Commentary

Trip abroad broadens Chiney's views

Whether in Palo Alto or Nigeria, Stanford senior is ambassador for women's hoops

Originally Published: November 12, 2013
By Graham Hays | espnW.com

BRISTOL, Conn. -- Chiney Ogwumike's initial reaction when her academic adviser at Stanford urged her to consider studying abroad in Africa might best be described as pragmatic. Sure, it sounded intriguing. On someone else's schedule.

"Easier said than done with the women's basketball world," Ogwumike recalled of her response.

But former Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice, a Stanford professor and Ogwumike's adviser, can be rather convincing. Not that Ogwumike's arm really needed much twisting.

[+] EnlargeChiney Ogwumike
David Hahn/Icon SMIStanford senior Chiney Ogwumike chronicled her quarter abroad in Nigeria on YouTube.

While seasons end, basketball never stops for Ogwumike. The court might sit fallow for a few days, maybe as much as a week, whenever the curtain falls on Stanford's stays in the NCAA tournament, but then the guilt creeps in and the inner monologue begins. The same voice that was there when she was growing up in Cypress, Texas, tells her to quit dawdling and get back to what she knows. She might already be the best player in college basketball -- hers is certainly one of a small collection of names in the conversation -- but she wants what every Cardinal player since 1992 wanted.

"Unless you won a national championship, you're not satisfied," Ogwumike said. "We're in this constant state of hunger at Stanford."

But barely a week after Stanford exited last season's NCAA tournament short of the Final Four for the first time since 2007, Ogwumike wasn't back in the gym near Palo Alto. She wasn't even in the school's zip code. The international relations major was instead heeding her adviser's counsel and readying for eight weeks in Nigeria as part of an internship with the Ministry of Petroleum, a rare separation from the normal routine for any college basketball player, let alone an All-American who might well become the second member of her family to hear her name called as the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft.

That Ogwumike recently spent a day making the rounds in front of cameras and microphones at ESPN headquarters in Connecticut has a lot to do with the size, speed, reflexes and relentless energy that a season ago facilitated averages of 22.4 points and 12.9 rebounds per game and have her off to a similar start this season. Her skills make her one of the faces of the college game this season. The curiosity and adventurousness that took her to Nigeria make her an ambassador for the game wherever she travels.

"You're so comfortable living this one path that you don't go outside of yourself," Ogwumike said of the temptation for any successful person. "I think it's so important, for women's basketball especially, you have to show your personality. We don't dunk -- I mean, that often. And we don't have those crazy plays that are on the "SportsCenter" Top 10 all the time. But people love women's basketball because of the love of the game, and they love the individuals, they love the people they get to support and nurture throughout college because we're there for four years.

"Any way that I can continue showing my personality, I love."

[+] EnlargeChiney Ogwumike in Nigeria
Courtesy of Chiney OgwumikeEarlier this year, Chiney Ogwumike blogged for espnW about her trip to Nigeria. This was the view from her workout room in Abuja, Nigeria.

So when Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer lent her support for Ogwumike spending the past spring quarter in Nigeria, fulfilling a requirement for the major she chose at about the same time Rice planted the seed of studying abroad, the player thanked her coach and hurried out of the room, lest VanDerveer reconsider.

Ogwumike was no stranger to Nigeria when she arrived in the spring. Although born and raised in Texas, she and her siblings, including older sister and former Stanford All-American Nnemkadi, are the first such generation of the family, born to Nigerian immigrants Peter and Ify. With her family, Chiney made regular visits to Nigeria as she grew up. But returning on her own, living with an uncle in the capital city of Abuja and working sometimes until the wee hours of the morning, offered an entirely new perspective on a place.

There wasn't a daily routine to her work, which ranged from office chores to human rights issues in front of the National Assembly, to a trip to London when Petroleum Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke spoke at Oxford. More than anything, she absorbed the day-to-day experiences of a country with its share of day-to-day challenges.

Take the industry that lends its name to her ministry. Oil is both Nigeria's economic driver and a corresponding source of controversy. Alison-Madueke, the first woman to hold her position, is part of an effort to shepherd a wide-ranging and oft-stalled bill that would reshape the country's petroleum industry through the legislature. It has been a long, contentious and hotly debated endeavor in a political system with no shortage of stories of corruption. But at least to Ogwumike, it also involved a lot of people trying to do something positive.

"I don't know if I'm just naive because I'm a new kid on the block," Ogwumike allowed. "We're talking about going in and liberating the oil field. But then again, the pessimism comes in when it's all words. When will these things actually be implemented? When will more Africans get jobs? When will companies have chances to pay people more wages and stuff like that? So even though you talk and talk and talk, the government has to back it up with legislation and then also administer it properly. That's when the pessimism comes in."

[+] EnlargeChiney Ogwumike
Chrissy Racho/ESPN ImagesIn two games this season, Chiney Ogwumike is averaging 23.0 points and 13.5 rebounds, and shooting 61 percent from the field.

Better naive than jaded for now. It's the former who more often become the vehicle of change. And perhaps why her favorite part of the entire stay came in the week she spent with Access 2 Success, a charity organization founded by former Davidson basketball player Andrew Lovedale, which allowed Ogwumike to interact with children at a basketball camp in Benin City.

On the basketball court, Stanford teammate Jasmine Camp explained, Ogwumike is all business. She pushes those around her to keep up. Off the court, she is the easygoing prankster. It's like night and day, Camp said, at least until something catches her eye.

"You can see a story on the news and all of a sudden she's excited," Camp said. "That side of her will come out and you see her analytical mind start to go to work. You see different news stories, things that happen around campus and things that happen around the world, and you see a large part of her intellect pop out.

"On the court, you just see her as a basketball player. Off the court, when she's having fun, you just see her as a person. But when you see her analytical mind start to go to work about a lot of different things in this world, it's really great."

If all this makes it sound a little like Ogwumike is 21 years old going on 40, rest easy. Asked if her intellectual interests left her more inclined to policy papers than, for example, watching ABC's "Scandal," she recoiled in shock.

"OMG, don't get me wrong," Ogwumike admonished. "Do not get me wrong. If I could be anyone on TV, I would be Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington's character in the show). Not just for her wardrobe -- I've been a fan of that show since Day One. I'm obsessed. I make time for it. That's my No. 1. That's how I unwind after a long day -- even yesterday [after a loss at Connecticut] I was watching my TV shows."

We are talking, after all, about someone who is still a college student for a few more months. One who just happens to be remarkably talented on a basketball court.

That inner voice will always speak up at some point and tell Ogwumike it is time to get back to what she knows best and cares about so much.

It just won't stop her from exploring everything else there is to know from Abuja to Palo Alto and the world beyond.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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