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Sun's Ogwumike will brighten your day

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published May 15. 2014 4:00AM   Updated May 15. 2014 5:31AM
Jessica Hill/AP Photo
Chiney Ogwumike shared a laugh with commissioner Laurel Ritchie after being selected No. 1 overall by the Connecticut Sun in last month's WNBA Draft.

Mohegan — Why?

Because she's happy.

Clap along.

Yes. That's stolen from "Happy" by Pharrell.

Why?

Because she's happy.

Sunshine she's here, you can take a break.

She's here, that Chiney Ogwumike. The No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft. Who is all ours. A new daughter of Sun. And she is happy. Joyful. Could be an honorary Von Trapp. Our hills are alive.

But then, our hills have no choice.

Chiney Ogwumike story: Dateline: Shenzhen, China, for the World University Games. USA Women's Basketball boards a shuttle bus to go shopping. They share the bus with the Italian men's soccer team.

"Our group was next. I was a seat or two behind the last Italian guy," Caroline Williams, the generally awesome director of communications for USA Basketball was saying. "Chiney gets on and with a huge smile on her face, starts walking down the bus aisle telling each one of the Italians, 'ciao bella!' and waving hello. They of course are giggling about it and I bust out laughing.

"When Chiney got to me, I asked her if she knew what she was saying," Williams said. "She thought it was just a nice greeting like hello or something. I laughed and told her it means 'hello beautiful.' She laughed hysterically, as did I and a few of the Italians who overheard me, and just kept on going to her seat.

"But that's just Chiney. She made friends with half the village. Or maybe more. If she had time to meet everyone, she would have made friends with the entire village. She's everybody's favorite person to interview. She is so genuine. You can't put into words how much she cares. During the player walk to go to dinner, players give high fives. Chiney gives hugs."

• • • •

Chiney Ogwumike is 50,000 watts. No dreary wearies. Just cheery cheeries. Her forecast is always sunny and 75.

"When you think of her, you think of light," Stanford teammate Jasmine Camp said.

Indeed. The metaphorical lamp trails her as the blanket did Linus. Ogwumike illuminates.

Why?

Because she's happy.

"I enjoy life and I thrive around relationships with people," Ogwumike was saying one recent morning before Sun practice. "I feel so blessed and fortunate to be where I am today. Why not share a little goodness?"

Fine, you say. Pro athlete, Stanford educated, great family. Who wouldn't be happy? Except that now she's in the northeast, where impatience is habit, not reaction. We walk with our heads down, as if expecting our shoes to come untied at any moment. Just wait till she's here for a while. We'll corrupt her quicker than you can say "mind your own beeswax."

Or not. Ogwumike continues to spread happy. Listen to this: She calls her new surroundings "scenic beauty."

She lives in Groton.

Consider that Ogwumike spent the last four years in the sunny Silicon Valley. Stanford's campus, a collision of picturesque and breathtaking, features the Rodin Sculpture Garden. Now she's in Groton, driving Route 12 to the casino every day.

Put it this way: Nobody at the National Register of Historic Places ever awakened with a pounding urge to affirm the glory of Route 12.

"I come from a small suburb (outside Houston) with a lot of people, but still, I'm used to the suburbs," she said. "It's the serenity of the place. My drive to practice is amazing just because of its scenic beauty.

"The first time I was in New York (for a recent preseason game) I was overwhelmed by the city. In a great way. But I don't know how I would handle that all the time. I think being based in Groton and being able to experience different cities, it's a place where you can stay focused."

The focus is unwavering. She's been ready for this for a while.

"She'll adapt to anything. The WNBA has been on her mind since the end of last year," said Ashley Westhem, a friend of Ogwumike's and the sports editor of the Stanford Daily, the school newspaper. "In interviews last year, she would tell me she wants to get her business done, the Final Four is the goal, but she knew in the back of her mind that once (The Final Four) is over, she's getting ready for the draft, hitting the ground running. She's been mentally preparing for it for a while. She has insane maturity and compassion."

• • • •

Chiney Ogwumike's smile is her American Express Card: She never leaves home without it. It's just that she's so much more, too. Somewhere in there lies the depth and reflectiveness of a woman far older than 22.

It began, as all the great stories do, in front of the television.

"I'd say, 'Come on, Mom's not here,'" her sister, Nneka, a forward for the Los Angeles Sparks, told the San Francisco Chronicle once. "I always wanted to play. She wanted to sit down and watch the news on TV. It was weird."

Perhaps this was the root of such an inquisitive, studious soul.

"My dad used to sit me in front of the TV because I'd calm down," Chiney said. "It wouldn't just be cartoons. I'd want CNN on. I didn't even comprehend it. In junior high and high school I'd always watch Morning Express with Robin Meade. That was my thing. I love Twitter, too, because I can keep up with my friends and get the news. I'm intrigued by global politics and I like to be informed of situations."

