Chiney Ogwumike: A letter to my family
The WNBA All-Star and first-generation Nigerian-American on how basketball helped her define her identity
I went to my first basketball practice when I was 9, living in Houston. It was my older sister Nneka’s first practice too. We both showed up wearing jean shorts, halter tops, glasses and Keds sneakers. We had no idea what we were doing. I ran to hide in the bathroom, crying while Nneka stumbled through practice — she’s always been the more curious one, while I want to win at everything I do. I made her play me one-on-one at home after every practice. She was basically my first coach.
Nneka and I both play in the WNBA now, and our two younger sisters, Olivia and Erica, are pre-med students who play basketball at Rice. We never could have imagined that basketball would change our lives. Most of the Nigerian parents I knew had very strict ideas about child-rearing: You went to school, got good grades and came back home. That was it, that was your childhood. Any child who didn’t aspire to be a doctor or lawyer had a lot of explaining to do.
I’m a Nigerian-American, which I consider the best of both worlds. I work like my parents and dream like my sisters. I was raised to defy expectations.
But my parents were different. I remember them getting grief from some of their Nigerian friends in Houston when they began to let us play basketball. Sports were viewed as a distraction, especially for girls. I realize now that my parents were doing something momentous and maybe even a little difficult for them when they took us to that first practice. They were teaching us that no matter what you do in life, do it to the best of your ability. And they were also allowing us to inhabit another identity — they were letting us be American girls.
I’ve lived proudly that way ever since. I’m a Nigerian-American, which I consider the best of both worlds. I work like my parents and dream like my sisters. I was raised to defy expectations.
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!