Ever since she started her broadcast career at ESPN, Chiney Ogwumike has been trying to go with the flow, taking advantage of whatever opportunities she could while still being a professional athlete.
Whether that was anchoring SportsCenter Africa or being a basketball analyst on the domestic version, producing the film “144” about the WNBA bubble or even hosting a daily radio show over the past year — the first Black woman to have that national platform on ESPN — Ogwumike hasn’t had any preconceived notions about where she wants to end up. As Ogwumike tells SB Nation, “the goal at ESPN was to be a sponge and soak up and learn”.
That path has given Ogwumike a diverse skill set. She can talk about any sport now even if her specialty is basketball — she’s proud of the fact that her football knowledge has grown to the point that she is leading her fantasy league in only her second season playing. She knows how to interview guests and understands how best to make people feel comfortable with her line of questioning. Ogwumike is a storyteller, and she has also developed the ability to make a concise argument and get to her point as fast as possible within the time constraints of live television, which takes some fine tuning for someone as naturally verbose as she is.
“I think the idea was to just become more well rounded so that when ESPN had another opportunity that seemed to fit me, I would be more versatile,” Ogwumike says. “I think like my experiences are all helping me in this moment.”
Those experiences have now placed the Los Angeles Spark in what seems to be her most perfect role to date: a regular analyst on NBA Today, ESPN’s daily show dedicated to covering the league that premiered at the start of the 2021-22 season. Ogwumike appears on the show at least three times a week, usually from Wednesday through Friday. She’ll also be appearing on NBA Countdown when that studio show resumes in February.
The 29-year-old Ogwumike is always thinking about what could come next, and it sounds like there is more in the pipeline already just six weeks into NBA Today, but for now, she is bringing everything she has to her NBA analysis.
Ogwumike is a self-described nerd and tries to use her academic background in her preparation. Trying to make an argument requires the same process it did back in elementary school: main statement, then supporting bullets, then argue.
“It’s the same approach I had getting ready for a test at Stanford is what I approach each and every day,” Ogwumike says. “I need to know the numbers, I need to know the context, I need to know the takeaways, I need to know who I’m sitting next to, I need to know their point, so that I can make sure that I bring something off of their point that will help. I think it’s Stanford, brain takes NBA.”
Chiney’s Cheat Sheet has become her go-to segment on NBA Today, a way for Ogwumike to combine film and statistics and frame them with her personality and her unique perspective as both an analyst and current player. One of her ESPN colleagues and mentors, Ros Gold-Onwude, thinks it’s the perfect representation of what Ogwumike offers on television.
“I really like Chiney’s Cheat Sheet, I think it very much speaks to exactly who Chiney is, and especially to what can differentiate her,” Gold-Onwude told SB Nation. “I think it’s very fitting that she has an intellectual scope and and she does a very nice job of articulating it in an understandable way and I’ve enjoyed that segment. And I think fans are happy to hear a refreshing voice, one that isn’t just talking about rumors or gossip, or grudges or hating or, you know, just not so gossipy and more just like, let’s talk about teaching and learning the game of ball.”
It certainly helps that Ogwumike brings the knowledge of a current player, and a two-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year, at that. There’s a level of expertise that she has commenting on her peers, and they know that Ogwumike comes from a place of empathy because she goes through a similar grind.
That relationship is useful at a time when more and more athletes are taking ownership of their own stories and curating them independently of traditional media outlets, or simply refusing to share them at all.
“She takes great pride in being an objective voice for athletes, even when I watch her on-air, I feel like Chiney is special because she does such a great job of articulating the players’ perspective,” Gold-Onwude said. “I think she does that better than a lot of people, even other former athletes. She’s just very articulate, she has great emotional IQ. And I think she works with integrity and trust, having been there herself.”
The problem for Ogwumike is that she hasn’t been able to show out as a player as much as she would have liked in recent years. As her media career has taken an upward trajectory, her WNBA career hasn’t done the same. Since joining the Sparks, she had what she calls a “not great” year in 2019 (which is probably too harsh), and has only played seven games since over two seasons.
