July 13, 2012

Weekend with Nneka, Part 2 of 2

After watching Nneka Ogwumike, ’12, score a double-double in the Los Angeles Sparks’ victory over the Seattle Storm, hearing her and others speak, and enjoying a delicious dinner on July 7, a contingent of Fast Break Club members and other Stanford fans returned for another round on July 8.

This time the opponent was the Atlanta Dream, which the Sparks dispatched 79-63. Starting the game, Nneka scored 12 points, snared three rebounds, blocked two shots and made an assist and a steal in 26:13 minutes of playing time.

As it had the day before, the afternoon began in the Lexus Club at the Staples Center, where the Nneka fans heard a Stanford band recording and saw video highlights from her junior and senior years. Saturday’s dinner had an Italian theme, while this dinner was influenced by the Napa Valley.

FBC member Otis Watson, who served as emcee, organized the weekend with the help of Aminah Mills, Sparks account executive for ticket sales and service. She planned the menu, arranged for the fans to sit several rows up from the Sparks bench and to stay at the Marriott Downtown Hotel at reduced rates.

To show his appreciation for the Sparks’ efforts, Otis told the fans he would buy two season ticket packages for the next three years and donate them to the Sparks. He expanded on that commitment in a subsequent email to Aminah and Sparks president Mike Levy. He said the donated tickets could go to a nonprofit chosen by Nneka or Mike and the Sparks organization.

Nneka makes agent’s job easy, he says

The afternoon’s first speaker was Orlando CastaƱo Jr., Nneka’s agent. An attorney based in Newport Beach, he also represents other WNBA players as well as players in the National Football League. “I look at representing my clients as an attorney,” he said.

“I was very fortunate to get Nneka,” he said. “A lot of agents really, really wanted her.” Because she will do interviews, promote her sport and build her brand, “she makes my job really easy,” he said.

He told the fans that if they really love women’s basketball, they should try to get the WNBA to get more exposure and should go to games. “Stanford has an amazing alumni network,” he said, asking grads to check around to see if they can get Nneka a sponsorship or appearance.

She already has two trading card deals, one of them a first for a WNBA player. She also is a Nike athlete and led a basketball camp at her high school, Cy-Fair in Cypress, Texas, this summer. It was “a very successful event,” he said.

Coach foresees Nneka “getting better and better”

Orlando yielded the microphone to Carol Ross, Sparks head coach, who had only a little time before needing to return to her team. Carol has been with the Sparks since early January. She served as an assistant for the Atlanta Dream for three years and coached at the collegiate level for 17 years before that.

When she was named head coach of the Sparks, Carol said, she already knew that the team would have the No. 1 pick in the 2012 WNBA draft. The team’s choice was obvious because Nneka was the best player and the best person. “It made me feel better to know” Nneka would be there because of her character.

“She’s always going to be team first. She’s always going to bring great energy, great enthusiasm.” Unfortunately, “I don’t think we’re going to be bad enough to get Chiney,” she said, referring to Nneka’s younger sister, a junior forward at Stanford.

“There’s a natural growth that” comes with a new job, so Nneka is “going to keep getting better and better. There’s not one sliver of prima donna in her.” She just has to walk through the fire and avoid “the dirty little tricks” of some other players, the coach said. On her way out, she hugged Nneka’s mother, Ify, who had joined fans for the weekend.

Resuming his talk, Orlando said the top four draft picks in the WNBA get the highest rookie salary of $47,500. The top veteran pay is $105,500. However, players can make more money overseas, so agents try to place them with good teams.

One of his clients in that position is Stanford grad Kristen Newlin, ’07, who plays in Turkey. She makes more than twice as much as some of his clients in the WNBA, he said.

Another of his Stanford-grad clients is Candice Wiggins, ’08, of the Minnesota Lynx. One of the things he’s doing for her is assisting her with her business – she’s writing a biography of her father, Alan Wiggins, a professional baseball player who died of AIDS when she was 4. She’s also writing a children’s book, Orlando said.

