It’s hard to imagine now the excitement and intrigue that could have surrounded the women’s basketball game between the United States and Nigeria tonight in a qualifying match at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. .
In an alternate reality, former WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike would play for the United States against her two younger sisters, Chiney and Erica, and Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams on the Nigerian team.
In another, the three sisters Ogwumike and Williams would team up for a D’Tigress team seeking to become the first African nation to win an Olympic medal in men’s or women’s basketball.
It would have been an incredible showcase for basketball in Africa, which still bathed in the glow of Giannis Antetokoumpo’s NBA Finals MVP (his parents were born in Nigeria) with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Instead, it will be a huge missed opportunity, although Nneka has tried during this episode to accentuate the positive and look to the future.
“I still have a lot of pride and high hopes for the Nigerian squad as it is made up now,” said Nneka, 31. “So maybe this time around I won’t be a part of it directly, but I certainly hope I can in the future.”
That’s the beautiful way to look at it, and over the past month she’s done enough soul-searching and processing to get back to that positive, forward-looking perspective.
But it’s still astonishing to her that she watches the USA-Nigeria game from her home in Los Angeles, rather than playing it.
“Quite frankly,” she said. “I never thought I would be in this position.”
Almost two weeks have passed since the world’s basketball governing body, FIBA, rejected applications from Nneka Ogwumike and Williams to play for the Nigerian national team at the Tokyo Olympics, citing their long-standing involvement. date with USA Basketball. Almost a month has passed since Ogwumike was banned from the Americans’ list for Tokyo.
She dealt with what happened at the same time she charted a way forward, while also trying to find a higher meaning – or purpose – to the situation she was plunged into.
“I haven’t been public with my thoughts at all,” she said. “I’m not going to lie, it’s been an emotional month – a lot of crying, a lot of longing to be alone. But in the midst of it all, it’s amazing how many people are supporting me.”
She kept her thoughts to herself because she wanted the pain to go away first, or at least subside a bit. She hoped that the prospect would come in time, or that a way forward would reveal itself.
Most importantly, she wanted to shape her response before revealing her initial reaction to being banned from the United States’ list for a third Olympic cycle, after saying she was constantly reassured of her place by coaches and managers. .
Ogwumike was one of USA Basketball’s top eight players in 2019-2020. She signed a contract to that effect, forgoing lucrative overseas opportunities to join the national team so she could qualify for Tokyo. She led this team in scoring and was the MVP of the FIBA Women’s Qualifying Tournament.
When she suffered a minor knee injury in a game on June 1, she called United States Women’s National Team manager Carol Callan to inform her that the recovery time would be four. at six weeks – plenty of time to be ready for the Summer Games.
“Carol was like, ‘Oh, well you and Diana [Taurasi] will be cool, ”Ogwumike said. Taurasi had recently suffered a broken sternum that caused her to miss 10 games for the Phoenix Mercury, but she was also expected to be healed in time for the Olympics.
When the list came out, Taurasi was on it; Ogwumike was not.
Ogwumike says she was stunned when Callan called her with the decision, shortly before the list was publicly announced.
“She said the committee weren’t sure about my injury and they wanted to go with a younger, more versatile player,” Ogwumike said. “That’s the reasoning they gave me over the phone.”
It didn’t matter. Ogwumike says Sparks coach Courtney Watson was in communication with USA Basketball regarding his progress in rehabilitation.
She says she saw the messages they exchanged and that there were no setbacks or reason to wonder if she would be ready for the Olympics.
She was on track, as was Taurasi, to be ready in time for the Games. So why has coach Dawn Staley publicly cited her injury as the reason she was not selected for the roster? And why was Callan saying that the five-person selection committee wasn’t sure about her injury?
USA Basketball’s policy is not to comment on individual selections, so Staley’s public comments and Ogwumike’s recollection of Callan’s private comments are all there is as official explanation or responsibility for the decision. .
Ogwumike didn’t want to go into all of these details publicly, as it doesn’t change what happened, and won’t change what happens in the future. But she wants to set the record straight for Watson and the Sparks’ training staff.
“It was almost as if this excuse now attacked the integrity of my care,” she said. “As if [she’s] not in the team, is she more injured than you think? ‘
“But I was very transparent with what happened and my prognosis. Courtney communicated with them.… I just think there was a lot of going back after the decision was made.”
There was little time to wallow in disappointment, however. As a dual citizen of the United States and Nigeria – her parents were born in Abuja – Ogwumike quickly pivoted to try and play alongside her younger sisters. Erica was already a member of the Nigerian team. Chiney had been applying to join the team for over a year.
It would have been and could have been an incredible opportunity to develop basketball in Nigeria – one of FIBA’s declared mission statements – and a way to honor his Nigerian heritage and family.
But FIBA turned down his candidacy due to his long-standing association with USA Basketball. She has appealed the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sports, but their decision will not come in time for these Olympics.
She understands the criticisms she only addressed to the Nigerian team after Team USA did not select them. But she says that ignores the bond she and her parents maintained with their homeland.
It is the unique experience of those who have dual nationality.
“I just think it’s very symbolic of a particular experience of black people in America,” she said, referring to other first generation children in the African diaspora. She was raised to embrace the American experience and all the opportunities presented to her in this country, she says. But she was also raised in a Nigerian home, attending the Igbo Catholic Church in Houston and having traveled to Nigeria dozens of times as a child to visit family.
“We are very present in our two legacies,” said Chiney Ogwumike. “Whether it exists here in the United States or you come home. You are American, you are lucky to have opportunities here, but you also have Nigerian blood and we are also fortunate in that heritage.”
It is at this point that Nneka begins to list all the things that show how Nigerian she is. Her parents told their kids about Igbo, she donated money to the country’s basketball development programs, she spoke with fellow Nigerian basketball player and former Stanford teammate Ros Gold-Onwude about the progress by the country program.
She planned to take a leadership role with the Nigerian Basketball Federation after she finished playing for the US team.
But a person’s legacy shouldn’t have to be justified on a resume. Not when she already has dual American and Nigerian citizenship. But the rules of FIBA are much stricter than those of the IOC when it comes to dual nationality.
According to IOC rules, Ogwumike’s dual nationality, his Nigerian passport and his release by the United States from his national team would already be sufficient to allow him to compete for Nigeria.
However, FIBA has created a loophole for this type of situation. The secretary general could approve his candidacy if it is deemed in the interest of the growth of basketball in Nigeria.
This is the basis on which she and Williams appealed to CAS, and they will continue to pursue it after these Olympics.
“There are so many prominent Africans and Nigerians doing very good things. If I can help break the ceiling, then I think we can see the real mission of what we all play for: to move on. before. Sport keeps us going. “
Maybe this is the challenge she was born for? To take two overwhelming disappointments and turn them into inspiration for basketball players in Africa?
“It’s a lot of work, but I think I’m ready for it,” she said. “I come from Nigerian parents. Excellence has always been the norm. Don’t give up. Do your best. Treat people well. I live by it.
“I know I’ve worked hard for the accolades and it’s not about trophies on the shelf, but my hard work is going to show something,” she says. “And if that means going in another direction, that’s what it means.”