There is no question that the Los Angeles Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike should be preparing to wind down her outrageously successful basketball career — six times chosen to a WNBA all-star team, winner of a league MVP award and a WNBA champion after being its top draft pick in 2012 out of Stanford — in glorious fashion. She should have been feted at this summer’s ill-fated Tokyo Games.
That she won’t be is because of an error by USA Basketball’s subjective selection process that left her, at 31, off its women’s Olympic roster again.
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That she’ll not be in Tokyo is a blunder by FIBA, the international basketball governing body, which refused to let Ogwumike exercise her other citizenship in Nigeria, the birth home of her parents, and play for the green and white.
That she won’t finally be at an Olympics is because of the over-officiousness of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which on Monday doubled down on FIBA’s decision that Ogwumike, born and bred in Texas, played too long in USA Basketball’s program to be anything but a ringer for Nigeria’s national team.
U.S. women’s basketball has a bunch of new faces trying to meet a ridiculously high standard.
Maybe saddest, Ogwumike was victimized by the unnecessarily muddled mind-set of being a dual-citizenship athlete in this country too divorced psychically from her homeland of heritage to make an unapologetic decision.
Ogwumike — and Atlanta’s Elizabeth Williams, who was also denied by international ruling from playing for Nigeria despite being born to Nigerian parents — shouldn’t have opted to play internationally for any team other than D’Tigress, as the Nigerian women are nicknamed. Not just in the past few weeks, but from the moment it was clear she would blossom into a standout athlete.
As poet Haki Madhubuti urged in his spoken word piece, “Rise, Vision, Comin’ ” while teaching at Howard in the early 1970s, they needed “…an African mind in a European setting.”
The U.S. women’s basketball team, easily the most dominant in the world, never needed Ogwumike or Williams. It beat the Nigerian women, 93-62, on Sunday in an exhibition.
The Nigerian team just qualified for only its second Games in the 45-year history of Olympic women’s basketball. And it finished 11th out of 12 teams at those 2004 Athens Olympics.
But the continental Africa champions are on the rise. Ogwumike and Williams playing for Nigeria would be quite the boost not only to the Nigerian women’s competitiveness but also their country’s pride, as well as that of those of us who view ourselves through a Pan-African lens and, therefore, as part of the African diaspora.
They would be serving part of FIBA’s mission, too, which is part of what made the governing body’s decision to exclude the pair from Nigeria’s roster all the more perplexing. After all, part of FIBA’s stated mission in this decade is to “. . . Empower National Federations, Women in Basketball [and] Enlarge the FIBA Family.”
What better way to do so than spread the athletic wealth of U.S.-developed, dual-citizen basketball talent such as Ogwumike and Williams?
“Allow them the opportunity to help grow the game,” Nigerian women’s coach Otis Hughley Jr., who was a longtime Sacramento Kings assistant, pleaded this week.
“That continent would just be turned on its head for basketball, in a good way. You have no idea how many lives would be impacted and changed for the ages.”
I can’t imagine choosing between where you grew up and your ancestral home, but I envy those whom it might exasperate — such as Ogwumike’s basketball-playing sisters, Chiney of the Los Angeles Sparks and Erica, who was a 2020 WNBA draft pick.
Or Nigerian-American men’s basketball players such as the Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo, born in Newark to a Nigerian father and Black American mother, who choose to play in Tokyo for the U.S. team. It was upset in an Olympic warmup game two Saturdays ago by the Nigerian squad led by Adebayo’s Heat teammate Gabe Nnamdi, the son of a Nigerian father who goes by Vincent in the United States, plus five other current NBA players and former NBA coach Mike Brown as its coach.
At the 2012 Olympics, D’Tigers lost by 83 points to the U.S. team. Four years later, they lost by 44 in an exhibition.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t mean much in the standings as far as where we’re trying to get to,” Brown said of his Nigerian players. “But it’s a good win for us. No African team has been able to beat USA Basketball in an exhibition game or a real game. We’re trying to get a little bit of momentum for Nigeria and for the continent of Africa.”
This needn’t be an exasperating issue. It wasn’t for Giuseppe Rossi when, in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Teaneck, N.J., native had the option of playing for the U.S. men’s soccer team or that of his immigrant parents’ homeland, Italy.
The U.S. team could’ve used Rossi, too. It can use all the soccer talent it can muster. But Rossi, who as a teenager lived and played awhile in Italy, chose the Azzurri. And at 21, he scored Italy’s second goal in its opening 3-0 win over Honduras at the Beijing Olympics.
“I had my choice, and I took it,” Rossi told the Associated Press at the time. “I can’t thank the U.S. enough for the opportunity to even let me have the choice, but, you know, my heart was always set on playing for Italy — but when the U.S. plays I’m always cheering for them.”
In the immediate euphoria of winning an NBA championship Tuesday night, the series’ star — the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, who came to this country from Greece, where his Nigerian family immigrated — summed up in tears what the importance of the Ogwumike sisters and Williams would’ve meant for their culture.
“Eight and a half years ago, before I came into the league, I didn’t know where my next meal would come from,” Antetokounmpo told reporters.
“My mom was selling stuff in the street. And now I’m here, sitting at the top of the top. I’m extremely blessed. Even if I never have the chance to sit on this table ever again, I’m fine with it. I’m fine with it.”
“I hope this can give everybody around the world hope,” he added, “and allow them to believe in their dreams.”
Antetokounmpo said he would play for Greece in Tokyo if it qualified. It didn’t. He, too, should have only considered his culture.
***Kevin Blackistone, ESPN panelist and professor of the practice at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.