Nneka’s mom pleased by Stanford fans’ support

Next to the front of the room was Nneka’s mother, Ify. “This is amazing that you would take time out of your personal time to support Nneka,” she told the fans.

Ify and her husband, Peter, emigrated separately from Nigeria to the United States. She was 15 at the time. They met in college.

By the time they had married and started their family (they have two more daughters, both younger than Nneka and Chiney), they didn’t know much about basketball until Nneka was 12. That’s when an AAU coach saw her and suggested that she try out for basketball. The family refused at first, but he was persistent, calling for six months until the elder Ogwumikes finally relented. He became Nneka’s AAU coach and went on to coach all four girls.

As a parent, Ify stresses that her girls should try to leave people feeling better. “They have heard me,” she said. “Nneka’s a role model,” a good sister and a wonderful daughter.

When it came time to choose a college, Nneka was highly recruited by schools in Texas and across the nation. Geno Auriemma of UConn visited three times, but “Nneka was never part of all the drama that comes with recruiting.” Instead the parents led the way. “We chose Stanford as a family,” she said, but ultimately it was Nneka’s decision.

It’s tough for a Texan to leave Texas, she said. When they visited a Texas school that was recruiting her, they were shown the two-bedroom apartment where she would live. When they visited Stanford, they were shown a small dorm room. “She literally stopped breathing,” Ify said.

However, the room wasn’t what they were looking for. “We were looking for someplace special.” The lessons learned along the way were better than a national championship, she said.

After she had completed speaking, Otis gave her a copy of the DVD that FBC member Lily Wong had compiled of game highlights from Nneka’s four years at Stanford. She also received a copy of a book, “Boosters Always Win! The Fans of Women’s Basketball,” a history of the Fast Break Club by member Harriet Benson.

Sparks outscore Atlanta Dream

Then it was time to go to the arena, where the Sparks were facing the Atlanta Dream, which was missing one of its best players, Angel McCoughtry, who had a sprained left knee. Nicky Anosike and Ebony Hoffman were in street clothes on the Sparks bench.

As they had against the Storm the night before, the Sparks led all the way – 24-19 after one quarter, 44-36 at the half, 65-50 after three quarters and 79-63 at the final buzzer.

Nneka had 8 points in the first quarter but sat out the second quarter. She waved to fans as she returned for the second half, played during the third quarter and sat out the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter. When the game was over and players were tossing T-shirts to the fans, Nneka tossed hers to Otis.

After the game, the Stanford contingent gathered in the Shock Top Lounge for a post-game session. By then their numbers had dwindled because many had left for home. Those who remained could hear the booming reverberations from a post-game concert in the arena.

While waiting for Nneka, Otis asked Lily, who also is president of the Amy Tucker Fan Club, about that club. Lily said a group of fans decided to form a club for her because, unlike the other Stanford coaches, the associate head coach’s office has no outside window. It still has no outside window, but Amy is the only coach in the United States who has her own fan club, Lily said.

When Nneka arrived, she sat down to sign autographs, pose for pictures and say her final goodbyes.

FBC member Dave Cortesi, who took photos during the weekend, said they can be viewed at his online gallery

Weekend with Nneka, Part 1 of 2

Now that forward Nneka Ogwumike, ’12, is playing for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, her Stanford fans usually have to rely on occasional TV coverage or go to LiveAccess on the Internet to see her play, but not the weekend of July 7-8.

That’s when the Sparks hosted some 78 Stanford Fast Break Club members and other fans, including Nneka’s mother, Ify, for a weekend with Nneka. The event included two games at Staples Center plus two tasty dinners and the chance to hear from several guest speakers, including Nneka herself, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 WNBA draft.

FBC member Otis Watson organized the event in conjunction with Aminah Mills, Sparks account executive for ticket sales and service. Aminah also negotiated reduced rates at the Marriott Downtown Hotel. That’s where the Stanford team has stayed for the conference tournaments in March. Finally, everyone had a raffle ticket for a chance to win Nneka jerseys and Sparks T-shirts.

