July 13, 2012

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

1 comment:

  1. Judy,

    Outstanding job with the Part 1 and Part 2 write-ups. I'm glad we had you and Dave and Marian Cortesi along for the ride.

    Wonderful presentation of the events, for the two period.