It’s hard to picture now, the excitement and intrigue that could have surrounded the women’s basketball game between the United States and Nigeria tonight in a qualifying round game at the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
In one alternate reality, former WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike would be playing 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 Ogwumike sisters and Williams would be teaming up for a D’Tigress team looking to become the first African nation to win an Olympic medal in men’s or women’s basketball.
It would’ve been an incredible showcase for basketball in Africa, which was still basking 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 gigantic missed opportunity, though 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 team as it’s composed now,” Nneka, 31, says. “So, maybe this time around, I won’t be a part of it directly, but I certainly do hope that I can be in the future.”
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That is the nice way of looking at the situation, and over the past month she has done enough soul-searching and processing to arrive back at that positive, forward-looking perspective.
But it’s still stunning to her that she will be watching the United States-Nigeria game from her home in Los Angeles, rather than playing in it.
“Quite frankly,” she says. “I never thought I’d be in this position.”
Nearly two weeks have passed since basketball’s world governing body, FIBA, denied Nneka Ogwumike’s and Williams’ applications to play for the Nigerian national team in the Tokyo Olympics, citing their longtime involvement with USA Basketball. Nearly a month has passed since Ogwumike was left off the Americans’ roster for Tokyo.
She has been processing what happened at the same time she’s been plotting a way forward, all the while trying to find a higher meaning — or purpose — to the situation she’s been thrust into.
“I haven’t been public at all with my thoughts,” she says. “I’m not going to lie, it’s been an emotional month — a lot of crying, a lot of just wanting to be alone. But in the midst of all that, it’s amazing to see how many people support me.”
She kept her thoughts to herself because she wanted the hurt to go away first, or at least fade some. She hoped perspective would come with time, or that a path forward would reveal itself.
But mostly she wanted to form her response before revealing her initial reaction to being left off the United States’ roster for a third Olympic cycle, after she says she was constantly reassured of her place by coaches and executives.
Ogwumike was one of eight core players for USA Basketball in 2019-20. She signed a contract to that effect, giving up lucrative opportunities overseas to commit to the national team so it could qualify for Tokyo. She led that 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 U.S. women’s national team director Carol Callan to inform her the recovery time would be four to six weeks — plenty of time to be ready for the Summer Games.
“Carol was like, ‘Oh, well you and Diana [Taurasi] will be fresh,” Ogwumike says. Taurasi had recently suffered a fractured sternum that caused her to miss 10 games for the Phoenix Mercury, but was also expected to be healed in time for the Olympics.
When the roster came out, Taurasi was on it; Ogwumike wasn’t.
Ogwumike says she was stunned when Callan called her with the decision, shortly before the roster was publicly announced.
“She said that the committee, they weren’t sure about my injury and that they wanted to go with a younger, more versatile player,” Ogwumike says. “That was the reasoning that they gave me over the phone.”
It didn’t add up. Ogwumike says Sparks trainer Courtney Watson was in communication with USA Basketball about her progress in rehabilitation.
She says she has seen the messages they exchanged, and that there were no setbacks and no reason to question whether she’d be ready for the Olympics.
She was on track, just like Taurasi, to be ready in time for the Games. So why was coach Dawn Staley publicly citing her injury as the reason she wasn’t selected for the roster? And why was Callan saying the five-person selection committee wasn’t sure about her injury?
USA Basketball has a policy not to comment on individual selections, so Staley’s public comments and Ogwumike’s recollection of Callan’s private comments are all there is by way of official explanation or accountability for the decision.
Ogwumike hasn’t wanted to get into all these details publicly, because it doesn’t change what happened, and won’t change what will happen in the future. But she wants to set the record straight for Watson and the Sparks training staff.
“It almost felt as though that excuse was now attacking the integrity of my care,” she says. “Like, if [she’s] not on the team, is she more hurt than we think she is?’
“But I was very transparent with what happened and my prognosis. Courtney communicated with them. … I just think there was a lot of backtracking once the decision was made.”
There was little time to wallow in the disappointment, however. As a dual citizen of the U.S. and Nigeria — her parents were born in Abuja — Ogwumike quickly pivoted to trying to play alongside her younger sisters. Erica was already a member of the Nigerian team. Chiney had been in the process of applying to join the team for over a year.
It would’ve been and could’ve been an incredible opportunity to grow the game of basketball in Nigeria — one of FIBA’s stated mission statements — and a way to honor her Nigerian heritage and family.
But FIBA denied her application because of her long-term association with USA Basketball. She has appealed the decision to the Court of Arbitration in Sports, but their decision will not come in time for these Olympics.
She understands the criticism that she only applied to the Nigerian team after Team USA didn’t select her. But she says that discounts the connection she and her parents have maintained to their homeland.
This is the unique experience of those with dual citizenship.
“I just think this is very symbolic of a particular Black experience in America,” she says, referring to other first-generation children of 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 travelling to Nigeria dozens of times as a child to visit family.
“We are very present in both of our heritages,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “Whether that is existing here in the States, or going home. You’re American, you’re blessed with opportunities here, but you also have Nigerian blood and we’re blessed with that heritage as well.”
It’s at this point Nneka finds herself starting to list all the things that show just how Nigerian she is. Her parents spoke Igbo to their children, she has donated money to the country’s basketball development programs, she talked with fellow Nigerian basketball player, and former Stanford teammate, Ros Gold-Onwude about the progress the country’s program was making.
She planned on holding a leadership position with the Nigerian Basketball Federation once she was done playing for Team USA.
But a person’s heritage should not have to be justified on a résumé. Not when she’s already a dual citizen of both the United States and Nigeria. But FIBA’s rules are far more stringent than the IOC’s when it comes to dual citizenship.
Under IOC rules, Ogwumike’s dual citizenship, Nigerian passport and the United States’ release of her from its national team pool would already be enough to clear her to compete for Nigeria.
FIBA created a loophole for just this type of situation, however. The secretary general could approve her application if it is deemed to be in the interest of growing basketball in Nigeria.
That is the basis under which she and Williams have appealed to CAS, and they will continue to pursue it after these Olympics.
“There’s just so many prominent Africans and Nigerians that are doing some really great things. If I can help break the ceiling, then I think that we can see the true mission of what we all play for: to move forward. Sports move us forward.”
Maybe this is the challenge she was born for? To take two soul-crushing disappointments and turn them into inspiration for basketball players in Africa?
“It’s a lot of work, but I think I’m up for it,” she says. “I come from Nigerian parents. Excellence has always been the standard. Not quitting. Doing your best. Treating people well. I live by that.
“I know that I’ve worked hard for the accolades and it’s not about trophies on the shelf, but my hard work is going to show for something,” she says. “And if it means going in another direction — that’s what it means.”