers when we were growing up. In fact, it was frowned upon to even identify or admit that, that was a part of your being or your existence. Now that it is trendy there can also be an overcompensation for opportunities that have to do with being African. I’m just using that because it’s my experience. I’m almost positive that it applies to so many different people.

I will get asked to do certain things that I don’t even necessarily identify with. Because I identify with being more Nigerian. If someone were to offer me something that had to do with another African country, I don’t want to do it just because it’s African, necessarily, but I want to be able to understand what it is that is being asked of me. I am African, and I am Nigerian, but I also think that there’s a disconnect with people understanding what they’re asking of others, just because it’s marketable, and it’s trendy right now.

For example, something like Jollof Rice. Someone will just bring up Jollof [in conversation] just because they heard about it being this debate [among West African countries]. But it’s something that we’ve known for so long. I’m like, you’re talking to me about this but have you ever even tasted Jollof rice? You just know that it’s [a topic] that could spark a conversation. That’s why I think it’s important to have people like you who are in their spaces, who do live that experience and can talk about these things because it’s disarming, and it certainly provides the space that is more authentic to our existence, even within the largest continent, where there are so many different cultures within that continent.

You talked about being palpable. Do you think that you can fully and authentically show people who you are—the Nneka Ogwumike that represents both American and Nigerian culture—or do you feel like you need to water yourself down to make things digestible for more people?

Ogwumike: I think I was definitely watering myself down early on but now I will step into a space and be authentically myself. Now that also comes with understanding the spaces that I’m navigating. I think that I can be my whole self while also understanding like, okay, I need to put my presidential hat on and lean a little bit more into my presidential perspective, or I’m leaning a little bit more into my athlete perspective. It doesn’t mean that I’m shutting off all these different parts of me. I just know how to use my own toolbox because of all the different things that I am. I was not doing that before.

It’s a combination of self-realization, the support of groups of people and individuals in my life who allowed me to understand the importance of being myself, and then, the evolution of society and culture. It’s a combination of a lot of those different things that allow me to step in and not be uncomfortable. But also I’m not going to step into a space that I feel is hostile towards my existence if it isn’t completely unnecessary, but I do understand that there are times when you have to do that so that people can see who you are.

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Dia Miller

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Dia Miller

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Dia Miller

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Dia Miller

I watched a press conference you did in August 2021 where you expressed that you were feeling unvalued, unworthy, and unappreciated. Do you still feel that way?

Ogwumike: I think there’s like a molecule of that, that helps me continue to push to be great. Because at the end of the day, even though I feel completely secure in myself, it’s not going to absolve me of any of my past experiences or prevent any experiences where I could have that feeling again. I guess what I could say is I’m not surprised if there’s something that occurs that makes me feel that way, but it’s not something that I’m expecting. I think that being armed and prepared so that you can put people on notice if there is a moment when you feel that way is important. And I learned that in 2021.

I think that I had put all of my eggs into a basket that was not my own and it proved to me that you can do everything right—you can even have people tell you that what you’re doing is right—and still be very much disappointed. I think that taking your power, never giving anyone else all of your power, is really important and can always keep you ready and coiled in those moments when you do have to stand on business and let people know like, no, this is how I feel this is my worth, this is my value.

You have tried out for 2 Olympic Games, Rio and Tokyo. Going into Rio you were the league MVP and you didn’t make the team. Going into Tokyo, you were left off the U.S. team again. You were shocked. I think a lot of basketball fans were shocked. You made the Nigerian team but FIBA denied your application. How did those two experiences make you feel and how did you deal with it?

Ogwumike: I think that those experiences definitely made me feel powerless but really I was feeling a lot of heartbreak. The result of it was not at all, something that I want to experience again. But I was mostly very surprised at the people that communicated with me or reached out—the people that were there or weren’t there during that process. That’s something that I’m never going to forget because I think that above all relationships are what moves this world—it’s what’s most important. It allowed me to see what people are prioritizing.

Of course me applying in the middle of all that was just kind of my way of trying to appease a bit of the ego part of me. The part that was like ‘I deserve this, I deserve to be on a team.’ It wasn’t something that was easy. It wasn’t even something that I was sure that I was ready for, per se. But the time that I’ve had up until now has allowed me to realize where my worth is and what I want to do and also making peace with if something doesn’t happen. I’ve very much made peace with that.

I don’t know what the future holds. I know that I’ve done things the right way. I know that we’re still waiting to hear about the re-application of me being able to represent another country. But I don’t think that I’m going to use that as a way to serve as my whole identity. It can be very detrimental when you put all of you into one thing that you don’t really have a lot of control over. There are things that I know that I can provide and do, that can still contribute to the greatness and the excellence that I seek.

Indiana Fever v Seattle Storm

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - MAY 22: Nneka Ogwumike #3 of the Seattle Storm shoots against the Indiana Fever during the first half at Climate Pledge Arena on May 22, 2024 in Seattle, Washington. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Are you planning to go for the Paris Olympics and do you want to represent Team USA or Nigeria?

Ogwumike: I’m never going to play for Team USA again. I’ve already made peace with that, so that’s not going to happen. But if I’m able to play for Team Nigeria that would be amazing. I don’t see why FIBA wouldn’t want to talk about and encourage people to expand and grow the game of basketball on the continent of Africa, especially where you see so many Africans excelling elsewhere. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be something that could happen for the Nigerian women’s national team, for us to be able to be a part of that. It’s not up to me, and there are rules that we have to consider. But I think it’s also important to note who are those rules really protecting and seeing if there’s a way to work together to ensure that this is good on a global level. But it’s still all without any real expectation for me.

