There is one rule of thumb Connecticut Sun forward Chiney Ogwumike continually abides by these days as a WNBA player: Don’t wait to begin your next career until after your current basketball career has ended.
It’s a mantra the 25-year-old repeats to WNBA rookies, and a sentiment that carries her through her many off-court endeavors, including her most recent announcement of joining ESPN as an analyst for its newly launched ESPN channel on Kwesé TV. The channel provides coverage and a unique sports experience to fans in Africa. For nearly three weeks, Ogwumike has faithfully rehearsed lines, shadowed on-air talent and attempted to correct her posture to ready herself for the new role.
“It’s an adrenaline rush, almost like playing in a game,” Ogwumike said. “You’re excited, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if you’re going to win, you don’t know if you’re going to lose. I second-guess myself because athletes tend to be different in broadcast. It’s a cool challenge for me because I love sports, it’s an African audience and, to me, the most important thing is, I knew this was out of the realm of what I imagined myself doing, but I knew representation matters.”
As a Nigerian-American, Ogwumike understands the passion African fans have for sports. Physical activities have always served as a bonding experience in her family, and the love for sports is partially responsible for Ogwumike and her older sister, Nneka, turning to basketball after being told they were too tall for gymnastics.
Staying connected and recognizing the need for in-depth sports coverage not only in her home country but throughout all of Africa is something that has been a priority for Ogwumike since her days as an international relations major at Stanford University.
Growing up, Ogwumike would travel back to Nigeria with her family once or twice a year. While attending Stanford and becoming a mentee of former U.S. Secretary of State and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Ogwumike was encouraged to align her passion for giving back with her academic pursuits. For the first time, Ogwumike made solo trips to Nigeria before studying abroad during her junior year. In her free time, Ogwumike traveled the continent, working with nonprofits on basketball clinics and to help raise money to build basketball courts.
“I saw the country with new, educated eyes,” Ogwumike said. “It was a huge educational experience for me, and I left very optimistic because when you think about Nigeria, you tend to think of a place left behind. But the potential is there.”
After being drafted as the WNBA’s No. 1 overall pick in 2014, Ogwumike immediately went to work. She completed her rookie season averaging 15.5 points and 8.5 rebounds before being named the 2014 Rookie of the Year. Shortly afterward while playing in Italy, Ogwumike suffered a right knee injury that required microfracture surgery. She missed all of the 2015-16 season.
“I think athletes tend to make the injury their narrative,” Ogwumike said. “Injuries happen in sports, but I never wanted to be defined by it, and I think that’s my motive. My mindset has always been I love basketball, it’s my passion, it’s opened doors, but it’s not the be-all and end-all for me. When I got injured, it sucked because I was worried about what would be my basketball future, but the injury also gave me time to step back and think and plan on my future. I know I can’t play forever.”
Thinking ahead, Ogwumike focused less on the pain and slow rehabilitation process and more on how she can continue to strengthen and develop relationships on a different side of the sports realm. During her downtime, Ogwumike took advantage of television time, including co-hosting opportunities on ESPN’s First Take and His & Hers, as well as serving as an analyst for NBATV during the 2015 WNBA playoffs. Ogwumike also partnered with NBA Africa to help launch Power Forward, a youth engagement initiative that uses basketball as a tool to develop health, leadership and life skills in Nigeria.
The next season, Ogwumike returned to the court to finish second on the team with 12.6 points per game and 6.7 rebounds per game, earning her Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year honors. In a situation similar to the first, unfortunate circumstances befell Ogwumike again — this time, in the form of an Achilles tendon injury in her left leg while playing overseas in China.
“The second injury in China was a heartbreaker because I knew something was off,” Ogwumike said. “But I always try thinking of the positive. I got home within three days from China and had surgery quick, because I had doctors on speed dial for my other injury. The situation could be worse for me. If I’m going to be challenged in my career, I’d rather it happen now than later. I also know that my worth is not just my stats. As women basketball players, our worth is not just how we play but how we represent ourselves. Yeah, I’m missing my WNBA season and it stinks, but I’m really excited about this opportunity with ESPN.”
Juggling her WNBA career while co-hosting SportsCenter across sub–Saharan Africa will present challenges, Ogwumike said, only because it’s uncharted territory for her. Yet, Ogwumike is keeping a positive outlook. As she looks forward to returning to the WNBA in the 2018-19 season, her focus also lies in finding a deeper meaning off the court and giving back to the countries that have given so much to her.
“It’s unique for me because being Nigerian, I know what our passions are, and it’s sports,” Ogwumike said. “If you look at who I am, I’m a Nigerian-American female basketball player. And this show caters to all Africans, especially Nigerians because that’s some of the higher viewership, and I think female sports are on the rise. Even though it’s out of what I perceive to be the realm of possibilities for my career, it’s perfect for me.
“I always try to think of my little sisters and young girls that want to do what I’ve had the opportunity to do. That outweighs the fear. At age 25 it feels like an avalanche, but at the same time it’s like that adrenaline rush that I get from playing, and it’s cool. No matter what your lane is, attack it, do it to the best of your ability, and that can be the thing that opens doors.”