Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike, Elizabeth Williams still hope to play for Nigeria in future

Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike and Elizabeth Williams were denied the opportunity to play for Nigeria women’s basketball at the Tokyo Games, but all three say they haven’t given up their dream of playing for the team in the future.

The three WNBA stars, who each have dual citizenship in the United States and Nigeria, would’ve made D’Tigress medal contenders this summer, but FIBA denied the petition from Nneka Ogwumike and Williams to play for the African nation because of their previous long-time associations with USA Basketball.

“I still have a lot of pride and high hopes for the Nigerian team as it is composed now,” Nneka Ogwumike said. “So, maybe this time around, I won’t be a part of it directly, but I certainly do hope that I can be in the future.”

The three Ogwumike sisters had hoped to play together for Nigeria in these Olympics, but all three have been given different statuses by FIBA because of their varying levels of involvement with USA Basketball. The youngest Ogwumike sister, Erica, plays for Nigeria as a full citizen. Chiney was cleared to play, but only as a naturalized citizen, while Nneka was denied outright.

Earlier this month, the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected an appeal from Nneka Ogwumike and Williams to grant them a provisional allowance to be added to the Nigeria roster for the Summer Olympics until the CAS ruled on their case. Chiney Ogwumike asked the CAS to have her status changed from naturalized citizen to give her full status as a Nigerian. That appeal had major ramifications, because each country can have only one naturalized citizen on its roster, essentially blocking her older sister and Williams from competing if they were eventually given the same status.

In their CAS appeal, all three players argued that FIBA’s secretary general had the power to grant their application if it would help the development of basketball in the country, and because by Nigerian law, they hold full citizenship as the children of parents who were born in Nigeria. That appeal is still pending, and the players told ESPN they are prepared to spend whatever legal fees are required to continue their appeal.

Instead of competing in Tokyo, the Ogwumike sisters and Williams will watch on television early Tuesday morning (12:40 a.m. ET, USA Network) as the U.S. women and Nigeria open preliminary-round play of the Olympic women’s basketball tournament.

“I think the fight has just begun,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “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.”

Said Williams, who plays center for the Atlanta Dream: “It’s really about the principle now. We’re still going to keep appealing and fighting because I think people need to understand there are a lot of us that have dual citizenship. Even if we grew up here, our households look very different than what people think, and that part of us is very real.”

Williams said she has held a Nigerian passport since she was 6 years old and has been planning to apply to play for Team Nigeria for over a year. Initially, she thought her application would be granted because USA Basketball released her from its national team pool in January 2021, without complaint. But as the process went on, her optimism waned.

“I think they just saw a lot of years of USA Basketball,” she said. “Whereas we’re looking at it from our heritage and culture like, ‘What an opportunity to improve the development of basketball in our country.'”

No African nation has ever medaled in men’s or women’s basketball. All three have been working toward growing the game in Africa for years and said they intend to continue in those efforts no matter what ultimately happens with their appeal.

If they are ultimately cleared, Nneka Ogwumike would be 34 at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, Chiney 32 and Williams 31. They would also theoretically be able to participate in events like the FIBA AfroBasket in 2021 and the World Cup in 2022.

“Being a part of helping grow the game has been my mission for a long time,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “It’s also been Nneka’s mission, and my younger sister [Erica’s] as well. It’s a part of our identity.”

Chiney Ogwumike traveled to Nigeria after her junior season at Stanford to work for the Ministry of Petroleum, the national assembly committee on human rights, as a volunteer coach for an organization, Access2Success, which aims to help Nigerian children living in poverty, and helped raise $25,000 for a new basketball court and camp for hundreds of children in Benin City.

“When I talked to [Stanford] coach Tara VanDerveer about going overseas to Nigeria and studying there, she did not hesitate,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “I think she knew that would be fulfilling for me on a higher level than I would ever imagine.

“And when I went there, I started realizing there are young girls that want to play, but they don’t have a level court. They don’t have shoes. The things that we at times take for granted are the things that can transform their lives if they had them. My whole mindset changed when it came to basketball — to a place of gratitude.

“I think that’s why ever since I’ve made a concerted effort, as a professional, to go back and do something. There’s no greater way for representation to come to fruition and expand the game, especially for young girls in Africa.

“If we can let our platform share that, it’ll change so much. Also, it’s authentically who we are. We always talk about being Nigerian and American, and being very grateful to have the opportunities we had in America, but also being able to leverage that to help the next generation. It just is authentically who we are and to be denied that, that feeling has been the hardest thing for me to wrap my mind around.”

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