With Round 2 of the Ogwumike battle about to commence, Chiney Ogwumike confidently moved through the Connecticut Sun layup line, as her best friend and older sister, Nneka, stretched at midcourt. More important than a matchup of star siblings, it would be a game between two teams desperately fighting for playoff berths.
A few hours later, 22-year-old Chiney was finished carrying a young team on her back for 37-plus minutes. Despite the rookie's brilliance, especially in the second half where she scored 17 points, her inexperienced squad squandered a six-point lead with 29.8 seconds left, only to lose by a single point. The Connecticut Sun forward recorded her 13th double-double (23 points, 12 rebounds) of the season, good for third in the league, yet still came away unsatisfied.
"Ugh, I just want to punch her in the face right now," Chiney joked after the loss, referring to her sister Nneka.
She vented with a smile on her face, but wasn't able to hide an underlying sense of exasperation. Chiney was frustrated not only by how the game was lost, but also simply that the game was lost.
Connecticut had come into the day just one game out of the Eastern Conference's fourth and final playoff spot, with the regular season's end less than two weeks away. The Sun badly needed the win, whether Chiney was playing her sister, the Pope or the Easter Bunny.
"It just is so painful when you work so hard and fall up short," said Ogwumike. "All I can think about are the possessions where I probably didn't do my best."
It is this constant pursuit of perfection that best explains Chiney Ogwumike's extraordinary success. While Ogwumike is the 2014 WNBA Rookie of the Year front-runner, an All-Star who ranked in the league's top 11 in points, rebounding and blocks, and the Eastern Conference leader in offensive rebounding percentage (via Basketball-Reference.com), it is her remarkably close relationship with older sister Nneka that is most telling about Chiney's game and the person she has become.
Within a half hour of the final buzzer, the two star opponents reunited in the Staples Center hallway, just outside the Sun's visiting locker room.
The sisters spent the rest of the day together, first taking part in a photo shoot with LA's skyline as the backdrop, before moving on to Ebony Hoffman's house. Hoffman, Chiney's current teammate, also happened to play alongside Nneka during her 2012 Rookie of the Year campaign.
"The most annoying question would be, ‘Have you guys ever been competitive?' And we're like, "No,' and then people are shocked about that," Chiney said before the game. "They just don't know how sisters can get so far without being competitive with each other, because that's the story they want to hear, but that's just not our story."
The Houston natives are the oldest of Ify and Peter Ogwumike's four daughters. Ify is a longtime school administrator while Peter, a tech consultant, splits his time between Nigeria and Houston. In addition to the two oldest, there's Olivia, who last month committed to join the Pepperdine Waves' basketball team for the 2014-15 season, and Erika, an incoming high school senior.
The more famous sisters, who are not quite 21 months apart, were exclusively gymnasts until the early 2000s when they grew too tall for the sport. Chiney was 9 years old and Nneka was 11 when their mom's co-worker recommended basketball. Nneka fought through the awkwardness of the new game and kept playing with the other girls that first year. Chiney, however, felt most comfortable watching her big sister from the sidelines. Then, at home, Nneka would show her what she had learned.
"Nneka's the older sister, clearly," current Sun forward and fellow Stanford alum Kayla Pedersen said after the loss to the Sparks. "And I think they play those roles, where Chiney's always looking to her for guidance and talking to her, and Nneka's more encouraging."
Stanford associate head coach Amy Tucker, who recruited both Ogwumikes and coached them for a total of six years, thinks it was Nneka's first year of high school when she began hearing her name. Stanford's coaching staff had heard she was "this incredible athlete, outstanding leaper, really smart student from the Houston area," according to Tucker. "Rumors about her were getting larger and the buildup was pretty intense."
By the time Tucker finally saw her play, Nneka made a lasting impression. Years later, one particular moment still stands out from that game. As Nneka was lined up to rebound her teammate's missed free throw, "all I saw was this big arm going up in the air, grabbing this ball and before you could even say anything, she was back up in the air and scoring it," recalled Tucker. "She had the quickest ups of anyone I had seen in a long time."
Meticulously going through the recruiting process, Nneka and her tight-knit family didn't rush their decision (yes, "their decision," as they do everything together as a family). In fact, she didn't officially choose Stanford until mid-November of her senior year. The Cardinal were playing a road game in Utah when the coaching staff got the call confirming Nneka would be joining the Stanford basketball program. They were beyond elated.
Nneka was an impact player from the start, but especially turned heads after averaging 18.5 points and 9.9 rebounds as a sophomore, while shooting a shade under 60 percent from the field. The next season, Chiney would join her on The Farm where Tucker saw the same dynamic Pedersen described.
"Nneka was in charge," Tucker said. "(As) the first-born, her job is to take care of her sisters. And she took Chiney under her wing, and before we could even correct Chiney in practice, Nneka was already correcting her and telling her what she needed to do. It was almost comical."
