Monday, July 9, 2012

WNBA Weekend

This weekend was the Nneka Ogwumike Weekend in LA, to watch her play in the pros, arranged by the Stanford Fast Break booster club.

First we would like to thank the Stanford Fast Break Club and Otis Watson in particular for their efforts to arrange the trip. Several LA Sparks officials spoke to our gathering and person after person said what a wonderful, charming, mature, smart person Nneka, the Stanford Women’s Basketball Alum, was. It’s nice to see they discovered in a few short months what we had for four years. They also said they don’t remember a booster club making an effort to support a player out of college like this, traveling en masse and arranging events, so that was kinda neat. Also, C was one number, one number away from winning Nneka’s autographed jersey! Thanks for arranging the prizes, too.

So C and R are sitting there in the private suite eating dinner with other Fast Break Club Supporters, minding their own business when this handsome gentleman asks if he can join us. C and R being ever so hospitable, say sure. R asks if he is from the Stanford area and he answers no. He’s Nneka’s agent. Oh darn! Turns out he is Orlando Castano, Jr. of 4Front Sports. C pumps him full of questions for the next 25 minutes, questions we had for Nneka anyway, such as what endorsement deals does she have in the works?

He said Nneka is Team Nike, which we are glad to hear because they are high profile and seem to take an active interest in promoting women athletes. She has a shoe contract. Also she has a yogurt deal and two trading cards deals. He said the first trading card deal is automatically given to the first four women of the draft. The second one he worked out of Leaf trading card and they normally don’t deal with women. Also he got the same monetary deal as the men pro athletes get, and we thought that was terrific. Much scouring of the Internet and the Leaf site brought us this announcement about Nneka Ogwumike's card, so if Leaf Cards they are serious about selling Nneka, they need to do a better job promoting it.

We also asked Orlando about the recent report about Nneka going to Poland in the off  season. Last we had heard Nneka wanted to go back to Stanford and get her MBA. Stanford even gave her a postgraduate scholarship. Now we read she will try to take correspondence courses while overseas. He said he worked out a good deal for Poland and then the next few years overseas as well. It was here we revealed we were bloggers and were going to print just about everything we talked about (everything you say can and will be used against you!) and let him take back anything he didn’t want to see in print, because our little blog is so high profile. He said maybe not sure the exact next- few-years plans. So if you really want to know what’s in the works for Nneka in the next few years come up to C and R on the sly and whisper out of the side of your mouth you want to know what insider information we have. Then we will have to kill you! Just kidding, but we feel so special! LOL!

Nneka’s agent also said he was trying to work out a deal to make Nneka the face of the Girl Scouts. It was Girl Scout night for the Sparks, Laurel Richie, current WNBA president, was the former head of the Girl Scouts, Nneka was a girl scout, a perfect marketing storm, and just goes to show you there are no coincidences in sports or marketing. By the way, anyone know the CEO of Chipolte? Nneka’s agent would love to talk to him/her.
Another thing he shared was if she averages a certain amount of points and rebounds by the end of the season, she gets a bonus from Nike. Talk about pressure. We were nervous for her all game to make her numbers. Wonder if other WNBA stars have that kind of deal?

Nneka’s Mom
As a special guest, Nneka’s mother, Ify Ogwumike flew in for the weekend. We said hi to her, having met several times at Stanford. We said we blog about Nneka. She said it was nice to put a name to the face but we are sure she was just being polite. We shared this on twitter at the time, but the apple sure doesn’t fall from the tree. Mama Ogwumike is just as warm and personable as we find Nneka. And so intelligent, just a pleasure to talk to. You just want to be in their orbit. We asked can you believe how far Nneka has gone from dribbling in the driveway to college awards to a number one pick in the pros, and she said no she still can’t believe it, especially from parents that had no idea that talent in sports could lead to anything.

We also talked about younger sister Chiney, still back at Stanford…ah Chiney, Mama Ogwumike says Chiney is the wind for Nneka and Nneka herself has said Chiney has given her the confidence. Then all three of us said laughed and said Chiney has all the confidence she needs. Now Stanford fans, C and R included, are worried about this upcoming Stanford season without superstar Nneka. Secretly C looked up Chiney’s high school record to see how she did in the 2 years without Nneka. Sure enough, she won a championship without Nneka. So when R asked about the upcoming season Mama Ogwumike said don’t worry about Chiney. When Nneka is around she defers to her, when she is by herself the real Chiney will come out. She also said we ain’t seen what Chiney can do. So Stanford fans, you heard it straight from the proverbially horse’s mouth we are in for some awesome Chiney talent.

