Commentary

It's school first for Ogwumike

Sophomore Ogwumike is student-athlete -- in that order

Originally Published: November 10, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

There was a time when Peter and Ify Ogwumike were not especially concerned with the budding athleticism of their oldest daughter, Nnemkadi, now a sophomore forward at Stanford.

[+] EnlargeNnemkadi Ogwumike
AP Photo/Paul SakumaIn attending Stanford, Nnemkadi Ogwumike saw her "best opportunity for having a career in basketball and a wonderful life after basketball."

The couple, both from Nigeria, met while attending Northern Colorado University in Greeley, Colo., in the 1980s. After marrying while living in Utah, they settled in Texas. Peter, an engineer for Hewlett-Packard whose work takes him between Nigeria and the United States, and Ify, a middle school principal in the northern Houston area, have four daughters.

A quick summary of their guidelines for the children would read like this:

1. Education is everything.
2. Respect your heritage and be proud of your roots.
3. Realize that you are always representing not just yourself but your family, your school and your community.

Not surprisingly, when an AAU coach was raving about young Nnemkadi -- who goes by the nickname Nneka (NECK-uh) -- her parents were as level-headed about that as they were about everything else.

"He would constantly say, 'Hey, she's got a lot of raw talent; let's see what we can do with it,'" Ify said. "For about a year, he persisted. And we finally gave in. We said, 'Let's just try this and see how it works.' That's how we really got involved in athletics.

"It was not something we sought out. It was just something that came along. And like I tell my girls, 'So many things come along in life, you need to make the most of them and see where it takes you.'"

It has taken Nneka to a scholarship at a university she hopes will launch her into a career as a doctor. Admittedly, the brainiac Stanford kid is not a new entry into the cast of characters that make up women's basketball. But every one of those types of players has her own unique background story.

For Nneka, it's the tale of a first-generation American with an appreciation for her parents' homeland and the confidence to see life as a series of achievable possibilities. Her mother and father came from cultured, well-educated backgrounds in Nigeria and looked upon their studies in the United States as a great adventure with much to be accomplished.

"Ever since I can remember, they've told me, 'Your education will take you a long way. That always comes first,'" Ogwumike said. "I saw in Stanford my best opportunity for having a career in basketball and a wonderful life after basketball.

Last year, sometimes someone would pass [Nnemkadi Ogwumike] the ball and she was surprised, and she would bobble it. The game was coming at her a little too fast. And as the year went on, she just got better and better. Now, she's scoring well on the block, she's catching the ball easily, she's rebounding, she runs the floor so fast. And she's playing very confidently.

-- Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer

"I've been pretty sure since high school that I wanted to go into medicine. I'm the type of person who's always loved integrating science into my life."

She laughs a little then, explaining she's not likely to want to read about "fuzzy" stuff. In other words, Ogwumike would opt for an opus on the history of the flu over, say, any of that "Twilight" mush.

"She's pre-med, taking human biology, which is an extremely tough academic major," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "Nneka is serious about wanting to be a doctor, and she saw this is a great environment for a really academically and athletically motivated person.

"She's really organized and on top of things. She's also curious about things, with a lot of different interests."

None of which is meant to obscure the plain fact that she is also an extremely good basketball player. Ogwumike, a 6-foot-2 forward out of Cypress, Texas, in suburban Houston, started 14 games as a Cardinal freshman.

With Candice Wiggins graduating and JJ Hones missing most of the season with a knee injury, Stanford's backcourt last season was depleted enough that a second straight Final Four appearance depended a great deal on the Cardinal's frontcourt.

Ogwumike was a strong addition to the play inside of Jayne Appel and Kayla Pedersen, seeming to improve with each game. She finished the season averaging 10.6 points and 6.1 rebounds, feeling things really began to click for her around the time of the Pac-10 tournament. Her 62.9 shooting percentage (161-for-256) led the league.

"My teammates were definitely helpful in my progression," Ogwumike said. "Their experience has helped me a great deal, considering a majority of that team had been to the Final Four the year before."

VanDerveer likens Ogwumike to someone she coached on the 1996 Olympic team: Katrina McClain, who played collegiately at Georgia.

[+] EnlargeNnemkadi Ogwumike
AP Photo/Denis PoroyAs a freshman last season, Nnemkadi Ogwumike started 14 games, averaged 10.6 points and 6.1 rebounds, and shot a Pac-10-leading 62.9 percent from the field.

"Nneka is fast, she runs with the guards," VanDerveer said. "And she gets up so high on rebounds … she's not just athletic, but she's using her athleticism so well.

"She's still young, and working on all facets of her game. She's especially worked hard on changing and improving her shot. She's developing a consistent perimeter shot."

Furthermore, Ogwumike is much readier to play well with all the talent that surrounds her this season.

"Last year, sometimes someone would pass her the ball and she was surprised, and she would bobble it," VanDerveer said. "The game was coming at her a little too fast. And as the year went on, she just got better and better.

"Now, she's scoring well on the block, she's catching the ball easily, she's rebounding, she runs the floor so fast. And she's playing very confidently."

Ogwumike is just the first among her siblings to make it big in Division I basketball; there's every expectation that 17-year-old Chiney, who is a 6-3 versatile forward, will do the same. She's rated as the No. 1 recruit of the class of 2010 by HoopGurlz, and she has yet to announce her decision on a college.

"It's coming soon," Ify said; the signing period officially begins Wednesday. "Is [the recruiting process] easier the second time? In some ways, yes; in some ways, no. Everything for the first time is more challenging because you learn and make mistakes.

"The second time, you've been through it, but you still want to give her a lot of attention because it's her time. We've always wanted to be realistic; we didn't want the girls to be mesmerized by the coaches or the schools. We just wanted to make it clear education is foremost, and everything else is behind that."

One of Chiney's options is joining her sister at Stanford.

"I just tell her to make her own decision," Nneka said. "I would love to have her here, but if she chooses to go somewhere else, I'll support her in that, too."

In case there's any women's coach in the country who doesn't know this already -- although there probably isn't -- the two youngest Ogwumike sisters are 13 and 12, and both play basketball and volleyball.

"I'm pretty naturally athletic, and my mom is, too," Ify said. "And my husband played soccer when he was younger, for leisure. I run every morning, and I enjoy working out. I'm a very health-minded person. But we've never really focused on athletics; school has always been the focus for us. However, athletics helps you be more well-rounded; it helps you balance a lot of other things in life and creates discipline for you.

"The rest of my girls started to get into basketball when Nneka got involved. I guess it's something they've been gifted with."

Nneka, her mother says, was a particularly energetic child and is somewhat of a daredevil who loves to explore things.

"She got that from my husband," Ify said. "She's more of a risk taker. And her eyes … they would smile. I could look into her eyes and read what was going on in her mind. She was just a very lively kid."

VanDerveer laughs and says, "I'll say she's kind of quiet, but then the other players will say, 'Oh, no, she's not.' She really has a lot of friends, and it seems like everybody knows her."

VanDerveer sees a pretty unlimited potential for Ogwumike, and she's not just talking about in sports.

As Ify puts it, "I've told her, 'Basketball is a vehicle for getting what you want from the rest of your life.'"

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.