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Arike Ogunbowale Is Unfazed

Never too high or too low, the Wings’ star seeks to end her team’s playoff drought.
Arike Ogunbowale smiling in a white jersey

On the night before Arike Ogunbowale diced up Team USA in the 2021 WNBA All-Star Game, the 24-year-old Wings guard found herself seated in a near-empty Aria hotel ballroom alongside one of the sport’s all-time greats. Three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie and other members of the 1996 gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team were in Las Vegas for the league’s showcase, which pitted this summer’s eventual Tokyo gold medalists against the W’s non–U.S. Olympian stars. The entire group convened Tuesday evening for a players-only dinner. After the meal concluded and photographs were snapped, Leslie sat down at a round table and led an impromptu seminar.

It was there, for close to an hour, that Ogunbowale, her Wings teammate Satou Sabally and Sky guard Kahleah Copper peppered Leslie with questions about basketball and life. The Naismith Hall of Famer explained how she constantly improved on her weaknesses—“figure out what the scouting report says you can’t do and work on it,” Leslie told them—and how she continued to motivate herself deep into her professional career. “You gotta go after it. You gotta look yourself in the mirror. You are your biggest competition,” she says.

“Arike’s curious, and she wants to know more and be great,” says Leslie, who went on to co-coach Team WNBA to a 93–85 win. “There’s that look in her eyes. … If players were sitting at desks, she’d be in the front row. You can tell she’s hungry for the answers to getting to the top.”

Lisa Leslie clapping on the sideline

Leslie gave Ogunbowale and others a special seminar before the 2021 WNBA All-Star Game, which she co-coached.

Before entering the WNBA, Ogunbowale had already experienced a level of renown few players reach. As a junior at Notre Dame, she hit two of the most memorable game-winning shots in college basketball history, vaulting the Fighting Irish past UConn after nailing a contested step-back jumper with one second to play in the Final Four and past Mississippi State in the national championship game after hitting a fadeaway three-pointer with a defender draped over her. In doing so, she launched herself on a celebrity tour, which included appearances on Ellen alongside Kobe Bryant and a spot as one of 10 contestants on Dancing With the Stars.

​​But the Irish icon has also felt heartbreak. Sandwiching her 2018 Final Four heroics were last-second shortcomings: a blocked game-winning layup against Stanford in the ’17 Elite Eight and a missed free throw with 1.9 ticks to go, down two, against Baylor in the ’19 title game.

As a pro, Ogunbowale is still working to match her past level of success. The Wings entered this year’s Olympic break having won just 27 games throughout her tenure. And between mid-July and mid-August, Ogunbowale, who took home the league’s scoring crown in just her second season, averaging 22.8 points per game, watched the Games Stateside as perhaps the most talented U.S. player not in Tokyo.

But, armed with an offensive arsenal few possess, Ogunbowale is more focused on a challenge firmly within her grasp: leading the Wings to the playoffs for the franchise’s first time since 2018, and past the first round for the first time since the team (formerly the Shock) moved to Dallas in ’16.

Among the topics Leslie discussed with the select WNBA players who hung around the Aria ballroom on the eve of the All-Star Game was how they lead their respective teams. “You learn the most about people in tough times,” Leslie says. “It’s always good when it’s good. But what about when it’s not good? Like, who are you then?”

It’s a question Ogunbowale is increasingly equipped to tackle. Now in her third year, the smooth-operating guard is emerging as a steady presence who moves at her own pace, and with her own flair.

Just over a year after becoming Notre Dame royalty, after she garnered national attention for her awe-inspiring shot-making (including appearing on the cover of this magazine), Ogunbowale found herself locked in a battle for yet another championship. With 3.9 seconds to play in the 2019 title game, the then 35–3 Fighting Irish were down 82–80 to Baylor, a team that had lost just once in its first 37 games that season. Jackie Young, now with the Aces, threw the Irish’s inbounds pass to Ogunbowale, who was open just inside the left arc. She spun baseline, attacking the basket with her tenacious driving ability, and drew a shooting foul with 1.9 seconds to play. Up to that point, she had made a team-high 171 free throws that season, needing just two more makes to force overtime.

Arike Ogunbowale on the cover of Sports Illustrated

Ogunbowale approached the line with confidence. Yet, on her first attempt, she could only watch as the same Wilson basketball that was so giving to her one year earlier clanked off the back of the rim, then hit the front of it, then again the back, before bouncing away from the cylinder.

