Nneka Ogwumike: Sticking the Landing

Stanford fans jumped for joy last fall when Nneka Ogwumike committed to the Cardinal. Now it is Ogwumike's turn to do the leaping and maybe even a back flip or two. Before her first official leap, Nneka Ogwumike sat down for a chat with The Bootleg.

Texas F Nneka Ogwumike comes to Stanford with a sparkling array of awards including 2008 Gatorade National Player of the Year and 2008 Parade Magazine co-Player of the Year. Even though a number of highly regarded freshmen have graced the Maples Pavilion court, Ogwumike's resume stands out. We spoke with her shortly before the start of her first academic quarter at Stanford.

After less than one whirlwind week on campus, what are Ogwumike's initial impressions?

"I love it here! I mean, I had a wonderful first impression on my official visit and now that I'm actually here for good, I'm really excited to be here. School starts on Monday (September 22). We've done some pre-season stuff. We've been in the gym a couple of times and actually we have another agility workout today at 3:45. I'm just trying to get into the groove of things. When school comes I think everything will just kind of seam together."

Has she had the chance to get to know her teammates and get comfortable away from home?

"It feels different. You're on your own. I'm excited about it. I've known Sarah (Boothe) since we were on the (USA U18 National) team together. This is my first time meeting Grace (Mashore). I've messaged her and stuff. Lindy (La Rocque) was on my official visit so I already met Lindy. I'm really excited to play with them. Also, the team, they're a bunch of clowns. They're pretty funny. I like it because that's kind of how I am. I'm excited. I love everybody!"

Ogwumike's family is from the Houston area. Were they affected by Hurricane Ike?

"I'm in northwest Houston. It's not near the coast. It's about an hour and a half away from the coast. We got hit with it but everything is fine. Trees were down. One of the ducks died in our pond. We have a neighborhood pond and one of the ducks is missing."

Would she tell us bit about her family?

"I have three younger sisters. My mom and my dad are Nigerian Americans. My parents emigrated here from Nigeria about twenty-five years ago to go to college. They went to Weber State and so they just kind of stuck here. We were all born in Houston. Chiney is sixteen, Chisom is twelve and Erinma will be turning eleven next week. The two younger ones are in junior high with my mom. My mom is the principal of their junior high. (We pause to ponder the potential double whammy of a trip to that particular principal's office.) And Chiney is a junior at my former high school."

Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike played together at Cy-Fair HS, helping their team win the Texas 5A State Championship last season. Was that the highlight of Ogwumike's high school career?

"That was definitely one of them. I mean a lot happened in my senior year. I've got the Gatorade National Player of the Year, which was pretty exciting. I was also a Parade co-Player of the year with Elena Delle Donne. And then I also won Homecoming and Prom Queen, which really freaked me out! I thought it was pretty cool. And then the state championship. I was more excited to win that with my sister and also with my coach, who is amazing. I was just really happy. I was very grateful for my blessed senior year. I was happy to be healthy and come here to Stanford."

Ogwumike was also senior class president, organized a fundraising drive for the family of a coach who passed away from leukemia, and fundraised to help children affected by the crisis in Darfur. The basketball highlights continued into summer. Ogwumike and Stanford classmate Sarah Boothe were chosen for the USA U18 National team that won a gold medal in the FIBA Americas Championships in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

"I was really excited because I got to play with Sarah. It was a really fun experience. It's not something a lot of people get to go through. I was privileged to be able to be a part of the USA team. I just had a lot of fun. We got to go to Colorado, Washington, D.C. to play in our nation's capital, and then we played in Argentina. I'm very happy that we did really well there."

Did she take anything away from that experience that might improve her basketball?

"Oh, definitely. I played with a lot of the top players in the nation and all of them are getting scholarships or will be, so I was privileged to be able to play with the cream of the crop, all the kids that you are always hearing about. I've already been playing with them because I went to the development festival for USA Basketball and then at the McDonald's game. So I'm really excited that I got to play with them and now I'm a little bit more excited that I get to play against them."

It would not be an exaggeration to say that every school in the country was chasing Ogwumike. How did she choose Stanford?

"I didn't really start getting into [recruiting] until maybe the end of my sophomore year. My junior year definitely was really heavy and I kept my options open for as long as I could. And when I did narrow it down, it came down to Stanford, Notre Dame and Baylor. A lot of people thought I was going to go to Baylor. I actually didn't tell anyone where I was going until the day of signing day, except for Stanford. I called coach Tara (VanDerveer) the night before to let her know. It's a good problem to have, being recruited. I mean, it's a little overwhelming at times, but I was really excited through it all. For some reason when I came to Stanford on my official visit, before I even did anything, I knew I was coming here. I kind of got that feeling. A lot of people in Texas were a little disappointed."

What does she plan to study at Stanford?

"I'm leaning toward the sciences and medicine. I've been thinking about being an orthopedist. I said I was going to major in Biomedical Engineering, but I'm not sure right now. I'm taking courses that lead up to Pre-Med and maybe some business courses on the side because I've also looked into that. Right now I'm leaning more toward the sciences."

How would Ogwumike describe herself as a basketball player?

"This past senior year I moved to the "4" position. I'm generally a "5" but my size is not as big, you know, as a standard "5" in college. I've been working on the "4" position. I love to run. I love to run up and down the court. If I don't have the rebound, I'll be either on the fast break or passing it to someone who is on the fast break. I really love to run. It's just something that I do. And then I love posting up, just doing quick moves. Now I'm starting to shoot more from the outside because I know I'm going to have to be doing that. I'm also trying to work on my ball handling skills."

What are her thoughts on the post depth that Stanford will enjoy this season?

"It is going to be interesting. Last year it was almost like the complete opposite because last year we had Kayla (Pedersen) and we had Jayne (Appel) but we had a lot of people injured, so if Kayla fouled, someone had to come out… Now that we have three or four people to rotate in, I think the whole theme of our program, ‘run it back,' is definitely going to come into play because no one is going to get tired. Since we're training to be agile and run, run, run, I think it's just going to be a wonderful thing."

Does she have any other interests or hobbies?

"I love to travel. I collect ticket stubs. Anywhere I go, like a game or a movie, a plane ticket, anything, I save the stub. I don't know why. I don't like to throw them away. Can I say one thing that people don't know about me? I actually originally wasn't into basketball at all even though I was tall. I was actually a gymnast for eight years. I can do a back flip. And I play piano."

Might she duet with noted pianist Tara VanDerveer?

"Well, I don't know that I'm as advanced as coach Tara is," concluded Ogwumike with a smile.

Perhaps no piano duet is in the offing, but maybe a back flip or two? Possibly even in celebration of a second straight Final Four appearance for the Cardinal? Expectations are high for Nneka Ogwumike and her Cardinal teammates. The arrival of a national player of the year is a back-flip-inducing event even for those of us who may not do so well bending down to tie a shoe. Nneka Ogwumike appears to have the game, the poise, and the personality to both stand out right away and fit in seamlessly. Looks like she stuck the landing.

To view a slide show of Don Anderson's photos taken during this interview with Nneka Ogwumike, click HERE.

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