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Inside Chiney Ogwumike’s chaotic first 5 days with the LA Sparks

Ogwumike is a WNBA All-Star, and a full-time NBA analyst for ESPN. Her latest task? Moving out of her apartment and across the country without missing a beat.

Chiney Ogwumike walked off her noon SportsCenter set and retreated to the green room where she keeps her belongings, like she would any other Saturday during the NBA playoffs. She’d just finished debating if Russell Westbrook needed to relinquish his alpha dog role to Thunder teammate Paul George (yes, according to Ogwumike). She was finishing up her first job as an NBA analyst for ESPN, and almost ready head to her second as a WNBA All-Star for the Connecticut Sun.

But when she glanced down at her phone to see a flurry of missed calls from her agent, she knew this day would be different. She’d just been traded across the country to the L.A. Sparks, reuniting her with her older sister, Nneka. Oh yeah, and she had 48 hours to move out of her place in Connecticut.

Ogwumike is used to hectic, high-stress days. She, like most other players in the WNBA, works a second job to earn money year-round. Most play basketball for 11 months out of the year, both overseas and in the states, but the wear-and-tear both mentally and physically is, at times, too much. The league’s MVP, Breanna Stewart, tore her Achilles last month in Russia, and she’s far from the first to suffer a major injury abroad.

“I realized that maybe I’m not built to play 24/7,” Ogwumike, who’s suffered two major injuries overseas, told SB Nation. “Maybe I need to give myself time to recover and rest and find a career outside of basketball that can support me while I still compete in the WNBA.”

Heading into Saturday’s broadcast, Ogwumike knew that at any moment she could be traded before the WNBA season tipped off in late May. She’d asked out of Connecticut in February after her name was involved in trade rumors, Ogwumike and her agent told The Day’s Mike DiMauro. Her two-job life could’ve been made that much more complicated if she landed in a city without an ESPN headquarters. Sun head coach Curt Miller, according to DiMauro, said that “our understanding is that Chiney would be willing to move to ESPN full time and walk away from her WNBA career.”

But Ogwumike didn’t think the trade would happen while she was on set. And she definitely didn’t think that the trade would spit her into the limelight like no women’s basketball player before her.

In the NBA, when trades break, they disrupt the news cycle. But in the WNBA, there’s little precedent for that type of pandemonium. The league doesn’t yet attract the same level of attention as the men’s league, and star-studded trades like Ogwumike’s rarely happen due to team-friendly CBA rules that keep stars at home without much say for seven seasons.

After receiving the news, she talked on the phone to her former coach, Miller, and Sparks general manager Penny Toler. When she was done, she received a pleasant surprise. There were three missed calls from her ESPN colleague, NBA super reporter Adrian Wojnarowski.

Ogwumike’s first thought was that Woj was about to share NBA news that hadn’t yet surfaced. She was still on set, after all.

“Is this happening?” Woj asked.

“What do you mean? What’s the NBA news?” Ogwumike replied.

“No. Did you get traded?” Woj said.

Ogwumike, an expert on camera, had hoped to talk about her own trade via her social media platforms and give Connecticut a hearty farewell. But Wojnarowski, who’s amassed nearly 3 million followers on Twitter, went on to break the deal, which sent the All-Star to L.A. in exchange for a 2020 first-round pick.

It was only the second bit of WNBA transactional news the world-famous reporter had ever announced, the first being the signing of Ogwumike’s new head coach and former NBA player, Derek Fisher. Instantly, everyone knew that the Sparks had just locked in a fifth All-Star (including former MVP Candace Parker) and solidified a super team. They quickly became WNBA title favorites. And Ogwumike’s phone started flooding some more.

“I felt like I was in the center of a hurricane,” Ogwumike said.

As part of her two-job routine, Ogwumike wakes up around 3 a.m. to make an hour-long drive from her WNBA-provided apartment to ESPN headquarters. At 5 a.m., she preps for four SportsCenter shows — three from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and another at noon. Hair and makeup is at 6 a.m. She then leaves ESPN around 2:30 p.m. for three hours of workouts to keep her body in playing shape. Then it’s nap time before the NBA playoffs start at night, which on the East Coast, could end after 1 a.m. Throughout the games, she dissects film and sends snippets for her producers to prepare for her next early morning show. Rinse, repeat.

Ogwumike handled a pre-planned whirlwind for an entire year, but even for her, the attention after the trade was a lot.

For five days life was a blur as she maintained that same round-the-clock schedule. She was given the day off Sunday, one day after the trade, to pack with the help of one of her best friends, who also helped her separate the things she needed in L.A. from what could wait behind in Connecticut. Then on Monday, she was right back to work, calling movers in after one set, and renting storage lockers after the next. On Tuesday, she sent her car to get shipped 2,800 miles, coast-to-coast, in between 9 and 10 a.m. SportsCenter shows. And then, on Wednesday, after sleeping in a hotel, mere hours before her 2 p.m. flight to L.A., she was asked on to Stephen A. Smith’s and Max Kellerman’s First Take to debate with the industry’s most controversial and passionate figures.

“In TV,” Ogwumike explained, “one split second losing your train of thought, you feel like the world is going to end. You all of a sudden become self conscious like, ‘all these people are watching and I have no idea what I’m doing.’” But she held her own, and even earned hard-to-get warm compliments from Stephen A.

Nearly one year to the date from when she embarked on her full-time journey with ESPN, Ogwumike has gotten a full experience, to say the least. But this season, she’ll be able to breathe a bit easier. Her place in L.A. is within walking distance to both of her jobs — at Staples Center and ESPN’s HQ. But even more importantly to her, she’ll be able to compete with her sister Nneka again, just like they did a decade ago at Stanford.

“The first thing I told her when all this happened is that ‘I want to win a championship with you.’ It would be the highest moment of my life.”