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Nneka Ogwumike wants Sparks to be more than a basketball team

LOS ANGELES — Nneka Ogwumike made sure to make one thing clear during the WNBA free agency period.

Ogwumike, 32, said she wanted her vision for the Sparks to be in alignment with the team’s front office and coaching staff.

“Something that is lasting, something that is unequivocal, something that is non-negotiable when it comes to what people think about when they think about the Sparks,” Ogwumike began. “When I describe that I mean obviously the Sparks are a basketball team, so a team that wins and a team that wins with greatness, with competitiveness.

“A team that gets people excited about basketball and sport. A team that is culturally relevant, a team that is changing things for women’s sports and also a team that really leans into what it means to be in Los Angeles and playing sports in Los Angeles.”

Ogwumike’s vision includes the Sparks being more than just a basketball team.

“Creating an organization that builds its players on and off the court and post-retirement,” Ogwumike continued. “So seeing an organization that is through and through WNBA, through and through women, through and through empowerment, through and through women empowerment and advocacy so that’s what I see for the Sparks. I want us to become the North Star.”

She also wanted to be recruited during her unrestricted free agency, in which she could have signed a new contract with any of the other 11 teams in the league. The 2016 WNBA MVP said she appreciated that new Sparks general manager Karen Bryant and new coach Curt Miller flew to Houston and met with her face-to-face, which made a distinct impression on her.

“Honoring the (free agency) process is really important to me,” Ogwumike said.

Ultimately, Ogwumike chose to return to Los Angeles ahead of her 12th season in the WNBA, and before officially re-signing on Feb. 24. Two days prior, her younger sister Chiney Ogwumike, 30, also re-signed with the Sparks.

Bryant said once Nneka was on board, she became the organization’s top recruiter.

Ogwumike said she focused her recruiting efforts on players who wanted to be in Los Angeles. She likened the process to talking with friends, in part because of her leadership role with the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA).

“It’s quite seamless (recruiting other players) because I’m the President of the (players) union,” Ogwumike explained.

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Last season, Ogwumike was named to her seventh WNBA All-Star team and was a second team All-WNBA selection. It was the fifth time in her career she’s been first or second team. Ogwumike started and played in 34 of 36 games. She averaged 18.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.6 steals in 34.1 minutes per game in one the best seasons in her career. But the Sparks have missed the playoffs the past two seasons.

Ogwumike said she’s leaning into that feeling to achieve something greater this upcoming season and agreed to a one-year contract that is significantly less than the league’s supermax salary, which is $234,936. The Sparks front office said Ogwunike’s flexibility has allowed them to sign and acquire new players.

“I want to play on a great team, I really really want to play on a great team and I think that how we saw that has always aligned, but given as KB alluded to before, the circumstances and the nature of free agency that we’ve had, it changed that course and so this isn’t the first year that I’ve had this type of expression of salary, but I want to play with good players. I want to play with players that want to be here. We didn’t sign everyone that wanted to come, but we’re hoping that’s something that can sustain in future free agencies so just to put in candidly, I told KB and Curt and they fought me on this a lot, I said wherever you need my number to be to get who we need to get, let’s just do that.”

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