WNBA All-Star Chiney Ogwumike Has Media Game

LOS ANGELES -- The basketball world is buzzing, and so is Chiney Ogwumike’s phone. It’s June 30, 2019, the opening day of arguably the most remarkable free agent period in NBA history. While Chiney is busy balling for the Los Angeles Sparks against the Chicago Sky during a WNBA matinee at Staples Center, her agent, Allison Galer of Disrupt The Game, is texting her updates about Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving committing to the Brooklyn Nets, Kemba Walker leaving Charlotte for the Boston Celtics, Al Horford signing with the Philadelphia 76ers and more.

Chiney sneaks a peek at her phone during halftime, but mostly keeps the news to herself. Once the Sparks secure their 94-69 victory—with the support of Chiney’s 10 points and seven rebounds—the updates continue to roll in. Her first job of the day is almost done, but thanks to that W, she’s got more work to do.

Chiney's phone keeps buzzing while she answers questions from reporters in the locker room. As Chiney and her sister, fellow Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike, sign autographs for fans following the postgame media session, Allison hovers nearby, talking through more moves as they pop up on Twitter.

After a quick shower and outfit change, Chiney hustles out of Staples Center, fetches her “go bag” from the trunk of her car and continues across Chick Hearn Court, her agent and agent’s assistant, Josh Rosen, in tow. With each step, she cycles through the pros and cons of each signing and trade, both in her head and with her team. She’s in a hurry, but not so much that she can’t stop to sign a couple more autographs for fans who come up to her at LA Live.

“At the end of the day, that is what matters most,” she tells CloseUp360 now.

A few more strides, and Chiney is right where she needs to be: at ESPN’s LA studios, preparing for a guest spot on The Jump’s free agency special. She has just 20 minutes to change again, hop into hair and makeup and be camera-ready—which, of course, includes staying on top of the transactions of the day.

It’s a frenzy, for sure, but it's nothing new for Chiney. By now, she’s well practiced at juggling her two jobs, as a professional athlete and sports commentator, even when doing on both of them on the same day, in rapid succession.

As she settles into her seat between ESPN reporter Ramona Shelburne and former NBA veteran Matt Barnes, Chiney rattles off opinions about Brooklyn’s free-agent coup and the New York Knicks’ shortfall with ease. If not for host Rachel Nichols shouting out her cross-career doubleheader, Chiney might have gotten through her duties without so much as a hint of having hooped.

“Everything went well and I had a blast,” she says. “It was definitely a very memorable day and one that I’ll cherish throughout the entirety of my career.”

Given her proficiency as both on the court and on camera, Chiney figures to have many more such days as she continues to advance in each of her careers. And after handling another hectic schedule with aplomb during NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago—where she appeared on air for ESPN and at various events and brand activations around town—Chiney has shown that she's more than capable of shouldering the workload that her path demands.

In some respects, Chiney began on her dual track the day she officially turned pro.

On April 14, 2014, the Sun selected Stanford’s all-time leading scorer with the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, which was held at the Mohegan Sun Arena, her new home court. Chiney’s agent immediately reached out to Lisa Stokes, ESPN’s manager of booking and talent production and development, to pitch Chiney going to ESPN’s Headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut for a “Car Wash”, in which talent/celebrities/athletes are shuffled through appearances on multiple shows and podcasts.

As Chiney cycled from spot to spot, people at the network, including Lisa, closely observed her every word and expression, evaluating her energy and ability in front of the camera.

On the court, Chiney passed every test with flying colors. In her first campaign, she averaged 15.5 points and 7.5 rebounds en route to earning an All-Star selection and winning Rookie of the Year honors.

Following her WNBA debut, Chiney took her talents to Italy to play for Pallacanestro Femminile Schio during the 2014-15 European season. She dominated through her first seven games, averaging 25.3 points and 13.1 rebounds, before suffering a knee injury that would require microfracture surgery to repair.

Instead of getting to build on her initial success with a strong sophomore season, Chiney had to spend the Sun’s 2015 campaign rehabbing ahead of a 2016 return. While working her way through her long, arduous recovery, she got a call from Lisa.

“You're here in Connecticut. You had a great personality on the shows when you came on,” Lisa told her. “Would you be interested in coming back on since you're here and you have the time?”

Chiney accepted, but diving into media would be a challenge all its own. She went through what she calls a “crash course” in sports broadcasting to prepare for her work as an analyst. She studied not just basketball, but also football, baseball and other sports ahead of live appearances on First Take, SportsCenter and other ESPN staples.