Rebecca Lobo
ESPN announcer Holly Rowe was supposed to come and speak to the group, but had a previous engagement. So they got the ESPN announcer who was calling the game that night: Rebecca Lobo.

For those of you not in the basketball know, Rebecca was a star for UConn (although she did win a gold medal with Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer as coach) and Rebecca is still very close to UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. She said when she was told of the gig, she said, "let me get this straight, you want me to go to a Stanford booster club and speak to them about Nneka?" We all laughed at the irony of it all.

Rebecca Lobo spoke of Nneka being a class act and wonderful young person. Her only one bad decision was in where she went to college…Rebecca said to Geno, “there’s two more of them ya know,” referring to Nneka’s younger sisters still at home. And Geno said, “there’s two more of them?” We could just imagine that in our heads, him saying that. Rebecca said, “yes, so you better get on that.” Geno said, “I think that door is closed.”

WNBA Prez Laurel Ritchie
Okay, first of all, every time I think of Laurel Ritchie my head wants to say Lionel Ritchie so I was cracking myself up when she was speaking. She was very accommodating and a good speaker and had a good sense of humor about herself. I can see why she was picked, even though she NEVER saw a WNBA game or even played the sport, which she was the first to admit. C got to ask her nosy question, which was you have this great resource in NBA TV and why aren’t more WNBA games on it. She basically said I’m working on it. But that didn’t answer my question. Yes, she better be working on it, she’s the WNBA president after all, but I asked wanted to know is it the NBA forces that be that keep the WNBA off the airways? Do they consider it an inferior product to put on their channel? Do they think they will lose ratings putting on WNBA games versus the what they currently have? Inquiring minds want to know.

Lionel Ritchie, I mean Laurel, also said she thought Nneka was just wonderful and special but found herself wanting to pull her aside during a game when she was guarding Tina Thompson. She was thinking, Nneka, don’t you know who that is? That is Tina Thompson, one of the founding members of the WNBA. She should be treated like a treasured (and fragile) commodity. But there was Nneka playing her as hard as can be. It was a cute story that got chuckles from the audience. However the story turned dangerously prophetic.

The Game
As we were making our way to our seats, there’s Nneka’s face up on the Jumbo-tron, plus pictures when she was 2 and 7. She is doing a public service announcement for the Girl Scouts (a little foreshadowing by Orlando, so we were not surprised). Nneka on the Jumbo-tron said she was once a girl scout and how it helped her stay on track. We gave it thumbs up and hope she will be able to do more.

The game started and we waved our yellow “We love Nneka” signs printed by the Fast Break Club. You could tell Nneka was feeling us as she was “up” for this game. And we mean hyped up. Her exuberance was getting in the way of her playing in a controlled manner. She got a charging call on offense trying to dribble through the opposing players. She jumped high for a block but was faked out and got burned. She hustled so hard on defense. She went to the ground several times. She drove to the basket but was pushed under and tried hard to reach around and shoot only to have the ball hit the bottom of the backboard. She was also knocked to the ground on that play with no foul call.

We wondered if she felt the pressure to make her points to get her Nike bonus at the end of the year. We sure did knowing that just sitting in the stands. She did get a double double for the game, as did all the starting Sparks, so everyone could relax.

It was interesting to see her trying so hard. Those elongated steps to the basket, jumping high in the air for rebounds. Back in her college days, when she did that, it meant she was taking over the Pac 10/12 game and was getting ready to score a plethora of points. But here in the WNBA where everyone is a superstar in their own right, it didn’t work. She was out rebounded, she was blocked, foiled or stymied on her drives to the basket. She couldn’t take over the game at will, but she never, ever gave up. She worked hard on every play and that is the sign of a champion (Nneka would say after the game about her WNBA opposition, that maybe not everyone is fast, but everyone is talented).

Remember when Laurel Ritchie told the story that Nneka needs to treat founding veteran Tina Thompson as a rare and fragile commodity? Nneka was trying so hard in this game and would hit the deck on several lose balls. One lose ball Nneka dove headfirst and her head hit Tina Thompson (yes, the fragile founding member) on her knee and ankle and Tina bent awkwardly back in pain. Nneka disengaged her self from Tina and Tina was screaming in obvious agony. Laurel Ritchie must have been cringing in her luxury seat. Tina was helped up but did not put any weight on he injured leg. We thought for sure ACL, but found out the next morning knee sprain, but Tina did not travel back with the team to Seattle.

