Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike finds strength in the bubble leading WNBA players’ union

Every so often, Nneka Ogwumike and Derek Fisher catch each other’s eye and an understanding passes between the two.

Not the understanding of player and coach, though the Sparks forward and second-year head coach certainly share that, too. But the understanding that very few have: that of two people who have served as the president of a players’ union.

“She and I, we chuckle every now and then,” Fisher said Friday. “She can tell I remember what it felt like to be in her position. And it’s hard to explain to people that haven’t been in that seat before for Nneka to do what she’s doing.”

To put it mildly, 2020 has been a year for Ogwumike.

She might have thought the heavy lifting of her role of president of the WNBPA was over in January. That was when she completed negotiations and announced a new collective bargaining agreement, with raises in pay and improved benefits, that was hailed as a major victory for the players.

Then the pandemic hit, and Ogwumike found herself negotiating the terms of an entire season in a bubble in Florida, and how best to honor the players’ desires to dedicate the year to female victims of police violence.

And then with last weekend’s police shooting of Jacob Blake, it was Ogwumike helping guide the players through their decision of whether to play Wednesday. The discussion ultimately resulted in the WNBA taking a two-day pause to refocus on that central issue.

Through it all, Ogwumike was the face of her sisterhood, doing a media tour while also continuing the conversation with the players and the league, maintaining her positive attitude throughout.

“I was really tired [Thursday] by the time I got home, but it wasn’t the exhausted type of tired,” she explained. “It was just the, ‘Hey, this was a full day,’ but it was still incredibly insightful, it was reflective, it was fruitful in so many ways.”

Then she had to suit up for a game Friday, and at first the exhaustion was evident when she missed a point-blank layup in transition.

But with her team trailing, Ogwumike played every second of the second half, scoring 11 of her 17 points to help the Sparks beat Connecticut 80-76.

“I really find strength in my team and these women that are here in the bubble with me,” Ogwumike said after the game. “It was much harder doing this job while I was quarantined alone in my house than it is now with my team, my Sparks family, and all the players here kind of in arm’s reach in Florida.”

Added Fisher: “Somehow she still finds a way, she still has the character and integrity and strength. I think that comes from her family, her life experience, her belief system. And still find ways to perform well when everybody else needs her to. She doesn’t even do it for herself. It’s just the team needs it and she just does it.”

Atlanta Dream (3-12) at Sparks (11-3)

When: 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: IMG Academy, Bradenton, Fla.

TV: Facebook, Spectrum SportsNet