Editor’s Note: In 2021, FIBA denied Nneka Ogwumike’s initial petition to play for Nigeria at the Tokyo Games due to her “substantial involvement” of more than 10 years with Team USA Basketball. No further updates have been provided at this time regarding the Paris 2024 Games.

Africa has the world’s youngest population and is the fastest-growing continent, yet the Olympic Games have never been hosted there. We’ve seen the success of the recent AFCON tournament taking place on the continent. Do you think that we’ll ever see Africa host an Olympics in our lifetime? What needs to change?

Ogwumike: I certainly expect an Olympics to be hosted in Africa. Especially with the representation of African athletes in the Olympics, even for other countries, I don’t see why that couldn’t happen. The infrastructure is certainly there but you have to look and see who is in charge for those things to be able to happen. I think what needs to change is the representation of people who are making those decisions.

What does juggling being the WNBPA president and a player entail? What are some of the burdens that you carry that people don’t necessarily see?

Ogwumike: I have to be accessible in a lot of different ways. I have to be responsive in a lot of different ways. I think also just maintaining relationships with the players. It’s important to do the things that are not necessarily a part of your job description and I do my best to ensure that my relationship with the players is natural, and authentic, and that I hear people out. That’s something that a lot of people don’t see.

I have a lot of athletes that hit me up individually. If I have the answer, I can give it to them. If they need to talk, I can talk to them. If I don’t have the answer, I can figure out who to send them to. But being that “Dependable Nneka” that we spoke about earlier, that’s kind of something that a lot of people don’t see.

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Nneka’s Instagram

Nneka for commissioner! When you said that in the Shattered Glass documentary, I was like I’m here for it. Switching gears, why did you decide that it was time to walk away from the Sparks? Did you feel appreciated? Did you just feel like it was time to move on?

Ogwumike: Yeah, I’ve always felt appreciated by the Sparks, it had more to do with the limited time that I have left available as a player and the goals that I still have. Right now I just don’t think that I am of the age where I can continue to be a part of a team that is building from the ground up. Even though I serve as a major part of the foundational components of the Sparks and I know that things will be great and continue to progress, I thought that it was a difficult decision for me to decide to move on.

I’m hoping that with changes and growth, I could be part of something that is really progressing, and be a part of a team that has a great foundation, a great history, and a great legacy, just as the Sparks do. I want to see what I can do [in Seattle] and give myself the best experience that I have as a player.

What about Seattle felt right in your decision process? What made that feel like the best opportunity for you as a player?

Ogwumike: I really, really, really love the coaching staff there and of course being able to play with someone like Jewell [Loyd] and Sky [Skylar Diggins-Smith]. I haven’t really had that in a while. There have been great pieces here and there with the Sparks but being able to have a “big three” in that way. Especially with me being 33 now, I think that it’s wonderful to know that I’m capable, but I also don’t want to feel as though like I have to do everything.

Jewell and Skylar, we’ve talked about it, and they’re of the same mind. Being able to play with such great, selfless leaders was something that really attracted me to Seattle. Also the investment of the owners who are engaged, fully invested, and want to be a part of a franchise that is leading the league in so many different ways. I just felt like it was the perfect place.

Los Angeles Sparks v Seattle Storm

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - JUNE 11: Jordan Horston #23 and Nneka Ogwumike #3 of the Seattle Storm react during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Sparks at Climate Pledge Arena on June 11, 2024 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Getty Images

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When you look at all of your accomplishments, yes hard work and your drive were involved but a lot of it happened by chance, especially being a daughter of immigrants. Do you ever stop and think about what life would have looked like for you if you were born and raised and living in Nigeria? How does that make you feel and does that motivate you at all to pay it forward?

Ogwumike: Yeah, I’m very privileged because my parents gave us a very comfortable life. We were able to think about what we wanted to do, not what we had to do growing up. I’ve thought about what my life would have been if I was born and raised in Nigeria and I don’t think that we would have had as many challenges per se, just because of my parents and their upbringing and resources, but I’m not sure if I would have gotten into sports.

The representation for it just was not there growing up and I’m grateful that I discovered it. I guess we never really will know what would have happened if it never happened, but I hope that it’s able to change the perspective of so many young aspiring kids in Africa and even their families as well.

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Nneka’s Instagram

Alright for our last little segment, I’ve got a lightning round of “for the culture” themed questions. Who is your favorite Afrobeats artist at the moment?

Ogwumike: I know it’s so cliché but Burna Boy really is my favorite!

Your sister said the same thing!

Ogwumike: Erinma [Erica Ogwumike] put me on Burna Boy. I also really do love Asake.

Jollof Rice or Pounded Yam?

Ogwumike: Pounded yam for sure.

Plantain or Fried Yam?

Ogwumike: Oooh fried yam!

Afrobeats or Amapiano?

Ogwumike: You know what, Amapiano! I really love Amapiano!

What has been your most listened-to song recently?

Ogwumike: “This Year” by Victor Thompson

Editor’s Note: By Way of Africa is a series committed to highlighting the talent and stories from the African continent and its diaspora. African stories are worth telling, and the culture—all of the languages, tribes, and traditions—is worth celebrating. Embedded in these narratives is a profound testament to the diligence, discipline, and work ethic deeply ingrained in African heritage. Whether born on the continent or dispersed across the globe, the contributions of these stories to society resound uniquely, by way of Africa.