Sister Act: Stanford's Nnemkadi And Chiney Ogwumike
by Michelle Smith
The day that Nnemkadi Ogwumike showed up for her first basketball practice, walking on to the gym floor in denim shorts and with her glasses on - she got farther than her younger sister Chiney.
Chiney barely made it off of the bleachers.
"I was there in cute little jeans shorts, too. They had a cute little butterfly embroidered on them," Chiney Ogwumike said. "They wanted us both to play, but the first thing they did out there was a three-man weave, up and down the court. [Nneka (Nnemkadi's nickname)] couldn't do it. I tried it and I couldn't do it either. Nneka stayed out there. I ran to the bathroom and cried and hid."
It's a good thing for the No. 4-ranked Cardinal that Nneka stuck with it and Chiney finally joined her big sister out on that floor.
There have been star siblings in Pac-10 women's basketball before. The McGee sisters at USC. The Mendiola sisters at Washington. But the Ogwumikes, both now playing at Stanford, might end up as the most honored sister act in the history of the Conference.
Nneka, a junior, is the reigning Pac-10 Player of the Year and an All-American. Halfway through the Conference season, Chiney is a front-runner for the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year award, ranking third the conference in field-goal percentage and No. 7 in rebounding.
Nneka is currently the Pac-10's third-leading scorer, its sixth-leading rebounder and No. 2 in field-goal percentage.
With their athletic, explosive games, the Houston natives are becoming one of the toughest post combinations in the country.
Nneka, the oldest of the four Ogwumike sisters, turned to basketball in middle school after years of participating in gymnastics. The taller and longer she got, the more it seemed clear that gymnastics was not going to be her sport.
A local basketball coach nudged Nneka's mother, Ify, to bring the girls to basketball practice.
"It was going to be a time-filler," Chiney said. "Something to keep us busy."
It turned into much more than that.
Two years after Nneka played in her first game, she got her first college letter. Two years later she was a highly recruited high school star.
Chiney followed in her big sister's footsteps, all the way from playing on the volleyball team, to serving as senior class president, to finishing as the Gatorade National Player of Year in basketball (they were the first siblings to win the award), to choosing Stanford. They have spent so much time playing on the same teams throughout their lives that this experience isn't that different.
"Any freshman has to live up to expectations," Chiney said. "But coach always says you play for yourself, so you live up to your own expectations. My sister is here, she's helped me transition."
Nneka has helped Chiney with her grocery shopping (because Nneka is the one with the car). They have one class together, meet for lunch and stick close together on road trips.
"It definitely helps to have a sister around," Chiney said. "When we are practicing, she's not afraid to tell you anything you are doing wrong. It's a different bond than you have with teammates."
And it comes with a level of brutal honesty that has left teammates cringing a little and laughing a lot.
"The way she will say things, she's very direct, I would say," Chiney said. "She always has good intentions, but sometimes it's pretty funny."
Nneka said she thinks her sister looks to her for consultation.
"She knows that I understand her," Nneka said. "She's really good about receiving advice."
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said that Nneka has been a great mentor to Chiney.
"They are a great twosome," VanDerveer said. "I know that brothers and sisters can bicker sometimes, but there's been none of that. Nneka is clearly the older sister and Chiney definitely defers to Nneka. But they have each other's back. I think they are a really positive example of sisterhood on our team."
The legendary coach, who had never coached siblings at Stanford until now, says the Ogwumike sisters are complementary players who are raising each other's games.
"They are going great and if they were not sisters, they would be doing great," VanDerveer said. "Chiney is very opportunistic and she's hungry. In many ways, Nneka has had to re-invent her game without Jayne [Appel] here this year."
The basketball life - traveling back and forth to California for games, getting younger sisters Olivia (a high school freshman) and Erica (an 8th-grader) to their own games - isn't something Ify Ogwumike necessarily pictured when she was raising her young daughters. Father Peter works for a West Coast computer company and travels frequently to Europe and Africa. This past year, the holidays were spent as a family - in Palo Alto.
The Ogwumikes are a basketball family now.
"It's just kind of something we fell into," Nneka Ogwumike said. "Basketball is something that's a huge part of our lives, but it's not our whole life. We take advantage of all the opportunities basketball has presented for our family. We are grateful for everything."