"You know that Nneka was actually Chiney's coach, and we coached Nneka," Tucker joked. "But Chiney took it like a pro. And that can't have been easy, either, but she handled it very, very well."
From the outside, it might seem that these were prime conditions for the development of an underlying "sibling rivalry" that inspires each sister to grow and improve. Those who know them have never seen any evidence of it.
"I don't think in the two years that they overlapped I ever saw either one of them get upset with each other or say a harsh word to each other," Tucker said. "And that's really unusual."
When Nneka graduated, Chiney was hit with an unsettling reality check: The trusty older sister living within walking distance whom she relied upon so heavily would no longer be around, and she would have to take full responsibility for herself. Last year, their mom, Ify, revealed that Chiney "lost a lot of weight" after Nneka left.
According to Chiney, Nneka's departure, though incredibly tough at first, accelerated her maturation on and off the court. During the first Nneka-less year, Chiney's junior season, the bouncy forward's statistical averages skyrocketed to 22.4 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, up from 15.0 and 10.1, respectively. Even with the added offensive responsibility in the absence of her three-time All-American sister, Chiney's shooting percentage held stable at a robust 58 percent.
Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer estimates that Chiney's improvement between her sophomore and junior seasons was the most significant growth she witnessed while coaching the talented forward.
"She wasn't having a pity party," said VanDerveer. "She was just out there working hard. I was really impressed with how much she brought and how much she improved. She knew that the team depended on her, and she did not let her team down."
Both have come an awful long way since their days as gymnasts in Houston. Nneka was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012 and promptly turned in a stellar season capped off by Rookie of the Year honors and a Western Conference Finals appearance. Nneka and Chiney are the only pair of siblings other than the Manning brothers to be drafted first overall in the same professional North American league. They were both selected for the 2014 WNBA All-Star Game and, by later this week, are expected to own a pair of WNBA Rookie of the Year trophies (2012, 2014).
Yet after Nneka graduated from college, the sisters never lost touch. That was not even a thought.
While Nneka's acquisition by LA kept her in California, daily phone calls would have to do the trick in place of face-to-face meetings. When Nneka played in Poland and China over the past two WNBA offseasons, the sisters switched to WhatsApp, FaceTime and Skype to remain close, while navigating their different time zones.
"We're best friends," said Chiney. "We talk all the time, 24-7. Just because we're sisters (in the WNBA) doesn't mean we just talk about basketball. We talk about everything in life."
So when Chiney was drafted by the Connecticut Sun and the sisters were assigned to opposite coasts, of course that didn't shake their bond.
"You can't break blood," said Pedersen. "They're sisters, they look out for each other and the whole family's very close. All the sisters are."
July 13, 2014, marked the first time the sisters faced each other in a professional game. Although Chiney would convert her first seven shots, Nneka and the Sparks walloped the Sun in the second half, outscoring them 46-26. Nneka and Chiney combined for 42 points, while guarding each other about half the time.
In the crowd, their mom and approximately 30 family members wore a creatively neutral shirt that said, "Sparks will fly and the Sun will shine."
For the Aug. 3 meeting in Los Angeles, Ify Ogwumike stayed home in Houston.
After the game, Chiney explained her mom's absence: "My mom was like, ‘I had enough Ogwumike battle for one year.' It was so much in Connecticut, but (this time) they were watching. They were so excited. They had the popcorn ready at home."
In Los Angeles, their dad's cousin came with his wife and son - a group that watched the Ogwumikes play at Stanford many times.
And the game certainly did not disappoint. Chiney's aforementioned 23-point, 12-rebound performance was matched by Nneka's 17 points, 10 rebounds and three assists.
Chiney did most of her damage in the second half, repeatedly corralling offensive rebounds and converting them into second-chance points, an area Connecticut dominated, 16-4. Ogwumike would grab four offensive rebounds in that second half, showcasing one of her greatest strengths.
"She just has a nose for the ball," according to VanDerveer. "She kind of has almost a little bit of a sixth sense, but she works at. She works really hard at rebounding."
Tucker regards Chiney as "probably one of the best offensive rebounders I've ever seen." Not only was Chiney gifted with 6-foot-4 height, far-reaching arms and incredible athleticism, but she also brings relentless effort when it comes to attacking the glass. After the Sparks' Aug. 8 overtime win over Atlanta, Nneka said, presumably without bias, that her sister was "one of the hardest people I've had to box out."
"She plays really hungry," said Tucker. "She doesn't take a play off. She plays with such a high motor."
When the Sun led 68-62 with 29.8 seconds left, it looked as if Chiney's phenomenal effort would soon be evening up the head-to-head season series, but not if her sister had anything to say about it.
