THE ELDER IS A PLAYER OF THE YEAR CANDIDATE, THE YOUNGER THE PAC-10 FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR; TOGETHER THE SISTERS OGWUMIKE MAKE STANFORD A FAVORITE TO WIN THEIR FIRST NATIONAL TITLE IN NEARLY 20 YEARS
This is an article from the March 21, 2011 issue
Chiney Ogwumike, a 6'3" freshman forward on the Stanford women's basketball team, relaxes in an office chair in Maples Pavilion with her head thrown back, the better to project a voice that, by all accounts, is the loudest on the team. While waiting for her sister Nnemkadi to show up for a joint interview, she addresses a range of topics, from the campus activities she'd tackle if she had time—Stanford Women in Business, freshman council, dorm president, to name a few—to the challenges of organizing a massive benefit concert in March 2010 while traveling around the country to high school all-star games. "I sent a lot of e-mails," she says.
In walks her sister, the Cardinal's 6'2" junior All-America forward. In a roomful of comfy chairs, Nneka, as she is called, reaches for the lone wooden stool and perches on it expectantly. And so your initial scouting reports are confirmed: Chiney is gregarious and socially involved; Nneka, an aspiring dentist, is humble, selfless, motherly.
You've talked to their coaches and you've talked to their teammates. You think you can peg the personalities of these hyperaccomplished siblings, whose versatility and explosive athleticism are key reasons the second-ranked Cardinal (27--2) is heading for its fourth straight Final Four and a rematch with top-ranked Connecticut, which had its 90-game winning streak famously snapped at Maples on Dec. 30.
Nneka (NECK-uh), age 20, an acrobatic post player who leads the team in scoring (16.4 ppg) and is tied for second in rebounding with her sister (7.8), is the analytical, reserved one, eager to please, afraid to make a mistake. Chiney (shuh-NAY), age 18, a crafty opportunist who is fourth in points (11.6), is the fearless risk taker willing to crash the boards without regard for her body and unconcerned with rank and protocol when it comes to making friends, of which she has legions. On associate head coach Amy Tucker's desk is a picture of the team and university bigwigs gathered at midcourt to commemorate coach Tara VanDerveer's 800th win in December. In the photo Nneka huddles to one side with teammates and coaches, but Chiney stands to the other side between athletic director Bob Bowlsby and university president John Hennessy, her long arms draped over their shoulders like they're the Three Musketeers. "Chiney is loose—she doesn't carry a lot of stress—but Nneka is the oldest child," says VanDerveer, herself the oldest of four sisters and a brother. "She worries."
You assume it has always been that way. Then the two start telling childhood stories.
Raising elite athletes was never part of the plan for Peter and Ify Ogwumike (oh-GWOO-muh-kay). Both grew up in affluent, well-educated families in Nigeria for which education, family and the cultural values of the Ibo (EE-bo) tribe were top priorities. They met in the early 1980s when both were attending community colleges in Colorado, Peter with plans to become an engineer, Ify a lawyer (she eventually became an educator and now is a middle-school principal). They finished their undergraduate work at Weber State in Utah, and in 1989 they married and moved to Cypress, Texas, near Houston, when Peter landed a job at Compaq computers.
Nneka, the first of their four daughters, surprised them when, at four months, she started rolling herself like a barrel to get from point A to point B. "She was so hyperactive, we had to stop taking her places, like restaurants," says Peter, who now owns a document-management company based in Nigeria. "She'd break things." Case in point: When Nneka was two, she ran straight through a first-floor apartment window screen into the shrubbery beyond.
Chiney (her full name, Chinenye, means God gives in Ibo) came along 21 months after Nneka, and she presented a new set of challenges. "She was kind of slow; we thought there might be something wrong with her," says Peter. "But she was always reading the situation."
Nneka's earliest memory of Chiney is of a toddler sitting on the couch eating pizza, completely absorbed by a CNN telecast and uninterested in playing. "It's amazing I didn't have imaginary friends as a kid because Chiney would never do anything!" she says.
On those occasions when Chiney did budge from the couch to follow Nneka, it was often against her better judgment. "I was like, We're going to get in trouble!" recalls Chiney. "And next thing you know, there would be a hole in the wall."
To channel Nneka's bountiful energy, Ify signed her up for tumbling and then gymnastics classes. But by the time she was 11, Nneka had grown so tall that Ify was afraid she'd get tangled up in her long limbs and hurt herself if she continued. So Nneka turned her attention to basketball, a sport she had played briefly in a neighborhood league. Her first AAU practice was a disaster—both she and Chiney showed up in denim shorts, and while Chiney ran into the bathroom and hid, Nneka endured a practice that was way beyond her skills, including a two-ball dribbling drill she recalls as "the most embarrassing moment of my life."
She stuck with it, however, and soon people who knew more about basketball than Ify and Peter did were telling them, "Wow, she is going to be something someday," recalls Ify. "But what did we know? We didn't know about basketball."
Peter, who is 6'3", had been a soccer goalie in high school and had dabbled in cricket, judo and karate. "I wasn't a star," he says. Ify, who is 5' 8", runs five miles a day, but she never participated in team sports. "We never knew there was a world out there where people sat in gymnasiums all day long," she says of her introduction to the AAU circuit. Upon learning from a coach that her girls' team would be playing in a tournament in Dallas, Ify said, "Why do we have to go to Dallas; why can't we just do it here?"
Ify and Peter were supportive but practical. To minimize family stress, all four girls—Olivia, 15, is a freshman at Cypress Woods High, and Erica, 13, is in eighth grade—did the same extracurricular activities: volleyball, basketball and piano lessons. They shared everything else too: TV, computers, books, clothes and bedrooms. In many ways the sisters learned to be teammates long before team sports entered their world. "I've never witnessed Nneka and Chiney have any kind of negative interaction with each other, which blows my mind," says Ify.
