The word trailblazer gets used in many contexts now, but it definitely applies to Chiney Ogwumike.
An active player and two-time All-Star in the WNBA, Ogwumike joined ESPN in 2015 as a women’s basketball analyst. She became a full-time contributor at ESPN — while maintaining her WNBA career — in 2018. Wednesday night will be her first appearance on “NBA Countdown,” the network’s pregame show, as a regular analyst.
She spoke to The Post about what made her take on the responsibilities of being a talking head while still early in her active playing career.
“It just became an avenue where I felt my voice was needed in the sense where we, especially this rising generation, are trying to make our mark,” the Los Angeles Sparks forward said. “If I’m able to join the conversation as it pertains to the NBA — and make people think ‘oh, she might not be expected in this space, but she’s valued in this space’ — that’s a big motivator. I’ve completely felt that from basketball fans.
“It might not be expected as a current athlete, but I want to change what the standards are. It’s been a cool evolution.”
Candace Parker and Sue Bird have since also taken on dual roles as WNBA players with mainstream media platforms.
The former Stanford star will be on a weekly panel with Michael Eaves, Richard Jefferson, and Kendrick Perkins.
“I’m thrilled,” Ogwumike said. “All I know is playing on teams and working with teammates. I’m really excited for this new squad where each of us has our own unique identity, but loves the game and loves to bring that player’s point of view. For this new endeavor, I’m very excited to represent for the young girls that might want to work in the sport, or anyone that might be a fan, I’m a proud nerd.”
The 29-year-old is also eager to branch out as an interviewer, starting with a conversation with Suns star DeAndre Ayton, which will be released on several ESPN TV and digital platforms Wednesday.
Ayton saw a film breakdown that Ogwumike, a fellow post player, did on his game and he reached out and set up the interview.
“These things have happened over time, but now we have the platform to actually make them come to fruition,” she said. “This is just scratching the surface of what’s hopefully to come.”
Ogwumike has had a lot of support behind the scenes in her rise at ESPN.
She cited Hillary Guy as her “right hand” on “NBA Today” and “NBA Countdown,” and Dave Roberts — who has, for years, produced “First Take” and various editions of “SportsCenter,” and now also has responsibility for the network’s NBA coverage — for helping women be more prevalent on broadcasts.
“Chiney, you’re 25-26 years old, but what you’re doing is amazing,” she recalled Roberts saying several years ago when she got her first hits on “First Take.”
Stephen A. Smith gave her a big boost, too.
“Stephen A. would be like ‘Let’s talk hoops — let’s make this a normal thing!’” she said.
Ogwumike said that ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro has been a supporter “every step of the way.” She also praised Norby Williamson, who oversees all of ESPN’s event and studio content production, for having the vision to have her onboard as a current player, even though it meant not having her on-air several months of the year, and seeing value in her perspective.
“I always look forward to my emails from Norby that are very succinctly listed like ‘This is phenomenal’ and ‘This is what you can work on,’” said Ogwumike, who averaged seven points per game last season for the Sparks.
“I got my start at ESPN on ‘SportsCenter,’ which trains you to get your thoughts out in a concise way because you have one to two minutes to get your points out there. Norby and Dave bringing me on SportsCenter has trained me in how to make any broadcast work because those are the fundamentals that you can take anywhere.”
Last year, Ogwumike had hoped to play for her native Nigeria in the Olympics with her sisters Nneka, the 2016 WNBA MVP, and Erica, who was drafted by the New York Liberty in 2020 but was traded to the Minnesota Lynx and subsequently waived. An aspiring doctor, Erica is currently studying in med school.
While Erica was permitted to play as a Nigerian citizen, Nneka’s attempts to compete for Nigeria were rejected and Chiney was only allowed to play as a naturalized citizen.
“I think the fight has just begun,” Chiney said in July. “I cannot acquiesce to being called a naturalized citizen, when I have full citizenship. People don’t know the extent to which my family, and myself in particular, ever since I was at Stanford, has been going back to Nigeria to help. So to have someone say that I am not Nigerian is not fair to my family or my heritage or myself. It just does not feel right at all.”
Asked by The Post about her and her sister’s progress in the fight to play for Nigeria in 2024, Chiney said they have hired an attorney to battle FIBA on the matter.
“Hope is still alive for all my sisters,” she said. “While it was heartbreaking, we understand that it’s not a sprint it’s a marathon.”