The Sparks players did their part by defeating the Seattle Storm 83-59 on July 7 and the Atlanta Dream 79-63 on July 8. Nneka started both games and contributed 13 points and 11 rebounds in the first and 12 points and three rebounds in the second.

Band adds to atmosphere

The festivities got off to a great start when the Stanford contingent reported to the Lexus Club for dinner and speakers on July 7. Upon entering the room, the first thing they heard was a recording of the Stanford band playing some of its signature tunes including, of course, “All Right Now.”

Then they could see that the TVs spread around the spacious room were all featuring highlights from Stanford WBB games during Nneka’s freshman and sophomore years. All of them evoked wonderful memories.

During Nneka’s freshman year, for example, the starting lineup featured Nneka along with Jillian Harmon, ’09, Jayne Appel, ’10, Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen, both ’11. All five of those players are currently playing professionally. Jayne with the San Antonio Silver Stars, Kayla with the Tulsa Shock and Jeanette with the Indiana Fever were all top 10 WNBA draft picks, while Jill has been playing with a pro team in Italy as well as the New Zealand national team.

The video was created by FBC member Lily Wong from games that she had recorded during the four years. Highlights from Nneka’s junior and senior years were shown the next afternoon.

Otis served as host and emcee for both afternoons. He gave all of the participants yellow signs saying “We love Nneka” and featuring the Sparks logo. Designed by his wife, the signs were waved again and again at the games, especially the first, which was televised by ESPN2.

He also talked a bit about the history of the Fast Break Club. At one time, he said, the Stanford women’s basketball team couldn’t play in Maples Pavilion, but if it did, it had no lockers and no access to the weight room. To help remedy this situation, the FBC booster club started in the late 1980s. Harriet Benson, an early member, recounts the club’s history in her book, “Boosters Always Win! The Fans of Women’s Basketball,” published in 2003.

Otis presented autographed copies of the book to all of the speakers and made much of the fact that probably no other booster club has its own book. He also called Harriet the “matriarch of the Fast Break Club.”

Saturday’s first speaker was Mike Levy, Sparks president, who welcomed the FBC guests and called Nneka “a wonderful basketball player and an even greater person. … We’re looking forward to many, many years of having Nneka in LA.”

WNBA president cites players’ maturity

He was followed by Laurel Richie, who has been WNBA president for the past year after most recently serving as senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Girl Scouts of the USA. Coincidentally, that night was Girl Scout Night at Staples.

She said the most surprising part of her WNBA job has been “the players – wonderful young women,” who are more mature than some other professional athletes because they’ve graduated from college. “We at the WNBA are showing the world what is possible,” she said.

As for Nneka, “There is something very special about this woman,” Laurel said. She noted that in one of the Sparks’ first games, Nneka wasn’t fazed when she was assigned to guard WNBA great Tina Thompson of the Seattle Storm. “She (Nneka) is delightful,” an example of what a woman athlete can be, Laurel said.

Looking ahead to the 2012 Olympics in London next month, Laurel noted that all 12 members of the USA women’s basketball team are in the WNBA. “It’s going to be impressive,” she said.

Asked about the possibility of a WNBA team in the Bay Area, Laurel said the league wants to expand but probably won’t do so next year. When it does decide to expand, it will consider whether the site has a fan base, owners with roots in the community and a space to play in. “If you can connect these dots, you can see how” she’s leaning, she said.

Another fan asked why more WNBA games aren’t televised. She said the NBA TV is supportive of the league, which is working on the situation.

The next speaker was ESPN commentator Rebecca Lobo, a UConn graduate, Olympics gold medalist and Hall of Fame member. Rebecca, who was to work at that night’s game, said, “Nneka is such a wonderful young woman” and a great representative of Stanford.

