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Nneka Ogwumike’s Secret to Making Basketball History: “I Just Let Go”

PALMETTO, FLORIDA – AUGUST 28: Nneka Ogwumike #30 of the Los Angeles Sparks dribbles the ball during the first half against the Connecticut Sun at Feld Entertainment Center on August 28, 2020 in Palmetto, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Nneka Ogwumike’s 2016 WNBA season was one of the greatest individual performances in basketball history. Not only did she earn league MVP and hit the game winning shot in Game 5 to clinch the WNBA Championship for her Los Angeles Sparks, but she set an all-time record for true shooting percentage — a record that still stands for both the WNBA and the NBA. In an interview with Kelley O’Hara on the JWS podcast, Nneka reveals the secret to her 2016 success: “I just let go.”

 The oldest of four girls, Nneka grew up with Nigerian-American parents who highly valued education and versatility. The Ogwuimke sisters were encouraged to pursue a variety of extracurriculars to supplement their schooling, and at 11-years-old Nneka decided to give basketball a try. Luckily her embarrassment at showing up to her first practice in jean shorts didn’t prevent the determined youngster from displaying her non-stop hustle. While coaches quickly recognized her on-court potential, it wasn’t until later in her high school career that she realized just how many doors basketball could open, including a full-ride to Stanford University. As a young woman who dreamed of becoming a doctor, an invitation to one of the top academic institutions in the nation was an easy yes.

Nneka thrived at Stanford, embracing her identity as both a self-proclaimed “nerd” and an athlete. By the end of her freshman year she was starting every game, and by the end of her sophomore year she was recognized as one of the best college players in the U.S.

But strangely, even well into her senior year, as she led her team to a fourth consecutive Final Four, Nneka had no plans to go pro. Her plan had always been medical school, and a career in medicine made sense to her: challenging, rewarding, and lucrative. She couldn’t picture what a professional basketball career looked like, at least for a woman. All she’d heard about the WNBA was that they barely made a living. But after learning more about off-season, overseas opportunities and with much encouragement from her younger sister and Stanford teammate Chiney, Nneka entered the 2012 WNBA draft.

How long did she wait to hear her name? Not long at all. The once-reluctant draftee went number one overall to the Los Angeles Sparks.

Nneka quickly established herself in the league by earning 2012 Rookie of the Year honors. And after just a few more seasons of getting her footing against the big dogs, Nneka went off.

Nneka can point to the exact moment in her record-breaking 2016 season when she realized something special was brewing. In a mid-season game against Dallas, she went 12 for 12, scoring 32 points without missing a single shot (all while grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing three assists).

When asked what changes she’d made in her training leading up to the 2016 season, Nneka tells O’Hara it was all mental. “I just let go,” she says, “That’s what I remember most about that year. Like, let me go out here and just have some fun.”

Her unencumbered mental state was on full display in the WNBA Finals. In what was arguably the most exciting Finals ever, the Sparks went toe-to-toe with a Minnesota Lynx squad in the midst of a dynasty, having won three of the last five titles, including the year before.

With her league MVP status painting the customary X on her back and leading to constant double teams, Nneka knew she had to go back to the basics.

“I was like alright, let’s take this back to 14-year-old Nneka,” she tells O’Hara, “I’m gonna be the garbage woman… If I can’t make a move I’m gonna get rebounds and I’m going to finish.”

With three seconds left in the winner-take-all Game 5, inside a packed Minnesota stadium, Nneka did exactly that. She grabbed an offensive rebound, got blocked on the putback but maintained possession, and nailed a second attempt while fading away to win the championship by one point.

The way she describes those final seconds to O’Hara encapsulates her entire approach to 2016: “That’s the quietest my mind has ever been.”

It’s one of many times the now WNBA Players Association President (aka “Madame President”) has tapped into a wisdom well beyond her years. This particular lesson: Once you’ve put in all the hard work, sometimes the best thing to do is quiet your mind, let go, and have some fun.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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