As the newest woman at the network, Chiney found a supportive community among ESPN’s other female analysts. She was humbled by how excited they were for her as she got acclimated to broadcasting.

“Cassidy Hubbarth, Sage Steele, Doris Burke, even Jemele Hill, before Cari Champion, it was every woman that I encountered," Chiney says. "We were in this really cool moment of excitement for another woman to enter the door. So they were trying to give me the cheat code. They were, like, ‘We want you to win.’”

Chiney Ogwumike sitting 2

Chiney Ogwumike has become a regular on Lakers broadcasts on Spectrum SportsNet, in addition to her work with ESPN. (David Chisholm)

With confidence from her ESPN counterparts, Chiney was up for the challenge. Her injury afforded her more time and attention to pour into her side hustle, without taking away from her basketball career.

That all changed in 2016. Chiney fully recovered from her knee injury in time to return to the WNBA for her long-awaited second season. Now, she had to strike a balance between playing full-time with the Sun during the summer and perfecting her on-air work as a sports analyst.

Chiney’s double duty necessitated long days. She would often wake up at 4 a.m. to do shows on ESPN in Bristol then drive more than an hour back to the Sun’s facility in Uncasville for either a workout or a game—sometimes both. Afterward, Chiney would drive back to Bristol to prepare for more analyst work the next morning. Before bed, she would spend hours reading about and watching sports news to help develop her takes.

Despite her exhausting workload, Chiney found success in both pursuits. On the court, she averaged 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game—including a career-high 26 points with 15 boards against the Dallas Wings—and was named the Associated Press WNBA Comeback Player of the Year. On air, she became a promising, young personality on ESPN, with the potential to spread her talent across the spectrum of sports media.

So when Chiney returned to the U.S. after injuring her Achilles while with the Women's Chinese Basketball Association’s Henan Phoenix in November 2016, she was plenty prepared to take advantage of the downtime ahead, as she faced yet another season-long absence from the WNBA in 2017.

Chiney Ogwumike smile

Chiney got her start in media after injuring her knee in Italy in 2015. (David Chisholm)

Though Chiney was all too familiar with lengthy recoveries, battling back from her Achilles injury was no less challenging. At the outset, she went home to Houston, where she spent time under her family’s roof.

“I was by myself laying down or sitting down because I could barely carry myself,” she says.

Once again, Chiney squeezed everything she could out of her down time. When she wasn’t rehabbing, she typically spend her free moments watching the news, reading up on the world of finance and, of course, keeping pace with sports talk on ESPN.

“I had a nice little woman cave where I stocked up and educated myself,” she says.

Chiney always made sure to catch First Take, paying close attention to how Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman and their guests deftly discussed a wide range of sports topics from day to day. One morning, as the debate raged on her TV screen, she thought to herself, I’d like to be on that show someday, though she never imagined she'd get that chance.

Two years later, Chiney was on set at ESPN’s Seaport Studio in New York City, going head-to-head (and word for word) with Stephen A—and even fielding complements for her work from him.

“I would never imagine myself in that position with my background as a women’s basketball player speaking with Stephen A as a diverse woman,” she says.

The journey there wasn’t without highs and lows. As Chiney’s physical condition improved, so did her media resume. She continued to appear on air with ESPN, both in studio and as a color analyst for women’s college basketball games, and added gigs with Pac-12 Networks and Uninterrupted to her resume.

In early 2018, Chiney was back in Uncasville, training for her impending comeback with the Sun, when she got a call from ESPN. Her producers wanted her to be on campus in Bristol the next morning to do some on-air NBA analysis during a segment on SportsCenter.

Chiney accepted the offer without question. She was looking to land a multi-year deal with ESPN, in part because she had developed a passion and an aptitude for media work. The security of a TV contract would also ensure that the 6’3” power forward wouldn’t have to spend her offseasons hooping overseas and risking bodily harm in the process.

As she saw it, doing this SportsCenter hit would improve her chances of getting the job she wanted. So Chiney drove those 63 miles to Bristol, did the hit about the NBA and headed back, confident that she’d nailed her latest appearance.

That is, until hours later, when she saw that her hair had become a trending topic on social media. The whole time Chiney was on air, her hair had been out of place, unwittingly shifting attention away from her meticulously delivered words.

