Ode to Nneka Ogwumike

A great player, an even better individual. Those were the words Coach Tara VanDerveer used to describe one of the all-time greats to play at Stanford.

Over the past few days, I saw Nneka Ogwumike (Nnemkadi) perform in three games, the last games she'll get to play in the conference tournament. She did rather well, winning the Tournament MVP award for the third time in leading Stanford to another tournament championship. In the championship game, she scored 29 points, pulled in 12 boards, blocked two shots, and stole three balls. She ends her career as the highest scorer in conference tournament history. All in a day's work for this astonishingly gifted athlete.

The rest of Nneka's statistics are no less impressive. She is likely to end her Stanford career as the program's second-highest scorer (after Candice Wiggins) and one of the top rebounders as well. No one can match the combination of skills she brings.

Indeed, if one seeks to define a list of Nneka's skills, watch out. Going into the championship game, Nneka had attempted only four treys this season, and converted none of them. In four years at Stanford, she'd made only two from beyond the arc. If someone had asked me before the championship game which Stanford player would go 3-of-4 from the three point line, I would have had a raft of ready guesses, starting with Bonnie Samuelson and going on to probably three or four others. Nneka would not have been on the list. Fortunately for me, no one asked me this question, because Nneka would have had me hauling out the condiments before eating the words of this bland and uninspired prediction. In that game, Nneka was the Maya Moore of the three-point land.

This story is personal. It's about how a particular fan reacts to watching Nnemkadi Ogwumike. She is strong, powerful, quick, graceful, motivated, and so much fun to watch. Watching her soar above other players to grab a rebound; watching her find and pass to an open teammate (often her sister); watching her drive aggressively to the basket, leaping over opposing players to convert the shot; watching her coolly convert free throw after free throw; watching her leap yet again to block an opponent's shot; watching her race down the court ahead of them all to take and convert a long pass; watching her play inspired and tenacious defense – all of this is part of the Nneka Ogwumike experience. As I watched all of these things, I was saddened that I will not attend any more Stanford games and see Nneka perform in person. You can watch her on television, but it's not the same. The power, the grace, the passion, the determination – they just don't come across the same way no matter how many pixels you have on your screen.

I do not know Nneka (although I was once fortunate to pose in a picture with her). But I have seen her interviewed many times, and she is a delight to hear. She is unassuming, with little of the ego that can easily become a hallmark of the famous athlete. She is an ideal teammate – encouraging, enthusiastic, hard-working, and a leader by example – and what an example it is. Nneka truly is an extraordinary player, and an even better individual.

She will lead the Stanford team into the NCAA Tournament. She will inspire her teammates to play their best. This Stanford team could not have a better leader.

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