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Nneka Ogwumike is guiding force Sparks but falls short against Sky

Nneka Ogwumike could have been focusing on her own pregame routine. Instead, the 11-year veteran was tutoring rookie Olivia Nelson-Ododa before the Sparks game against the Chicago Sky at Crypto.com Arena on Thursday.

Candace Parker waited in the locker room. Ogwumike mentored the rookie on low post moves and polishing her footwork.

“That’s why she’s an All-Star,” said interim coach Fred Williams with a smile.

The Sparks forward was named an All-Star starter Wednesday for the first time in her 11-year career, earning her seventh overall All-Star honor. But Parker dominated the battle of seven-time All-Stars, recording a 10-point, 10-assist, 14-rebound triple double in three quarters of the 82-59 blowout in her first game in L.A. since leaving as a free agent in 2021. She became the first player in WNBA history with three triple-doubles and the first with two in the same season after reaching the milestone on May 22.

Ogwumike had 15 points, four rebounds and three assists as the Sparks (6-10) suffered their fourth loss in five games.

About 10 months ago, Ogwumike broke down in tears in front of reporters recalling the challenges of her 2021 season. Not only did she suffer the first significant injury of her career — missing 14 games with a sprained knee — but she was left off the Olympic roster for a third consecutive cycle in a controversial snub.

After the Olympic break, Ogwumike said she felt “unvaluable or unworthy.”

Back at full strength, Ogwumike is proving just how valuable she still is for not only the Sparks, but the WNBA. She starred in a WNBA Sports Illustrated swimsuit spread this season and she led the Sparks with 18 points and 7.7 rebounds entering Thursday’s game. Ogwumike has the trust of her teammates to deliver clutch baskets on the court and always has the answers off it.

“The whole building could be on fire, and she would be able to keep us calm and tell us what to do,” said forward Katie Lou Samuelson, whose older sister Bonnie played with Ogwumike for one year at Stanford.

Trailing by 17 early in the second quarter, the Sparks again turned to Ogwumike. She scored six of the team’s next eight unanswered points.

Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike shoots during a game.

(Kamil Krzaczynski / Associated Press)

But Ogwumike’s steadying presence was no match for Chicago (12-5).

Parker dazzled in her former home arena with 12 rebounds and nine assists in the first half. A left-handed layup with 5.2 seconds remaining in the third quarter gave Parker her ninth and 10th points, making her just the second player in league history to reach a triple-double in three quarters.

The 36-year-old’s free- agency departure was a significant blow to the franchise that drafted her in 2008, signaling the Sparks’ continued fall from the league’s elite.

While Parker brought her hometown Sky its first WNBA championship, Ogwumike was left to carry the Sparks franchise alone.

She’s been a maternal figure for all WNBA players as the players association president.

But the additional responsibilities weighed on Ogwumike, so following the disappointment of last year, Ogwumike did something rare. She prioritized herself.

“I always tell myself this: ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup,’” Ogwumike said after Thursday’s shootaround. “It’ll suit everyone better if I help myself first and then can help everyone else.”

When she learned that she would be an All-Star again, Ogwumike thanked her teammates. Ogwumike, always one to put others first, told her teammates that achievements like these don’t happen alone.



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