Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Nneka, Chiney, Erica Ogwumike, all listed on Nigeria's provisional roster, could play in Olympics together

Sisters Nneka, Chiney and Erica Ogwumike are listed on the provisional roster for Nigeria's women's basketball team, the country's federation announced Tuesday on Twitter. It's possible they all could make the 12-player roster for Nigeria in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, although Nneka and Chiney are still awaiting official FIBA clearance.

"It's something I know my family would be very proud of," Nneka Ogwumike told ESPN Tuesday. "For it to happen would be such a blessing. To be able to do something big for a big part of our heritage would be fantastic. I'm hoping it will contribute to the growth we're experiencing for Africa in basketball."

Nneka, the 2016 WNBA MVP, and Chiney both are Stanford grads who were the WNBA's No. 1 draft picks in 2012 and 2014, respectively, and now play for the Los Angeles Sparks. Erica Ogwumike played as a freshman for Pepperdine and then spent the rest of her college career at Rice. She was drafted into the WNBA in 2020 but did not make a roster.

Eldest sister Nneka, 31, is a longtime member of the U.S. senior national team, winning gold medals with the American squad in 2014 and 2018 at the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup. But she was left off the U.S. roster for the Tokyo Games, which was announced June 21, surprising many and causing some controversy. She is the only MVP in WNBA history who has not made an Olympic squad, but that could change with FIBA's approval.

"It was more of a hurt than a shock, because I had experienced it before," Nneka said of also not being named to the U.S. Olympic team in 2012 and 2016. "But there are decisions made in this life that you can't control. I allowed myself to feel the hurt, but moving on, I decided, 'I'm going to try to put matters in my own hands."

Nneka contacted USA Basketball and told them she was interested in pursuing a chance to play with Nigeria. The Ogwumikes' parents, Peter and Ify, were both born in Nigeria and immigrated to the United States, where their daughters were born. The Ogwumike sisters have dual citizenship with the United States and Nigeria.

USA Basketball has released both Nneka and Chiney, which was required since both previously have competed for the United States in FIBA-sanctioned events. Generally, if players have done that after having reached their 17th birthday, they are not allowed to play for another country in a FIBA event. However, according to FIBA's regulations on player eligibility, the organization's secretary general may authorize a player to compete for the national team of his or her country of origin if this is in the interest of the growth of basketball in that country.

One of FIBA's pillars of emphasis currently is the growth of women's basketball worldwide, which could favor the decision for Nneka and Chiney getting to play for Nigeria. Erica Ogwumike committed to the Nigerian team last year; she had not played for Team USA in a FIBA-sanctioned event. Chiney Ogwumike began looking into the possibility of representing Nigeria about two months ago.

"The running joke was who was the family going to root for, because I was planning on playing against Erica," Nneka said of thinking she would be on Team USA. "But, you know, life unfolds in some beautiful ways: To be able to possibly share the highest athletic honor with not only Chiney, but my youngest sister."

Nneka has not been critical of USA Basketball, but said that when she didn't make the U.S. team, she did not want to wait on the possibility of perhaps being called on as an alternate U.S. player if someone was hurt between now and the Tokyo Games. She's been in that position before and said she doesn't see herself as a "second choice."

"I just wanted to bet on myself and also be a part of an organization that prioritizes me," she said of her hopes to play for Team Nigeria now. "My perspective was like, 'If it's not impossible, I'm going to go for it.' Because I believe I have Olympic status and I plan on being an Olympian."

Nneka said she wanted to be fully open with the Nigerian federation and USA Basketball about her hopes.

"I didn't want it to be secretive," she said. "It was something that I wanted to do, and I would hope that they understood. And they did. In these moments, being transparent, I think, is most important."

Along with FIBA clearance -- the Ogwumikes are not sure when a final decision will be made on that -- and being named to the Nigerian team, both Nneka and Chiney also have to be healthy. They have been sidelined with knee injuries; Nneka last played for the Sparks on June 1, and Chiney on May 28. At this point, both anticipate being able to play in Tokyo if they are on the team. Nigeria is scheduled to face the United States in an exhibition on July 18 at Michelob Ultra Arena at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Not long after, the Nigerian team is expected to be named.

"The way I feel now, I think I would be ready," Nneka said of playing in that exhibition game. "But if I'm not, I'll be ready for Tokyo if I'm able to get through the clearance process. The plan from the beginning (of her injury recovery) was for me to be ready for the Olympics."

Nigeria is in Group B at the Tokyo Games, along with the United States, Japan and France. Another current WNBA player who previously played for USA Basketball, Atlanta's Elizabeth Williams, is on the Nigerian provisional roster, too, and went through a similar process to what Nneka and Chiney are now.

Williams played collegiately for Duke; current Blue Devil senior Elizabeth Balogun, who transferred from Louisville, is also on the roster, as is another former Blue Devil, Oderah Chidom.

In fact, all the players on Nigeria's provisional roster played collegiately in the United States, including Adaora Elonu, who won a national championship with Texas A&M in 2011.

"The last few years, I've had the experience of playing against Team Nigeria and seen the rise of it," Nneka said. "It fills me with a lot of pride. To be able to possibly have the opportunity to contribute, that's what I want to do."


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