The United States Women’s basketball team has been denied a chance to compete in the FIBA World Cup, and the players are not happy. Nneka Ogwumike, one of the players on the team, is speaking out against USA Basketball’s decision to deny women from playing in this year’s tournament.
I think it’s a good decision for the team, Ogwumike said. I think it was a smart decision.
It’s difficult to imagine the excitement and intrigue that might have surrounded tonight’s qualifying round women’s basketball game between the United States and Nigeria in the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
Nneka Ogwumike, the former WNBA MVP, would be playing for the United States against her two younger sisters, Chiney and Erica, as well as Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams, on the Nigerian side in one alternative world.
In another, the three Ogwumike sisters and Williams would be teammates on a D’Tigress team aiming to become Africa’s first men’s or women’s basketball Olympic medalists.
It would have been a fantastic display for basketball in Africa, which was still basking in the glory of Giannis Antetokoumpo’s NBA Finals MVP performance with the Milwaukee Bucks (his parents are Nigerian).
Instead, it will be a huge lost opportunity, notwithstanding Nneka’s efforts to emphasize the good and look forward in this episode.
“As it stands today, I still have a lot of pride and great expectations for the Nigerian squad,” Nneka, 31, adds. “So, maybe I won’t be a part of it directly this time, but I definitely hope I will be in the future.”
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That’s a great way of looking at things, and she’s done enough soul-searching and processing in the last month to return to that optimistic, forward-looking outlook.
But the fact that she would be watching the United States-Nigeria game from her home in Los Angeles rather than participating in it still astounds her.
“To be honest,” she says. “I never imagined myself in this situation.”
Nneka Ogwumike and Williams’ bids to participate for the Nigerian national team in the Tokyo Olympics were rejected by FIBA almost two weeks ago, citing their longstanding association with USA Basketball. Ogwumike has been kept off the American roster for Tokyo for almost a month.
She’s been attempting to make sense of what occurred while planning a course ahead, all the while looking for a greater meaning — or purpose — in the position she’s been forced into.
“I haven’t shared my views in any way,” she adds. “I’m not going to lie, it’s been a difficult month for me, with a lot of weeping and a want to be alone. But, in the middle of it all, it’s incredible to see how many people are rooting for me.”
Following two dismal Olympic news stories, Ogwumike has tried to emphasize the good. Getty Images/NBAE/Andrew D. Bernstein
She kept her thoughts to herself because she wanted the pain to go gone, or at the very least fade away, first. She hoped that over time, perspective might emerge, or that a way ahead would become apparent.
But she mainly wanted to think about her reaction before disclosing her first reaction to being left off the US Olympic team for a third time, after being guaranteed of her position by coaches and executives.
In the 2019-20 season, Ogwumike was one of eight key players for USA Basketball. She signed a contract to that effect, foregoing rich foreign possibilities in order to commit to the national team and help it qualify for the Olympics in Tokyo. She was the MVP of the FIBA women’s qualification competition and led her team in scoring.
When she sustained a minor knee injury in a game on June 1, she contacted Carol Callan, the director of the United States Women’s National Team, to learn that her recuperation period would be four to six weeks, giving her plenty of time to prepare for the Summer Games.
“Oh, yeah, you and Diana [Taurasi] will be fresh,” Carol replies to Ogwumike. Taurasi had just suffered a sternum fracture, which forced her to miss ten games for the Phoenix Mercury, but she was anticipated to recover in time for the Olympics.
Taurasi was on the roster when it was released, but Ogwumike was not.
Ogwumike believes USA Basketball misrepresented the severity of her ailment. Getty Images/Srdjan Stevanovic
Ogwumike claims she was taken aback when Callan informed her of the choice just before the roster was made public.
“She stated the committee wasn’t sure about my injuries and wanted to go with a younger, more versatile player,” Ogwumike explains. “That was the justification they provided me over the phone.”
It didn’t make sense. Ogwumike claims Sparks trainer Courtney Watson kept in touch with USA Basketball regarding her recovery progress.
She claims she has seen the texts they exchanged and that there have been no setbacks or cause to doubt her ability to compete in the Olympics.