She hunched over in disbelief. “I think everyone expected her to make it,” says Marina Mabrey, who played alongside Ogunbowale at Notre Dame and is now a teammate of hers on the Wings. “That’s not something she ever misses.”

No matter the outcome, Ogunbowale has learned to let things go. 

“You’re gonna get praised, you’re gonna get talked about, but nothing should change what you do to yourself,” she says.

Her lifelong competitive drive had helped prepare her for that moment, the highlights the year before and all the other more ordinary crossovers, step-backs and fadeaways she’s taken throughout her career. Her mother, Yolanda, who herself played softball at DePaul University, watched as Arike, age 3, practiced shooting at a blue-and-orange Fisher Price basket, whispering “concentrate” in her ear. When Arike was in the first grade, Yolanda put her on a fifth-grade basketball team. Her youth athletics career took off from there, and she quickly became a Milwaukee prodigy, eventually being named a McDonald’s All-America selection as a senior and leading Divine Savior Holy Angels to a Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division I state championship and Greater Metro Conference title.

Yet no matter if she was involved in organized contests or playing in pickup games against her brothers Dare and Mario and their cousin Diamond Stone, who was a second-round pick of the Clippers in 2016, Arike never got too high in victory and “never really got discouraged from losing,” Dare, who is a Jaguars running back entering his fifth NFL season this fall, recalls. “Aight, next time. Next time,” he remembers her saying whenever she did fall short.

That same steadiness has served her well as she’s matured.

Dare watched from the stands in Tampa that April 2019 night as his younger sister missed the most important free throw of her young career. He caught Arike just before she entered the tunnel to share an emotional embrace. “It was somewhat exciting to see how she’d come back from it,” he recalls.

Amid the Bears’ celebration, Greg Bibb, the Wings’ team president and CEO, took particular note of how Arike and her teammates rallied together despite the crushing defeat. “I think one of the things that allowed me to solidify my mind on her was how she reacted, and how others reacted to her [in that moment],” he says. “To me that embodies what a leader is. It’s not just rah-rah or the reaction after a big moment. It’s the day-to-day. It’s how people react to you. And what it’s like around you when things don’t go the way you hope things would go.”

She briefly sulked. But three days after the loss to Baylor, Dallas selected Ogunbowale No. 5 in the draft. It was time to get to work.

For two months last summer, Ogunbowale and Mabrey got to reprise some of what they enjoyed most from their time in South Bend. The Wings guards, who lived together for two years at Notre Dame, were again roommates in the WNBA’s bubble, this time joined by Sabally in a three-bedroom apartment. The trio lounged together in their living room, watching reality shows like Selling Sunset. They enjoyed countless shared meals—though Sabally’s penchant for including mushrooms in their eggs turned off the two Dallas guards. Still, Ogunbowale says, “I had two chefs, and all I had to worry about was basketball.”

The Wings got off to an uneven start at IMG Academy, dropping four of their first six games. Yet, Bibb recalls a “level of comfort and confidence” with Ogunbowale that never wavered. Often, the trio would return to their apartment and rewatch close losses, breaking down game film together, figuring out how they could best correct their mistakes. “[Arike] never blames anybody,” Mabrey says.

As Ogunbowale has developed into the Wings’ on-court engine, she’s recognized the added leadership responsibilities that come with her acclaim. Mabrey has seen an increase since their college days in how talkative Ogunbowale is. “Still keeping that fiery competitive attitude,” Mabrey says, “but always being friendly and nice off the court so you can respect what she’s saying.” Arike frequently picks Dare’s brain on topics related to leadership, with the former Buccaneers’ team captain reminding her to “worry about being there for your teammates” and advising her on how to mediate situations between coaches and players.

Now in her third season, Ogunbowale says she feels more in control on the court. She looks back at film from her first two campaigns and sees that she’s making not only quicker decisions this year, but smarter decisions as well. Sabally and Bibb both notice Ogunbowale’s heightened awareness of when she should facilitate for others and when she should create for herself. While her scoring dipped from 22.8 points per game last year to 18.9 at the end of this season’s first half, she entered the Olympic break averaging her most assists per 100 possessions (5.6). “I think everyone’s bought into the fact that we’re going to go as Arike goes,” Bibb says.

Going as Arike goes also means moving at her pace.