We also met up with Sue Favor who writes for her blog Hoopism and Basketball Ways, as well as for Hoopfeed. She covers the Sparks and gets to sit on press row. C and R were jealous until we remembered you can’t get free t-shirts while on press row. Here is her article about us Nneka supporters.

So instead C and R sat behind three adorable young boys who were cheering on the Sparks. Seattle scored a basket, probably getting by Nneka because C said “darn it” (yes she did, she is very mindful of little kids and their ears) and one of the little boys turned and said, it’s okay, we’re still winning.” Then for the rest of the game, he announced the deficit. When it got to 24 points more for the Sparks over the Seattle Storm, even jaded C and R were impressed. The boys cheered every Sparks’ basket and especially cheered for Nneka. We asked Dad if they were big fans and came to all the games because they were so knowledgeable and so into it. He said no, this was their first WNBA game ever. He was supposed to take his 3 nieces but they couldn’t make it so he brought the boys. They really had a great time and goes to show you the WNBA is not just for women spectators. They even got caught up in catching a t-shirt just like C and R and we showed them how to stand on the chair arms to elevate their position. Then C fell over a row trying so hard to catch a t-shirt thrown by none-other-than Nneka Ogwumike after the game. Oh yeah, Sparks won 83-59.

Big shout out to the Staples center for having the best popcorn, forger hot dog or soft pretzel. The popcorn was salty, crunchy, slightly buttery but not too oily. You didn’t feel like wiping your hand after every handful. Kudos.

After the Game
Nneka came up to our private suite in her uniform, muscles rippling and looking incredible fit and athletic. She said hi to everyone and someone asked if she heard us cheering and saw all the signs and she said absolutely, which surprised me, she seemed so focused on the game. Then she laughed her wonderfully warm, infectious laugh and you just instantly fall in love with her. That laugh makes you feel young again. That laugh says she is your best friend.

Clarification on classes
Nneka said the WNBA will pay for grad school! They will give $5000 a year to anyone who wants to go back to school. Plus she has the free post graduate scholarship awarded to her by Stanford. As we mentioned, she is trying to work out with Stanford to do some work online while playing in Poland to get her MBA. So in addition to learning her team’s new system, make her numbers and win rookie of the year, she is studying to take the GMAT (graduate Business school test) in July, so that must be coming up soon. This young woman doesn’t fool around nor waste her time playing video games like other young people.

What was it like playing against your old Stanford teammates, she was asked? She said it WAS weird. She said so many times he wanted to high five Jayne Appel or Jeanette Pohlen as they ran down the court because she was so used to being aware and rooting for them. At one point she was guarding Kayla Pedersen who plays for the Tulsa Shock and she got knocked down and Kayla said, “Nneka are you okay?” with genuine concern and reached down and helped her up. Opposing players don’t usually do that. She also said the scouting report was easy on Kayla because she played against her for 3 years.

That brought up a series of questions about preparation for opponents, comparing the pros to collage. We were surprised by Nneka’s answer saying wins and losses meant more in college, that more seemed to be at stake. Not that they didn’t take it seriously in the pros, mind you. She also said Tara VanDerveer prepared her well for the pros. She went on to say with Tara, it was about the system and finding the best shot. Here in LA, her coach says if you are open, shoot. So she feels like she has more license to be creative and shoot, and was told,  “do what you do best.” Coach Ross gives everyone free reign to do what they do best and find a way to score. Interesting, since we heard from Sue Favor who writes for Hoopfeed among other blogs as we mentioned, that when the Sparks get behind they play selfishly instead of team ball and fall apart. Maybe some more discipline ala Tara VanDerveer would be beneficial. Both systems seem to have their pros and cons.

Then Nneka signed autographs for everyone and had to go “take an ice bath.” Sounds like she ices her whole body. The next day was a new opponent, The Atlanta Dream, and the Fast Break Club members were going to do it again, have speakers, see the game and have Nneka talk, but C and R had to get home to the kiddies and kitties.

Even though we went away prize-less, dare we say it, the trip was priceless. We even got in two rounds of golf, one in Santa Maria and one in Pismo Beach, and got to see a wonderful young lady do what she does best. Dazzle with that smile. What a great weekend.

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  1. I loved reading this! Glad you all had fun :-) Nneka is really special to say the least.

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