Nneka Ogwumike flips for basketball
Nneka Ogwumike wasn't one of those kids who grew up worshipping Michael Jordan and dunking on a Fisher Price hoop.
"I was originally a gymnast and signed up for AAU basketball just to stay in shape," said Ogwumike, the Los Angeles Sparks forward whose team fell to the Phoenix Mercury in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal on Monday. "I watched games on TV sometimes, but I wasn't a huge fan."
The product of Nigerian parents who came to the United States in the early 1980s, Ogwumike didn't hail from a basketball-centric family as many players do.
"My parents knew about as much as I did," she said. "I was really raw at the beginning and it took a lot of learning."
Although the learning curve was steep, she was soon spending more and more time on the hardwood as she entered middle school. The risky nature of gymnastics had always given her pause, so she was happy to find a sport that didn't require her to leap off a 4-inch beam or tumble across a spring-loaded floor.
"I instantly loved the team aspect of basketball and the interaction with opponents," she said. "I think because I loved the sport so much from the beginning, it really began to shape me as a person."
Dominating the courts in and around her hometown of Cypress, Texas, she soon had many of the top basketball programs in the nation vying for her attention. Her strong record in the classroom and on the court made her a perfect fit for Stanford. Despite her success in the game, she still had plans of going into medicine, unaware of her potential future beyond collegiate courts.
"When I was a junior in college I finally realized for the first time that I could be a professional athlete," she said. "Once I understood my options and the fact that I could do what I love and get paid for it, I figured, why not play as long as I can?"
Graduating from Stanford as the Cardinal's second all-time leading scorer, the Sparks chose her with the first overall pick in the 2012 WNBA draft. While that was an important milestone, she says she's just getting started.
"My personal expectations of myself and the desire to be better keep me engaged," said Ogwumike, who was named the 2012 WNBA Rookie of the Year.
The Olympics is chief among those expectations as she forges ahead on the professional scene.
"It's definitely an aspiration of mine," she said. "I want to be able to represent our country."
To put in the required work to achieve these lofty goals, she says a love for the game is of chief importance.
"I've grown to love basketball in different ways throughout the years," she said. "I understand that most people don't get these kinds of opportunities and I really value the relationships I've built and the experiences I've had. One thing that hasn't changed through the years is my love for playing and winning."