“I saw it and I was, like, 'Oh my God, this clip has millions of views,’” Chiney tells CloseUp360 while sitting in a makeup chair at Spectrum SportsNet’s studio in El Segundo. “I'm here fighting for my life to try to get this position [at ESPN], my take was amazing, and this is how the world's gonna know me?”

That night, Chiney became uncomfortably familiar with the challenges of being a female sports analyst. She had experienced, first-hand, the unfortunate reality of the expectations placed upon her physical appearance while on camera. She had also seen how so many of her male counterparts had worn the same suit, show after show, without so much as a peep of criticism from the viewing public.

To her, the same double standards between men and women that were so evident in sports and wider society were just as prevalent in the broadcasting world.

“A lot of people question me just because they can, because of my gender,” she says. “I could have the most prepared, most analytical take and people will just find a reason to poke holes at it or say ‘kitchen,’ just because it's socially acceptable in sports to have that jock mentality.”

Nowadays, Chiney looks back at that incident as a learning experience. She knows how to handle hair and makeup emergencies. And, just as before, her main focus is fine-tuning her sports takes and making sure she delivers them cleanly when the cameras are rolling. After all, that’s not only the job she wanted, but also the one she landed when she signed that coveted multi-year contract with ESPN in May 2018—less than three months after going viral for the wrong reasons.

“I always tell people that are curious about being a woman in my career that they see you and judge you before they hear you,” she says. “But the most satisfying part of this struggle is the moment you realize you have won them over, meaning that they recognize the hurdles you have jumped to reach that broadcaster/analyst table and respect you for that.”

Chiney officially landed her deal at ESPN mere weeks before the start of the 2018 WNBA season. Though she was productive for the Sun coming off her second major injury and regained her All-Star status, the totality of Chiney’s life at that point took its toll on her, and played a part in her angling to join her older sister, Nneka, on the Los Angeles Sparks in 2019.

“I will be the first to say that I am not great at the balancing act,” Chiney says. “I have made tough decisions in my life to get better at it, to the point of relocating and leaving my team in Connecticut to come to LA. What got lost in the headlines is that my life was out of balance between the grind on the court and off the court, and fitting in my support system of family and friends.”

By and large, Chiney’s schedule hasn’t changed much since she moved to LA. Instead of hauling through CT 2 and I-84 for her ESPN appearances, she can pop into the network’s studios at L.A. Live, across the street from Staples Center, where she and the Sparks play. Between her work there—which now includes a recurring role on The Jump with Rachel Nichols—and her spots on Spectrum SportsNet analyzing the Los Angeles Lakers, Chiney typically spends three days a week doing on-air work during the WNBA’s offseason.

And that’s just in LA. Over that same span, Chiney makes weekly trips to Connecticut to appear on SportsCenter and Golic and Wingo and New York City to sit in with Jalen and Jacoby and spread her wings in the digital world with Cassidy Hubbarth, Kendrick Perkins and Omar Raja on Hoop Streams. In all likelihood, she will be back on Get Up and First Take in the future.

Chiney has also stretched herself as a live host for ESPN, including a roundtable discussion about social justice in Orlando and event with the NFL Players Association during Super Bowl Week.

Add in her hosting duties on Uninterrupted’s Certified Buckets podcast, alongside NBA veteran Nick Young and Sarunas Jackson from HBO’s Insecure, and Chiney’s media load has only increased. So far, she’s not only managed it well, but also earned that demand with her infectious energy, passion for the game and understanding of the modern pro athlete.

“Usually, the players that we have on are either former players, so they're far enough removed where they're gonna have a different perspective, or they're current players, who are very guarded because you're on a team and you can't say something that becomes bulletin-board material for someone else,” says Amin Elhassan, a former Phoenix Suns executive-turned-ESPN personality and frequent guest on The Jump. “But Chiney, she kind of has the perspective of being a current player and she knows a lot of these guys from growing up around obviously from Houston, but also having the freedom to say whatever she thinks or feels, in a way that a regular current player would not be able.”

“We've definitely had players who are currently playing on [The Jump] at times because it's a great way to have someone who's like actually plugged into what's going on, if they're able to balance both,” Rachel says. “And from the moment we first had her, we were, like, ‘Oh, we would like more of that, please.’”

Chiney’s televised persona took time to develop. When ESPN first hired her, she did what she could to emulate the sound and look of what she imagined the ideal female sports analyst to be. But after studying a particular segment she did for SportsCenter Africa, she realized how important it was to find her own distinct style as a broadcaster.

