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 Castaño 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

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