Rebecca first saw Nneka when she played in the Final Four as a freshman. As the mother of three girls and a boy, she wants them to see Nneka as an example. When Nneka is called for a foul, she doesn’t get upset. She just goes about her business. “She’s awesome” even though she made a bad choice by going to Stanford, the UConn grad joked.

On to the game

Then it was time for the fans to enter the arena and find their seats several rows up from the Sparks bench. The Seattle Storm already were short-handed because one of the team’s best players, Lauren Jackson, has been in her native Australia preparing for the Olympics. Then star guard Sue Bird was sidelined with a hip flexor injury and starting center Ann Wauters didn’t play because of a strained Achilles – leaving the Storm with only eight available players.

Nicky Anosike and Ebony Hoffman were in street clothes on the Sparks bench.

The Sparks held the advantage throughout the game, leading 28-17 at the first quarter, 41-33 at the half, 63-43 at the third quarter and winning 83-59. Besides her 13 points and 11 rebounds, Nneka recorded an assist in her 36:37 minutes of playing time.

All five Sparks starters, including Nneka, were in double figures: Kristi Toliver, 23; Candace Parker, 17; DeLisha Milton-Jones, 15; and Alana Beard, 10.

Official attendance for the night was 12,229, including many Girl Scouts, who were saluted by Nneka in a video before the game and another video by Candace during the game.

Overall, the atmosphere was much louder than at most college games as recorded sound effects blared even during the action. There were no cheerleaders per se, but a woman with a microphone often exhorted the crowd with an increasingly annoying, “I can’t hear you.”

After the game, the Stanford fans returned to the Lexus Club, where Larry Burnett, longtime sportscaster and the WNBA’s LiveAccess announcer for the Sparks, saluted the fans for “celebrating a rookie who’s had a major impact on the Sparks already. … She stepped right in and hasn’t missed a beat.”

He said that this was the first time that a college fan club had come to a Sparks game to support a player.

Nneka speaks to fans, missed Tree

Next up was the honoree herself. “Hi, everybody,” she said. “I was hearing everybody yelling at me. I really appreciate it. All I missed was the Tree.”

In addition to playing with the Sparks, Nneka said she is studying for the Graduate Management Admission Test, or GMAT, which is required for admission to most graduate business schools. Planning to apply for Stanford’s program, she has already won a Pac-12 postgraduate scholarship, and the WNBA helps to pay for its players’ graduate studies. She hopes to begin her studies by taking correspondence courses while playing in Poland starting in October.

She’s enjoying herself with the Sparks and especially likes playing with Candace, whom she called “the best player I’ve ever played with.” It’s also great to play with Kristi. She also appreciates the Sparks’ supportive milieu, which is much like the family atmosphere she experienced at Stanford.

However, it has been weird playing against her former teammates and other Stanford graduates. “When I’m going down the court, it’s all I can do to keep from high-fiving them,” she said. If they fall, her first instinct is to go to them and ask if they’re OK.

Overall, WNBA players are faster and stronger than college players. “Everybody is talented,” she said, but “I’m not trying to force anything.”

Sparks head coach Carol Ross “is all about defense,” while “at Stanford it’s all about the system.” In the pro ranks, coaches try to get players to do what they do best.

Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer “was really great at getting me to understand adversity. … When you come into college, you can’t expect to be a superstar,” Nneka said, praising her Stanford coaches.

After she had completed her remarks, Otis – noting it was against the rules for him to give her anything in college -- gave her a copy of the FBC history book and the DVD with highlights from her four Stanford years.

He also asked Harriet to read excerpts from a letter by ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe, who had been scheduled to speak but then ran into a conflict. “She (Nneka) immediately impressed all of us” as a freshman, Holly wrote.

Finally, Otis gave Nneka a large bouquet of flowers in a vase. Noting that she had seen the “We love Nneka” signs, she posed for pictures and signed autographs.

Next: Sunday’s events and game

See also Event Photo Gallery