During her senior year at 3,300-student Cypress-Fairbanks High, Nneka was homecoming queen, class president, a top student in her class, an All-America in volleyball, state champion and Gatorade National Player of the Year in basketball and a driving force behind a school fund-raiser to help children in Darfur.
By the time she entered Stanford, in the fall of 2008, Nneka had matured beyond her act-first, think-later youth. "I am more cautious and she is more outgoing now," says Nneka. "I have no idea when that changed." Her approach to basketball was so methodical that her teammates would cringe every time her hand went up in practice. "She asked questions about everything, and I mean everything," says Tucker. "Should I have played the screen this way? Tara finally said, 'No more questions. Just play.'"
Despite her tendency to overanalyze and the typical freshman struggles in adjusting to the faster college game, Nneka averaged 9.9 points and 5.6 rebounds and led the Pac-10 with her 62.9% shooting. When she was passed over for the conference freshman of the year award (won by USC's Briana Gilbreath), she responded by averaging 15.0 points and 9.4 rebounds in five NCAA tournament games. (The Cardinal would lose 83--64 to UConn in the semis.) "A lot of great players bail when things don't go their way, but she redoubled her efforts," says VanDerveer.
And nearly doubled her production, averaging 18.5 points and 9.9 rebounds while earning Pac-10 player of the year and State Farm All-America honors the next year. Chiney, meanwhile, was hurtling through her senior year at Cy-Fair, where she was student body president, the No. 2 student in her class, state champion and consensus national player of the year in basketball, a volleyball All-America honorable mention and the force behind the aforementioned concert event that raised $12,000 to feed Houston's hungry.
By the time she got to Stanford she had already spent two years hanging around the team as Nneka's sister. But her familiarity with the team isn't the only reason Chiney's freshman year has been smoother than Nneka's. She's a more intuitive player who picks up things quickly and doesn't dwell on miscues. "Chiney's a sponge," says senior forward Kayla Pedersen. "She's not afraid to make mistakes or look stupid. She just goes for it."
Moreover Chiney, who creates most of her own offense with rebounding and hustle plays, already has the aggressive on-court attitude the coaches are still trying to instill in Nneka. "I can't beat Nneka playing one-on-one, but she might let me win one game because she's nice," says VanDerveer. "I wouldn't get a point off of Chiney. It's not that she's not nice. She's just that competitive."
Most important, Chiney has the benefit of an older sister who lives up to her name, which means my mother is still with me in Ibo. Nneka takes care of Chiney when she's sick, lends her the keys to her car, listens to her problems ("And trust me, I express every problem I have," says Chiney), offers wisdom about everything from how to set a screen to managing her class schedule, discusses world events with her (Chiney still watches CNN every day) and serves as her own personal drill sergeant. "When Chiney makes a mistake in practice, I can't correct her fast enough before Nneka is already yelling at her," says Tucker. The corrections are so relentless that VanDerveer has joked that she ought to get Nneka a whistle, just for Chiney.
"Nneka is very direct with me when it comes to basketball, but I don't take it personally," Chiney says. "Some people see that and think if that happened to them, they'd be defensive. But they don't understand our dynamic. She's not attacking my character, she's trying to help me. I'll take any kind of help."
On the floor, the two have obvious chemistry. ("They look for each other," says Pedersen.) More than that, Chiney's rapid development has taken pressure off Nneka. After missing all but one of her first seven shots at USC on Feb. 18, Chiney saw Nneka go out with a sprained ankle early in the second half. But she hit all four of her remaining shots and three of four free throws for 13 points in her team's 78--64 win. Two days later, with Nneka still out, Chiney led the team with 18 points and 15 rebounds in a 67--53 win over ninth-ranked UCLA. "Nneka was struggling at USC," says VanDerveer, "but rather than make excuses, [Chiney] dug in and put the team on her back."
One of the beauties of this Cardinal team is that it's not built around one player, such as it was in recent years, first with Candice Wiggins, then Jayne Appel. After losing to DePaul and Tennessee on the road in December, VanDerveer tweaked her triangle offense and gave her team more offensive freedom to take advantage of a multitude of weapons, which include All-America candidates Pedersen (12.9 points, 7.9 rebounds per game), who is 6'4" and can play four positions, and Pac-10 player of the year Jeanette Pohlen (15.2 points, 4.7 assists per game), a 6-foot senior guard who shoots 42% from behind the arc and 91% from the line. The team responded immediately, crushing fourth-ranked Xavier at Maples 89--52 on Dec. 28 and beating the Huskies 71--59 there two nights later. Since then, the Cardinal has beaten its Pac-10 foes by an average of 30.4 points a game, a cushion that has allowed VanDerveer to develop a roster that goes 10 deep. "This group is very unselfish, they play really hard, and we don't have any drama," says VanDerveer. "We're not the biggest or fastest team, but we're as together as any team in the country." She adds, "I think Nneka and Chiney's actual sisterhood has elevated the team's sisterhood."
Nneka and Chiney live in different dorms, have different circles of friends and different academic interests. (Nneka is a psychology major, and Chiney is considering majoring in international relations and communications.) "But somehow, every time I call one of them, the other one is right there with her," says Peter.
Ify says the two "complete each other." Or, as assistant coach Bobbie Kelsey puts it, "They are peanut butter and jelly; they just go together." A few weeks ago Chiney was asked what she would do when Nneka leaves after next year. "I said, I'm not thinking about that right now," says Chiney. "As a little sister, you ride the coattails of what your big sister does. Those are great coattails, so I'm going to ride them as long as I can."
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