“I found myself trying to be a typical sports anchor, changing my voice as I’m delivering the news,” she says. “I was, like, ‘What am I doing? I’m not feeling comfortable in my own skin because I’m trying to be someone else.’

“So immediately after I watched my first few shows, I was, like, ‘I gotta be me.’ I realized then that authenticity is the number one thing that matters.”

Since then, Chiney has found true comfort in front of the camera by being herself and trusting her own talent, expertise and work ethic. Between her Nigerian-American heritage and Stanford education, she’s certainly had the intelligence and intuition to put all of the pieces together with her on-court pedigree, too.

“I think you can tell from watching her that she was bound to be a media star because of her personality,” Rachel says, “but I'm not sure that there would be as much weight behind what she was saying if she wasn't a legit WNBA All-Star, if she wasn't a legit No. 1 overall pick. She is someone who knows and can play the game and who has earned it, and so it makes everything she says feel like she knows what she's talking about.”

“I don't think there's any limitation on what she can do,” Rachel says. “I think the answer to 'What is she gonna do?' is 'Anything she wants.'”

Chiney Ogwumike desk 2

In her nearly five years in broadcasting, Chiney has developed her own voice and style. (David Chisholm)

It’s 4 p.m. on a balmy Sunday afternoon in November. Chiney arrives at Spectrum to prepare for a long evening in the studio. The Lakers are hosting the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center for a 6:30 p.m. tip-off, and she’s here to contribute to the pregame, halftime and postgame shows alongside Allie Clifton, Hall of Famer James Worthy, Chris “Geeter” McGee and Mike Bresnahan.

With her bags thrown over her shoulder, Chiney whisks through a row of cubicles and greets those working the weekend shift with warm hellos. First up is a meeting with the show’s producers, to rehearse her thoughts on how the game will unfold. After more than four years as an analyst, she can practically recite her opinions in her sleep.

Once she’s sat for her hair and makeup, Chiney strolls on to the set, ready for show time. Her personality shines throughout the broadcast as she nails her takes and banters with her deskmates. During commercial breaks, she cracks jokes, sings and dances. Throughout the game—a 113-104 Lakers loss to the defending champs—she nibbles on some food, but for the most part, she’s laser-focused.

Chiney feels fortunate to have found an opportunity to stay close to the game as an analyst. After enduring multiple injuries that could have ended her on-court career, her work in media has allowed her to further her love of the game in ways she never imagined.

It’s no wonder, then, that Chiney says she has yet to cite any specific objectives for her career in media. Entering this field was only part of a plan insofar as it fed her appetite for hoops, first and foremost.

“When people say, like, ‘What do you want to do in the future?’ I don't know,” she says. “I've just leaned into what my passions are and then I've been fortunate. I believe success is where preparation meets opportunity, so I've had great opportunity, I've stayed prepared and I've just been able to lean into these things.”

Chine Ogwumike Spectrum crew

Chiney started working at Spectrum SportsNet during the 2019-20 NBA season. (David Chisholm)

Those openings have extended beyond playing and talking about the sport. As the Vice President of the WNBPA’s Executive Committee, she spent much of the holiday season helping to craft and negotiate the WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, which will ensure higher salaries and improved benefits for the league’s players. She’s also partnered with NBA Africa on its Power Forward initiative, which uses basketball to teach young people in Nigeria—her parents’ home country—about leadership, life skills and health through camps and clinics. This February, she returned to Lagos to celebrate basketball and participate in refurbishments at Queens College, where her mother, Ify, went to boarding school.

“There's so much power potential with the game of basketball [in Africa],” she says. “People don't realize how much the people love it there.”

More than anything, Chiney values the platform that working as a sports analyst has provided her. As an African-American woman, she is proud to help diversify her industry in both culture and perspective. Though she knows there will always be ridicule and criticism, for Chiney, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

“I just really love being a female in a male-dominated industry and surprising people with what I can bring to the table,” she says. “I think our advantage is being a woman in sports because we come twice as prepared, and have to handle the pressure of people doubting our ability to do our job just by the nature of us being a woman.

“That makes us more resilient, that makes us find community, and that allows us to find a way to continue to break barriers and push boundaries in male-dominated industries.”

 

Additional reporting by CloseUp360 Editorial Director Josh Martin.

Magdalena Munao is a Multimedia Producer for CloseUp360. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.