She, like Taurasi, was on pace to be ready in time for the Games. So why was coach Dawn Staley openly blaming her injuries for her exclusion from the roster? And why was Callan claiming that her injuries had been questioned by the five-person selection committee?
Because it is against USA Basketball policy to comment on individual choices, Staley’s public remarks and Ogwumike’s memory of Callan’s private remarks are the only formal explanations or responsibility for the decision.
Ogwumike has avoided speaking publicly about all of these facts since it doesn’t alter what occurred or what will happen in the future. She does, however, want to clear the air for Watson and the Sparks training crew.
She adds, “It almost seemed like that explanation was now assaulting the integrity of my care.” “Is she more injured than we believe she is if she isn’t on the team?”
When the Sparks begin their season in August, Ogwumike is expected to return to the floor. Ashley Landis/AP Photo
“But I was very open about what had occurred and my outlook. Courtney made contact with them… After the decision was taken, I believe there was a lot of backtracking.”
However, there was little time to sulk in the disappointment. Ogwumike, who is a dual citizen of the United States and Nigeria (her parents were born in Abuja), soon shifted her focus to attempting to play with her younger sisters. Erica has been a part of the Nigerian team for some time. Chiney has been considering joining the squad for more than a year.
It would have been and could have been a fantastic chance to help develop basketball in Nigeria, which is one of FIBA’s declared missions, as well as a means to recognize her Nigerian ancestry and family.
However, due of her lengthy connection with USA Basketball, FIBA rejected her candidacy. She has filed an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but their judgment will not be available in time for the Olympics.
She knows the criticism she leveled at the Nigerian squad when she was passed over by Team USA. However, she claims that this ignores the ties she and her parents have kept with their country.
Dual citizens have a unique experience in this regard.
Will sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike be able to play for Nigeria together in the future? Photo courtesy of AP/Marcio Sanchez, Jose
“I simply believe this is really emblematic of a certain Black experience in America,” she adds, alluding to other African diaspora first-generation children. She claims she was taught to value the American experience and all of the possibilities available to her in this nation. She was, however, reared in a Nigerian household, attending the Igbo Catholic Church in Houston and visiting her family in Nigeria hundreds of times as a kid.
Chiney Ogwumike stated, “We are extremely present in both of our heritages.” “Whether that means staying in the United States or returning home. You’re an American, and you’ve been given many chances here, but you also have Nigerian blood, and we share that history.”
It’s at this moment that Nneka begins to make a list of all the things that demonstrate how Nigerian she is. Her parents spoke Igbo to their children, she contributed money to the country’s basketball development initiatives, and she discussed the country’s success with fellow Nigerian basketball star and former Stanford colleague Ros Gold-Onwude.
After she finished playing for Team USA, she intended to join the Nigerian Basketball Federation as a leader.
However, a person’s ancestry should not be justified on a résumé. Not with her being a dual citizen of the United States and Nigeria. When basketball comes to dual citizenship, though, FIBA’s regulations are much stricter than the IOC’s.
Ogwumike’s dual citizenship, Nigerian passport, and the United States’ decision to remove her from its national team pool would be sufficient under IOC regulations to allow her to participate for Nigeria.
However, FIBA established a loophole just for this scenario. If her proposal is judged to be in the best interests of developing basketball in Nigeria, the secretary general may accept it.
She and Williams have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport on this grounds, and they will continue to do so after the Olympics.
“There are so many notable Africans and Nigerians who are accomplishing incredible things. If I can assist in breaking the ceiling, I believe we will be able to see the real goal of what we all play for: to progress. Sports help us progress.”
Maybe this is the test she was meant to take? To take two heartbreaking setbacks and turn them into motivation for African basketball players?
“It’ll be a lot of effort,” she admits, “but I believe I’m up for it.” “I was born in Nigeria to Nigerian parents. The benchmark has always been excellence. I’m not going to stop. You’re giving it your all. Taking good care of individuals. That is something I live by.
“I know I’ve worked hard for the honors, and it’s not about trophies on the shelf,” she adds, “but my hard work will show for something.” “And if it means moving in a different path, then so be it.”
- erica ogwumike