Chiney Ogwumike, a 6'3" freshman forward on the Stanford women's basketball team, relaxes in an office chair in Maples Pavilion with her head thrown back, the better to project a voice that, by all accounts, is the loudest on the team. While waiting for her sister Nnemkadi to show up for a joint interview, she addresses a range of topics, from the campus activities she'd tackle if she had time—Stanford Women in Business, freshman council, dorm president, to name a few—to the challenges of organizing a massive benefit concert in March 2010 while traveling around the country to high school all-star games. "I sent a lot of e-mails," she says.
In walks her sister, the Cardinal's 6'2" junior All-America forward. In a roomful of comfy chairs, Nneka, as she is called, reaches for the lone wooden stool and perches on it expectantly. And so your initial scouting reports are confirmed: Chiney is gregarious and socially involved; Nneka, an aspiring dentist, is humble, selfless, motherly.
You've talked to their coaches and you've talked to their teammates. You think you can peg the personalities of these hyperaccomplished siblings, whose versatility and explosive athleticism are key reasons the second-ranked Cardinal (27--2) is heading for its fourth straight Final Four and a rematch with top-ranked Connecticut, which had its 90-game winning streak famously snapped at Maples on Dec. 30.
Nneka (NECK-uh), age 20, an acrobatic post player who leads the team in scoring (16.4 ppg) and is tied for second in rebounding with her sister (7.8), is the analytical, reserved one, eager to please, afraid to make a mistake. Chiney (shuh-NAY), age 18, a crafty opportunist who is fourth in points (11.6), is the fearless risk taker willing to crash the boards without regard for her body and unconcerned with rank and protocol when it comes to making friends, of which she has legions. On associate head coach Amy Tucker's desk is a picture of the team and university bigwigs gathered at midcourt to commemorate coach Tara VanDerveer's 800th win in December. In the photo Nneka huddles to one side with teammates and coaches, but Chiney stands to the other side between athletic director Bob Bowlsby and university president John Hennessy, her long arms draped over their shoulders like they're the Three Musketeers. "Chiney is loose—she doesn't carry a lot of stress—but Nneka is the oldest child," says VanDerveer, herself the oldest of four sisters and a brother. "She worries."
You assume it has always been that way. Then the two start telling childhood stories.
Raising elite athletes was never part of the plan for Peter and Ify Ogwumike (oh-GWOO-muh-kay). Both grew up in affluent, well-educated families in Nigeria for which education, family and the cultural values of the Ibo (EE-bo) tribe were top priorities. They met in the early 1980s when both were attending community colleges in Colorado, Peter with plans to become an engineer, Ify a lawyer (she eventually became an educator and now is a middle-school principal). They finished their undergraduate work at Weber State in Utah, and in 1989 they married and moved to Cypress, Texas, near Houston, when Peter landed a job at Compaq computers.
Nneka, the first of their four daughters, surprised them when, at four months, she started rolling herself like a barrel to get from point A to point B. "She was so hyperactive, we had to stop taking her places, like restaurants," says Peter, who now owns a document-management company based in Nigeria. "She'd break things." Case in point: When Nneka was two, she ran straight through a first-floor apartment window screen into the shrubbery beyond.
Chiney (her full name, Chinenye, means God gives in Ibo) came along 21 months after Nneka, and she presented a new set of challenges. "She was kind of slow; we thought there might be something wrong with her," says Peter. "But she was always reading the situation."
Nneka's earliest memory of Chiney is of a toddler sitting on the couch eating pizza, completely absorbed by a CNN telecast and uninterested in playing. "It's amazing I didn't have imaginary friends as a kid because Chiney would never do anything!" she says.
On those occasions when Chiney did budge from the couch to follow Nneka, it was often against her better judgment. "I was like, We're going to get in trouble!" recalls Chiney. "And next thing you know, there would be a hole in the wall."