The day that changed WNBA player and ESPN host Chiney Ogwumike as a leader
Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike was hosting her ESPN sports radio show when she got a call from her sister and teammate, Nneka Ogwumike.
All 144 players of the WNBA were going to refuse to play their upcoming games in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.
It was Aug. 26, 2020, and Chiney’s sister Nneka, president of the WNBA Players Association, was going to have to explain in front of the entire league and many more TV viewers why the WNBA felt compelled to take a day of reflection.
“Sis, you got this,” Chiney told her sister.
Meanwhile, Chiney got to work speaking on the day of reflection in her role as a sports analyst. When she finished, she saw a shot on ESPN of her sister walking around the court at IMG Academy—the Bradenton, Fla., sports complex that hosted the 2020 WNBA league—and immediately gave her a call.
Nneka said all 144 athletes in the WNBA were going to get together for a players-only meeting and decide what to do. Chiney asked her sister if she would wear a mic into the players meeting and capture the moment for her ESPN documentary. Nneka said yes.
“Everyone understood that the world needed to see the beauty and the power of the WNBA in its strength and also in its vulnerability,” Chiney Ogwumike told Fortune Wednesday during the virtual Most Powerful Women Next Gen conference.
The repercussions of that day resulted in some of the most authentic footage in Ogwumike’s documentary, 144, which was released in May. It was important for Ogwumike that the players trusted her to tell the story, and she’s proud of the way they came together.
“Even in times where we’re tested like that, we stick together,” Ogwumike said. “We’re empowered to say what we feel, but we move forward in solidarity.”
The players meeting was a pivotal moment in a 2020 WNBA season that was filled with unexpected twists and turns. For its entirety, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all 144 players were confined to a bubble to prevent contagion while allowing them to still play.
It took a toll on players mentally, Ogwumike said. The players were hesitant to stay away from their families for a long stretch of time, and at the same time, none wanted to infect their loved ones.
Despite the conditions, the WNBA players found a way to use their collective voice to protest racism and police brutality, Ogwumike said.
After the killing of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and the issues Black Americans face were thrust into public conversation, the WNBA decided to take a stand. The league, which Ogwumike says is 80% black, dedicated the 2020 season to Breonna Taylor, whom she says was a driving force motivating all of them, all season long.
In the end, Ogwumike said last year’s season was a learning experience, but one in which players made the best of what they were given.
Relaying her father’s words, Chiney said during the conference, “Every disappointment is a blessing if you allow it to be.”
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