Teammates have grown accustomed to Ogunbowale arriving at the team bus just seconds before departure, or at team dinners just before they begin. “A lot of people would say I move slow off the court,” she admits. “I’d say I’m probably the most lazy-unlazy person, because on the court I do what I have to do and I move super super fast. Off the court, I move like a sloth.”

Adds Dare: “When she wants to go, she’ll go. When she doesn’t feel like it she’ll take her time.”

Sabally ascribes Ogunbowale’s deliberate tempo to a desire she has to fully relax and be comfortable. There is a natural ease with how Ogunbowale operates and how she relates to her teammates, many of whom are around her same age.

Dallas’s roster is loaded with top picks—six taken in the top five of the past three drafts—and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Wings are the league’s youngest team (25.2) in terms of weighted playing time. While there is still a freshness to the team’s core, those within the organization are optimistic that their youth will lead to both short- and long-term success. Still, they are yet to emerge as a consistent force around the league.

“I think we’re really able to learn our strengths perfectly and also our weaknesses,” Sabally says. “And we’re able to uplift each other. While we grow up we’re not going to put ourselves in a position where we know another person is uncomfortable. I will know blind how she moves and she will know blind how I move, too. And I think for me, when we get all that down it’s going to be very hard to stop us.”

Entering Thursday night’s game against the Mystics, the Wings sit at 10–14, tied for eighth in the playoff picture. So much of how the Wings fare this season, and also beyond, will be predicated on the continued growth of their star guard. Her mother, Yolanda, often asks her, “What are you gonna do different from the next person?”

Arike’s response: just continue to work harder.

Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey

Mabrey on her longtime teammate: “She’s ready to take Dallas somewhere where it’s never been, and that’s the playoffs and to a title."

Heading into her first All-Star Game, Ogunbowale didn’t have any clear-cut goals. Her expectations were so open-ended that when Leslie and co–head coach Tina Thompson informed her on the Tuesday before the exhibition that she would start the following night, the Wings star was genuinely surprised. “I was just excited to be there and happy I was chosen, really,” she says.

It didn’t take long for her to make an impact. She knocked down a triple on the left wing just over 2:30 into the game. One minute later, she blew by five-time Olympian Sue Bird en route to hitting a floater over the outstretched arms of reigning league MVP A’ja Wilson. From there, Ogunbowale’s 26-point, MVP-winning performance started to take shape.

The All-Star Game served as a prime example of just how dangerous she can be. Ogunbowale’s measured reaction afterward, though, also provided a glimpse into how she views her journey thus far. Asked whether not making to the Olympic team provided any additional motivation, the 24-year-old responded with a genuine smile and said, “Good luck to Team USA. All those girls are deserving. So hopefully they go win a gold medal.” (That they did.)

Ogunbowale was on the road when she learned that she didn’t make the Olympic cut. But she didn’t allow the disappointment to linger. “I’m never discouraged by anything,” she says. “There’s just been so many things in my life that have happened that I’m never going to let that affect my mood or affect my play or affect how I feel about me.” That’s always been her attitude, whether playing pickup games with family members or at Notre Dame on college basketball’s biggest stage.

”She’s gonna move on and compete,” says her father, Gregory Ogunbowale. “That’s what she does.”

Arike knows that there is plenty left for her to accomplish. She says that she doesn’t think she’s even “25% of where I can be or where I need to be”—a scary thought for the rest of the league, considering what she’s already displayed. Leslie describes Ogunbowale as a combination of a number of WNBA greats: having the engine of Teresa Witherspoon, the shot of Mwadi Mabika, the driving and finishing ability of Cynthia Cooper and the crossover of Seimone Augustus.

Among Ogunbowale’s career aspirations is to one day retire as one of her team’s, and the sport’s, all-time legends. For years ahead of big moments, Dare has voiced the word “rafters” to her as a means to help Arike focus.

But over the final month-plus of the regular season her mind is strictly team-oriented. After missing the playoffs in her first two seasons, she’s striving to make a long-awaited postseason debut. “She’s ready to take Dallas somewhere where it’s never been, and that’s the playoffs and to a title,” Mabrey says. “I don’t think she cares at all if they think she belongs on that team or if this person is better than her or if that person is better. She’s the best, period. She’s trying to win, and that’s how her attitude has always been.”

She’s experienced on-court euphoria and heartbreak, joy and despair. Through it all, she’s remained steady, moving at her own pace and keying in on what she can control. Who knows what impossible she’ll next make possible?

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