When trip to White House proves tough to schedule, Obama pens letter to Sparks

ByMichelle Smith via ESPN logo
Friday, January 20, 2017

The WNBA MVP checked her phone halfway across the world, saw the message with the letter attached and didn't even try to bottle the emotion.

"I got goose bumps when I saw President Obama's signature on the letter," Nneka Ogwumike said from Moscow in the early hours of Thursday morning.

"Congratulations on winning the 2016 WNBA championship," the letter began. "Winning a title is never easy. Your hard work and determination set an impressive example, and your victory reflects the character and resilience you demonstrate both on and off the court. I admire your commitment to giving back and making a difference in your community.

"Congratulations, again, in your well-deserved success. I wish you all the very best. Sincerely, Barack Obama."

The Los Angeles Sparks won the 2016 WNBA title, capturing the crown jewel of the league's landmark 20th season in thrilling fashion, with Ogwumike hitting a championship-deciding shot from the baseline to end a dramatic five-game series against the Minnesota Lynx.

Ogwumike, the newly elected president of the WNBA Players Association, said it took about a week for the accomplishment to set in.

"Honestly, after Game 5, I was thinking about Game 6," Ogwumike said. "It didn't feel like we were done."

By then, she preparing to leave to play in Russia for the winter and was already thinking about how the Sparks players could find a way to meet President Obama for the traditional championship celebration before he left office.

Ogwumike talked with her teammates and they were on the same page. The Sparks players wanted the acknowledgement of a president who consistently expressed an authentic appreciation for the accomplishments of female athletes during his eight years in office.

"We wanted to be a part of the legacy of President Obama before the end of the transition," Ogwumike said. "But we knew with everybody's overseas commitments, it was going to limit what was available to us. We are grateful we had people who were ready to act on our behalf. This could easily have been a situation where things were just going to be left as they were. But they weren't and we are excited for that."

Terri Jackson, the WNBAPA's director of operations, said the conversations about trying to visit President Obama have been happening for several months.

"Our players were asking, 'What can we do? How can we make something happen?'" Jackson said. "The players were so clearly inspired by him, they felt he spoke to them, as women and as athletes. Our players felt he embraced diversity and inclusivity. It's everything our membership is about. But we knew our window was closing fast."

Jackson said she and others at the players union reached out to people they knew at the White House for guidance. Ogwumike contacted the WNBA to see if the league could help. And for a long time, it was very quiet, with no word from the White House.

Jackson said the union made one last push after the holidays. And then on Tuesday, the letter on White House letterhead arrived.

"We are all just so pleased that he made the space and time to do it, considering all the other things he had on his plate," Jackson said. "This was a great outcome."

Sparks coach Brian Agler said he was also grateful the president had taken the time.

Agler met President Obama in 2011, when the 2010 WNBA champion Seattle Storm were honored at the White House. He had a few moments alone with the commander-in-chief.

"We were waiting for the event to start and we were having a conversation about our kids," Agler said. "He said that he was never more nervous than watching his daughter play basketball. I can relate to that.

"He was just a good guy. That is something I will take away from him being president. I'm so grateful I had that chance to talk to him."

Agler was also thrilled to hear that President Obama recognized the Sparks on Tuesday.

"He's a big sports fan, he gets it," Agler said. "His respect was genuine and we appreciate that he took the time."

It isn't clear whether the Sparks will be invited to the White House for recognition from President Trump. It is the White House's job to extend the invitation.

"I'm not even sure what's going to happen next summer," Ogwumike said.