Chiney Ogwumike has carved out one of the most unique careers in broadcasting. While simultaneously an All-Star in the WNBA, Chiney is a full-time basketball analyst at ESPN. She opened up to The Big Lead in a conversation about her career.
Bobby Burack: Chiney, I’ve interviewed several ESPN analysts, but never a WNBA All-Star. Can you take us through the process of how this all happened?
Ogwumike: Well, Bobby, I’ve very glad to be your first. I will try to briefly give you this very long story. I will try to just make it the Spark Notes version just for you. Because we are Millennials, and that’s how we roll.
So, born and raised in Houston and I was fortunate to go to Stanford University and get drafted in Connecticut. When I was in Connecticut, it was one of those cool scenarios when I was drafted in my home court arena. It was super surreal. My big sister, Nneka, was there who was previously a number one pick and it was just one of those things I still get goosebumps about. The thing about being in Connecticut, right in your backyard is ESPN.
So, I had a great rookie season. For those that don’t know, WNBA players play 24/7. You see the WNBA season from May to October, but from October to May, we go play overseas. Because we can go make 2x, 3x, 10x, up to 11x our salaries overseas. But that is a conversation for another day, why we are valued more overseas. But that is the fact of the matter. We don’t play in the WNBA for the money, bro. So, after my rookie year, I went to play in Italy, but then got injured in Italy. I then went home and started rehabbing in Houston. I realized getting down and just defining myself as an injured athlete was not a sane and healthy place to be in. I was just trying to occupy my mind.
I was watching a lot of ESPN, a lot of news programs, and was reading the New York Times, and was just trying to stay up to date on the world. Trying to figure out what opportunity is next. But, guess what? Ball is life. I rehabbed and was out a year and a half and was able to come back the following season. And had a great year. Was Comeback Player of the Year and all that stuff. Everything is great, ball is life. I go play over in China, get injured again. Then I was like, okay, my eyes are getting big. I said, “Maybe I am not built for this. To play basketball 24/7.”
So, the fortunate thing is when I was injured, I was thrown opportunities by ESPN. I say thrown, but I was really gifted. This is where I shout out Lisa Stokes, who works in the talent office at ESPN. While I was rehabbing the first time, and then the second time, she knew me from when I was drafted in Connecticut. I went through the ESPN car wash, went on the shows, and built some great relationships with the people there. The WNBA is in the summer during ESPN’s hiatus time where they are looking for new fresh voices. Being a WNBA player, in Connecticut, with a little bit of time on my hands, they threw me the opportunities of being on First Take and His & Hers.
At the time, I didn’t know much about ESPN, like the details that go into each show. So, I was living, breathing, eating First Take, NFL Live, SportsCenter just to make sure I was as up to date as possible. And also getting to know people. This was the first time I met Maria Taylor and Marcus Spears. That was on His & Hers.
It wasn’t just like I was going in for fun like an athlete on these shows. No, they were actually evaluating me. And I didn’t know that. But I liked it, I thought it was fun. So, during the years I was rehabbing, I worked with women’s college basketball and they gave me 20 or so games. I also worked with the Pac-12 Network and Uninterrupted when it was just starting out. I was thinking, “Would I like to do this after I am done playing?” But in the back of my mind, it was always, ball is life. But I did think, “Chiney, you may need to supplement your career with something other than playing basketball overseas.” I was playing in the WNBA when they launched SportsCenter Africa and they brought me in to be interviewed as an athlete. But I didn’t know at the time the ESPN international boss, shout out to Sean Riley, was evaluating me.
Days later they wanted me to come shadow the show and then they wanted me to read the prompter. Then they would be like, “Hey, can you do a highlight?” I didn’t know anything like what a shot sheet was. I would look back at it, and it felt okay. They ended up offering me a position as an anchor for SportsCenter Africa. It was unique because I got to learn more aspects of television than just being an analyst. Like being a host. It allowed me to make mistakes because y’all weren’t seeing them in the U.S. I was doing some NBA segments and Lisa Stokes, my fairy godmother, said: “Hey, if you are looking for NBA people in Connecticut, why don’t you give Chiney a shot?” I was shook. Can I do it? Should I do it? But I tried it, and I had a blast. I was just happy ESPN decided to explore my voice so young in my career while I have another career going.
One thing manifested into another to now being a full-time NBA analyst. As well as things like filling in on Get Up when Jalen [Rose] is out. On The Jump with Rach [Rachel Nichols], who I love. Outside the Lines with that group that is fantastic. Oh, I can’t not mention [Mike] Golic and [Trey] Wingo. They would say, “You never give us love.” Well, it is too early to give you love. Anyway, that is my journey.
Burack: When I look at what you are doing, and I mentioned this in my piece regarding the 19 Sports Media Talents Set to Break Out this year, it is paving the way with for others. But, as I am sure you know, that comes if you have success. So, do you feel pressure because of that?
Ogwumike: I absolutely do feel like there is pressure on me for me to succeed. The funny thing is, [the level of pressure] it’s like .00001. The real ones like Doris Burke and Rachel Nichols, those are the ones have gone through the fire and created opportunities for us. Nancy Lieberman, those women. Ann Meyers, who will still shoot you a message to cross your hands here. I love that feedback. These women know, they’ve been through so much to get to where they are. And the only reason I am having this great opportunity is because of them.
These women, and we all consider Doris the G.O.A.T., I just can’t even imagine what it has been like for her career. It is one thing to make a mistake as a woman, but it is another thing to make a mistake in a male-dominated sport as a woman. They are looking and waiting for us to make a mistake and fail. I just don’t know how she did it, man. She is not just one of the smartest voices in basketball but just in sports. And we love her. The shirt just came out, “Doris Burke is the G.O.A.T.” She has always been credible, she has always been great. I have to constantly be on my game because these women have been through it. We are all a reflection of each other. There are some awesome women in this business. Sage Steele has pulled me to the side and told me about the struggles she has been through just so I wouldn’t go through the same. Josina Anderson is the same way, she works in the NFL. These women may not know, but they are doing so much for me just doing what they are doing. I am just in awe. They have always been great, but society is just now opening their eyes and noticing it.
Burack: You have spoken about the advice you have been given. Now, what advice would you give someone wanting to do what you are doing?
Ogwumike: Stay true to your voice. I remember when I first started working at ESPN and was sitting in that anchor chair. I was like, okay, I have to talk like them. Maybe? I caught myself sounding more and more like an anchor. With those typical mannerisms and stuff you would see on the local news. I would make myself small. But then when I would make a mistake, or need to learn from something, and I would be like, “Man, that wasn’t even me.” It wasn’t even authentic. I would rather make a mistake being me, and doing me, than not make mistakes being someone else. I made that decision like really quickly. It’s one thing to fail and make a mistake, but it’s another to fail in front of millions. So, I was like the only way I can sleep well at night is literally to do what I do on the court, right? Go as hard as I can, prepare, be early, be a team player, and just be me doing me. It’s okay to be yourself.
At the end of the day, you don’t want to fail being someone else. Being yourself, you can only fail upwards. Perfection is overrated. Authenticity is everything that matters. You may see me do some crazy stuff like throwing some dance moves, and say something that makes people say, “Look at the youngin talk.” That is just who I am. This industry will quickly try to change you. I think the most successful have stayed true to who they are from the jump.
*Interview continues on the next page: