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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.