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Friday, March 9, 2012
Nneka Ogwumike gets ready for wild ride

By Michelle Smith

Nneka Ogwumike
The Cardinal are healthy and in a groove, which could mean an NCAA tournament run that extends Nneka Ogwumike's career.

This season, espnW is spending time with the Stanford Cardinal and Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer, getting behind-the-scenes access to the players. Come to espnW every Friday throughout the season to get to know the Cardinal and how they live their lives on and off the court, from the start of practice to the final game of the season in March and, perhaps, into April.

There are moving boxes in Nneka Ogwumike's off-campus apartment.

They are empty boxes, but at least they made it through the front door.

The next few weeks will be a whirlwind for the Stanford senior All-American, a head-spinning routine that has become familiar to the nation's top women's basketball players. Only a matter of days will pass for some between the end of their college careers at the Final Four in Denver and the beginning of their professional careers in the WNBA. The draft is April 16.

In the meantime, in Ogwumike's case, she needs to finish her final four classes for the winter quarter, select an agent and, oh yeah, lead her team to a run for the national championship.

Nneka Ogwumike
Time to pack: Once classes are done, Nneka Ogwumike has to be out of her apartment, just before the Final Four.

But first things first: packing up the off-campus apartment she shares with one of the players from the Stanford softball team.

"When we leave for the Final Four, I will have to be moved out of my place," Ogwumike said.

Beforehand, she will play in this week's Pac-12 tournament in Los Angeles and, in theory, four rounds of the NCAA tournament. Her belongings probably will go into storage until she determines where she will be living. If she is the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, as expected, she will be selected by the Los Angeles Sparks.

"I have it in the back of my mind that I need to start packing, but I am focusing on my finals," Ogwumike said. "I am actually not too nostalgic about it yet. I'm mostly feeling like, 'Cool.' I have a checklist of things I need to get done in order to wrap things up."

Ogwumike will not return to Stanford as a student when the basketball season ends. In contrast to some of her previously drafted teammates who had to come back after their WNBA seasons to finish up a class or two, Ogwumike will have completed all of her classes.

She is taking three psychology classes this quarter -- Abnormal Psychology, Community Health Psychology and Longevity -- and one research course to complete the work in her major and earn her degree.

The week of the NCAA regional round is finals week at Stanford for the winter quarter. She will take finals in three of her last four classes -- at least one of them likely on the road, proctored by a school official -- and call it a college education.

Thus far, Ogwumike hasn't been involved in the search for an agent to represent her as a professional athlete. It is against the rules for her to have contact, so her parents, Ify and Peter, are taking care of it until her season is over.

After that, she will have approximately two weeks to prepare for the draft.

Nneka Ogwumike
On Stanford's senior night, coach Tara VanDerveer shows her appreciation for Nneka Ogwumike, who said she's been too busy to get nostalgic.

"My parents have dealt with that completely," Ogwumike said. "They've met a couple of people, I think, but I'm not supposed to be involved with that yet. Everything is going through my parents."

The reality is that Ogwumike, as of Friday, could have as many as eight games left in her college career, but she's guaranteed only two -- one in the conference tournament and another in the NCAA tournament. Extending the schedule is up to the Cardinal, who look as if they are hitting a groove and getting healthier in time for the final chapter of the season, with Sarah Boothe (foot) and freshman Taylor Greenfield (hamstring) back on the court.

Ogwumike's packing is going to have to wait a few more days while she takes care of her basketball business.

She and her teammates made their way to Los Angeles for the conference tournament on Wednesday, finishing classes on campus early in the day and then boarding their flight in San Francisco, a journey that turned out to be more than an hour behind schedule after their original flight was canceled.

The Cardinal players go from the flight to the bus at LAX directly to practice at the Galen Center on the USC campus, working out on the floor above where the first two rounds of the Pac-12 women's tournament is being held.

The players file in to start practice nearly 90 minutes late.

Junior Joslyn Tinkle asks sports information director Aaron Juarez to keep track of the Big Sky tournament championship game, where Montana -- coached by her father, Wayne Tinkle -- is playing for the title.

Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike talk over the logistics of Thursday night's television appearance at the men's tournament at Staples Center, where they are scheduled to be halftime guests.

Senior Lindy La Rocque gets her hair braided by strength coach Susan Borchardt, a job Nneka often does.

Practice is mostly a low-key walk-through, going over the offensive and defensive game plans for the Pac-12 tournament.

Midway through practice, Juarez shouts out that the men's team is up 35-19 in its Pac-12 tournament opener, and a few cheers go up. The players break for a quick drink before starting their conditioning regimen with Borchardt.

"It must be March if I see you over there," said assistant coach Kate Paye, pointing at coach Tara VanDerveer's sister Heidi, in the gym to watch practice. Heidi VanDerveer is the coach at Occidental College near Pasadena and a postseason fixture for the Cardinal.

As practice winds down, Juarez slides his laptop in front of Tinkle so she can check the box score of her dad's game, a couple of teammates joining her for a look.

And team director of operations Eileen Roche hands out the snack bags provided by the conference for the bus ride back to the hotel.

"What's for dinner?" La Rocque asked, trying to decide how much of her snack bag she'll eat.

Chiney Ogwumike, meanwhile, takes a moment to ponder what life will be like without her big sister around in just a few weeks. They might never play on the same team again after this season.

"I'm so excited for her because I think she's going to get to do so many great things, but it's a little scary. It's the end of something I've been used to since I was 10 years old," Chiney said. "But I felt the same way when she graduated high school, and I'm kind of excited to see what comes next."

The sisters do not live together. But Chiney anticipates she is going to be asked to help with the packing.

"She said I'm inheriting a lot of her stuff," Chiney said. "I might get some of her furniture, maybe a futon. I think she's going to give me a lot of her clothes. But I'm not sure if I have room for everything."

Video courtesy of the Cardinal Channel