As she joined her first media availability since early June, Nneka Ogwumike couldn’t help but smile, and then break down in tears at the thought of playing on Sunday for the first time in two months.
After battling a knee injury, being left off the USA Women’s Basketball Roster for the third straight Olympics, and then being denied the chance to play for Team Nigeria in Tokyo, Ogwumike still stood tall, more than ready to return to the basketball court.
“It’s been a few weeks of feeling invaluable, or unworthy,” Ogwumike said as she choked back tears. “It’s been very difficult, I just want to play basketball. I just want to play, and have fun.”
Two-time WNBA Champion and Sparks All-Star guard Kristi Toliver played with Ogwumike on the 2016 Los Angeles Sparks Championship team. She shared a sentiment of hope for one of ‘the foundational pieces of the team’ making her much anticipated return.
“[Nneka]’s leadership, her positivity, her athleticism, her IQ, her experience.” Toliver said. “Her presence on the floor is just going to be a game changer for everybody.”
The Sparks are getting back their leader and top offensive weapon with Ogwumike’s return. She averaged 16.4 points and seven rebounds per game on 58.6% shooting from the field before getting injured. She would’ve ranked top three in the league in field goal percentage before that injury.
In her time off, Ogwumike took on a pseudo-coaching role on the sidelines, lifted weights, took daily vitamins, and healed her knee. It gave her a newfound perspective, and her longest in-season break from play since being drafted in 2012.
“It was more so about what Nneka is about to rise from the ashes out of this,” Ogwumike said.
As the WNBPA President, 2016 WNBA Most Valuable Player, and a six-time WNBA All-Star, Ogwumike has garnered the respect of teammates, coaches, and competitors league wide, including Sparks Head Coach Derek Fisher.
He sat on the sidelines with his star player, and witnessed the impact she has on court, and on the entire Sparks franchise. Since returning to full team practices at the end of July, Fisher could sense a difference in his young team.
“Her teammates feel a sense of stability, more confidence when she is on the court,” Fisher said. “That’s the impact that she has on any team she has ever been on.”
Ogwumike and the Los Angeles Sparks will return to the court on Sunday, August 15 at Staples Center against the Indiana Fever. The Sparks last played on July 10, 2021 against the Minnesota Lynx at the Los Angeles Convention Center just before the WNBA Olympic break.
“You can choose many different roads, and there’s stages,” Ogwumike said. “I’m just really grateful to be playing with my team… to be on a team of people that care about me.”