After a Sparks timeout, Nneka found Alana Beard open for 3. Swish. 68-65. After the Sun's Renee Montgomery split a pair of free throws and Candace Parker grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back for two, the Sun's lead shrank to two, 69-67.
Prepared to foul with 12.9 seconds remaining and trailing by two, Nneka used her long arms and natural athletic instincts to intercept Connecticut's inbounds pass. She then swung the ball to Candice Wiggins, who found Kristi Toliver for 3. Another Sparks swish. Nneka had the hockey assist, but more importantly for the Sparks, they captured the 70-69 lead. On the other end, Montgomery missed a midrange jumper, the buzzer sounded and Chiney's squad once again fell to that of her older sister.
Young teams occasionally experience late collapses like Connecticut's. With the exception of 35-year-old wing Katie Douglas, the Sun's starting lineup is especially young, featuring two rookies, Chiney and Alyssa Thomas, and two second-year players, Alex Bentley and Kelsey Bone. In fact, everyone but Douglas and Ebony Hoffman is 27 years old or younger, and Hoffman wasn't acquired until late July to provide some veteran help for Chiney.
Though Hoffman rarely plays more than 10 minutes per night, she has plenty of sage advice to offer, given her 11 years in the league.
"Chiney was going through a rough patch the time I came," said Hoffman, "and my whole role here is to try and mentor and show her that she's gotta unleash that beast inside of her. So it's just a matter of turning up her aggression level and, believe me, when she finds it, the whole damn league better watch out."
In Hoffman, Chiney has not just a compassionate motivator, but also someone who knows the post position well.
"She has already motivated me so much game-in and game-out," said Chiney. "She just knows the game. And I think Katie (Douglas) is great as a vet for our team, but she's a guard and Ebony's a post, so she really has that laser focus, laser eye on me. And she has high expectations for me, but at the same time she's very realistic, so I'm really fortunate to have her."
Thanks to an offseason trade that sent former UConn star and Connecticut Sun stalwart Tina Charles to New York, Chiney had big shoes to fill from the very start. In Charles' four years as a member of the Sun, she was a consistent force, making multiple All-Star appearances and averaging double figures in points and rebounds each season.
Even with such high expectations surrounding Chiney, Sun head coach Anne Donovan has been pleasantly surprised by the rookie's instant impact.
"Considering we don't have an experienced post with her, it has been quite shocking," Donovan said. "She's never really had an experienced vet to teach her the ropes. That's why Ebony Hoffman's been a quick pickup for us. She's a vet that's kind of been around the block as a post player and has been able to mentor her a little bit. So, yes, she's done a lot without a lot of mentoring."
Ogwumike, Sims & the Rookie of the Year race
Although Chiney Ogwumike has been the favorite for 2014 Rookie of the Year after being drafted #1 overall, #2 pick Odyssey Sims has made a strong case of her own.
Although Chiney comfortably led her team in points, rebounds and blocks, the 22-year-old does not yet consider herself a "true leader" for the team.
According to Pedersen, "She's a leader. She plays her hardest. She's a rookie, so we don't really need that vocal leader right now. Just her being out there and being a presence and having double-doubles every game, that makes us look to her as one of the leaders, one of the top girls, one of the people that's gonna bring us together."
For Hoffman, "Leaders aren't born."
"You kind of gotta help yourself to be a leader, and she's working on that every day. She's turning into one. She's talking, she's more vocal and it's just a matter of just being comfortable, and she's getting more comfortable."
Donovan has also witnessed Chiney's strides toward becoming a better leader. "We've had a very up and down season," she said, "and every time we get together in the team setting and we communicate, we try to figure out what's at the bottom; we scratch underneath. Chiney's one that speaks up. She understands the heart of what makes championship teams. She leads by example, but she's also not afraid to speak up."
Independently, Donovan and Pedersen used the same metaphor to describe Chiney's passion for learning and improving.
Upon reuniting in the pros, Pedersen said, "She's the same Chiney that just wants to soak everything up and wants to learn as much as she can."
Donovan added, "She's a sponge. She just wants to learn. She wants to be great, and she wants to do it with other people. She's the ultimate team player. So it's not like she's trying to get Rookie of the Year or lead us in scoring and rebounding. She does that because of her work ethic and her skillset."
Although Chiney and her sister have undoubtedly already become two of the WNBA's best interior players, their former college coaches believe they are not even scratching the surface of their ultimate potential.
"As good basketball players as they are - and they're fabulous No. 1 draft picks - they're better as people," said VanDerveer. "And in the long run, that's why your team is gonna win, because they're just such high-character people."
"To me, for both of them, the sky is the limit," said Tucker. "I think that the most incredible thing that I've seen from both of them that I've never seen from another athlete in college is that every single season they got better and not just marginally better but exponentially better. And what I saw at Stanford, I think we'll continue to see professionally, too: they will continue to improve every single season."
"The nice thing is that they really learn and grow from watching each other."