Which explains her choice of international relations major at Stanford. Ogwumike thought the major's requirement of studying abroad would prohibit her from graduating on time. That's until Dr. Condoleezza Rice — yes, the former Secretary of State and Ogwumike's faculty mentor at Stanford — encouraged her to make the time.

And so Ogwumike fulfilled the requirement in Nigeria. Ogwumike, who grew up in Texas, was born to Nigerian immigrants Peter and Ify. The family had visited Nigeria frequently. Ogwumike did an eight-week internship in the summer of 2013 with the Minister of Petroleum.

"In life, you do what you are passionate about. Who am I? I'm a basketball player, a student and person from an international family from Nigeria," Ogwumike said. "It's important to maintain my heritage, do well in school and work hard at athletics.

"(Stanford coach) Tara (VanDerveer) said, 'Chiney, graduation is important. Use the eight weeks to rehab your body and do something intellectually stimulating.' I ran out of her office before she changed her mind. Dr. Rice planted the seed. She knew it was possible."

Ogwumike's eight weeks ping-ponged among a trip to London when Petroleum Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke spoke at Oxford, administrative assistant duties, basketball camps with kids and even to participating in a move to liberate an oil field through legislation.

Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike are also well aware of the country's recent plight. Nearly 300 Christian schoolgirls were kidnapped a month ago by an Islamic warlord.

"I'm a kid still. Even though people tell me I'm not, I'm only 22," Ogwumike said. "The situation there is what it is. I want to do anything I can to help young girls realize their potential. You don't have to do keep doing what you're doing. You can look to study abroad or meet different people and hope they open doors for you."

Ogwumike radiates such passion for her studies, a magnetism that invited Tom Fitzgerald, a veteran sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle, to call her "the greatest student-athlete in the history of the NCAA."

Certainly the most engaging. Ogwumike became the unwitting CEO of "Nerd Nation," a gaggle of Stanford athletes who wrote and produced a video that totally and completely embraces the relationship between the classroom and the locker room.

Ogwumike starred in "N-E-R-D-S" (hashtag #nerdanthem) that taught anyone watching, through the power of hip hop music and hip college kids hopping, that academics are neat-o, awesome and swell, too.

Video lyric that Ogwumike wrote: "No reason to be stressed; we 'bout to ace this test; Nerd Nation never rests."

And it was the way the nerds chose to convey the message. No dry, intellectual, NCAA-issued public service announcements. The mien, means and medium are attention-getters for kids, many of whom attended Stanford games now wearing nerd glasses.

"That was all Chiney," Camp said.

"Chiney was very involved in campus affairs," Westhem said. "Stanford has the Cardinal Council. Last year she ran the benefit they put on, an athlete-date auction. She was the emcee. Different athletics teams at Stanford put on a different dance and students bid to raise money for cancer kids. She has a great on campus presence."

• • • •

It is a happy thought: This vibrant, brilliant, engaging young woman is all ours.

And to think she could have been a UConn Husky, too.

No, really. It was either UConn or Stanford.

"One of the first conversations I ever had with Kelly Faris, she said that after my visit, she thought I was coming," Ogwumike said. "This was my second choice if I didn't go to Stanford. I had a great relationship with Coach Geno (Auriemma) and CD (associate head coach Chris Dailey). There are some people you operate on the same wavelength with. To say I do with Geno is sort of scary, but we do.

"We're both very ambitious people and he knows what I want," she said. "I think that's why he wasn't hurt that I chose Stanford. He knew what type of player I'd be at Stanford. I was very close to coming. I loved the history and the legacy of the UConn program. It came down to where I could maximize my potential academically."

And let's face it: Condoleezza Rice isn't visiting Storrs anytime soon.

But maybe, if Ogwumike's rookie season resonates, Dr. Rice would duck inside Neon Uncasville for a Sun game.

Meantime, Ogwumike and her teammates prepare for the season opener Friday at America's Most Beloved Arena against New York. Chiney will be the one smiling, backed by wisdom well beyond 22 short years.

"I want people to feel empowered when they play with me or have me as a teammate," she said. "I'm the type of player, I care about efficiency. If I'm missing shots, Katie (Douglas) and Allie (Hightower) should be getting them instead. When I miss a shot, I think about what I can do better. People can see that in my head germinating. Coach Anne (Donovan) is like, 'Chiney, don't think about the shot you just missed, think about the one you just made.'

"I can't come in and say we're going to be 24-10," she said. "Now I hate this word, but we are rebuilding. But just because we're rebuilding doesn't mean we can't win. Everybody can feel it. We are playing with sense of urgency every day. I think it's because of last year. Nobody wants to go through that again."

m.dimauro@theday.com

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