What hurts Ogwumike is when people assume that she is putting her playing career on the back burner to pursue her opportunities at ESPN.
“As far as Chiney, I think people try to put athletes or put people in these boxes because it makes them more comfortable. Like they they want to understand some people as just one thing and Chiney’s never been that,” said Gold-Onwude, who also was an analyst on the Sparks broadcast in 2021. “Anything Chiney has said she gets it done. She’s that type of person. And I’ve learned to always believe what Chiney is saying. So when she wants to be a basketball player even fighting through the injuries, when she’s able to be on the court, what I’ve gotten from the team from the coaches, is that she gives a hundred. And even if she can’t be on the court, Chiney is really integral in the chemistry and Leadership. She’s vocal. She brings positivity and great energy to everything she’s a part of.”
Ogwumike’s goal has forever been to merge her main pursuits. When commuting back and forth to Bristol became too onerous while she was playing for the Connecticut Sun, she pushed for a trade to Los Angeles, where the ESPN studios are directly across the street from STAPLES Center and she can switch from one to the other seamlessly.
Her current schedule is the closest she has come to balancing her professions. She works out in the morning, then goes into the studio for NBA Today. Afterwards, she gets feedback from the producers so she can keep improving, then she watches games and calls it a day at a reasonable hour. Ogwumike realized in Connecticut that her body wasn’t recovering well enough with less than five hours of sleep — the mental affects the physical, as she puts it — and is trying to fix that heading into the 2022 season.
Nearly every WNBA player has another job during the offseason, but because Ogwumike isn’t playing overseas like the majority of them, the implication is that she isn’t prioritizing basketball. Although it’s universally accepted that playing year-round causes excess wear and tear, it’s also the best way for players to stay ready for the WNBA season when the offseason extends for more than seven months. The problem is the two times Ogwumike tried to play abroad, those efforts resulted in microfracture surgery on her knee and then achilles surgery. Not going overseas is really the best thing Ogwumike can do to prepare for the WNBA.
“It’s crazy, in the back of my head I feel like I’m loving this, but I’m also like, okay, I’ve got this going, I need to get that going,” Ogwumike says about her Sparks tenure.
In 2019, Ogwumike arrived in Los Angeles less than two weeks before training camp and never felt quite comfortable in the new system. The pandemic threw off her conditioning in 2020, and she didn’t have enough time to get ready for the start of the bubble because of the short turnaround between the announcement of the season and the first game. Coming into the 2021 season, Sparks head coach Derek Fisher noted that Ogwumike overdid her workouts, as she so eager to return to the court. Ogwumike says that she kept going into the gym on her days off and her older sister Nneka had to plead with her to slow down, but she didn’t, which resulted in Chiney missing 25 out of 32 games.
This is Ogwumike’s first normal offseason as a Spark, and she believes she is finally on track to have a career worthy of the 2014 no. 1 overall pick and rookie of the year.
“In frank honesty, I’ve had small things that we haven’t figured out,” Ogwumike says regarding her health, noting that when she finally got her knee stable last year, her quad wasn’t firing properly. “So now we’re here. But now we have a true first full offseason, access to gyms, access to doctors, a full plan. So it’s like, you’re gonna be alright.”
The good thing is she is already well on her way to figuring out the television half of her career. Malika Andrews, the show’s host, told SB Nation, “We love Chiney”; Zach Lowe is giving her golf claps after her segments; and ESPN has already brought Ogwumike in for additional appearances. Ogwumike likes to talk about the new wave of young talent in the NBA (Ja Morant seems to be a personal favorite), and she’s an important part of a new wave of media to cover those players.
She is already an integral piece of the NBA Today fabric. Maybe ESPN has other analysts who can illustrate statistics or other former players who can dissect film, but not in one package — or in heels — like Ogwumike.