Michaela Onyenwere may have been born in Colorado, United States, but following her WNBA draft there was no doubt about her African heritage. Stealing the limelight on a career-changing day for the rising star was her grandmother, resplendent in traditional Nigerian attire.
While some may have been annoyed that the attention was elsewhere, Onyenwere was thrilled when the video of her grandmother’s celebratory dance moves went viral. “Draft night was one of the most special days of my life,” she said. “To be able to be surrounded by so many people who have been so instrumental in my development as a player and as a woman was very fulfilling.
“And then the cherry on top was obviously my grandma going viral. I thought that moment was so authentic and genuine, and I couldn’t have asked for a better night. I love my grandma and I’m glad the world was able to feel the joy she exudes on a daily basis. She was excited and was joking with me that she was ‘more famous than you now’.”
It might take a few more videos to overtake her granddaughter in the fame stakes though, because Onyenwere took the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) by storm in her first season. The six-foot forward was picked sixth in the first round of the 2021 WNBA draft by the New York Liberty and put in such an impressive showing that she claimed all four Rookie of the Month awards during the season.
After averaging 8.6 points and 2.9 rebounds in her 32 games, she was named WNBA Rookie of the Year in October last year. Only four players had achieved this clean sweep of awards before Onyenwere, and none from her own team. “Rookie of the Year was one of my most proud moments of my career, so I was really excited that I had such great teammates and coaches who really supported me in that moment.”
Also supporting her all the way was her large Nigerian family, who are no strangers to top-level sports. Onyenwere’s father Peter represented Nigeria in athletics.
Her mother Edith is also Nigerian. Having met Peter in the US, the family settled in Denver, Colorado, where they became part of a tight-knit Nigerian community. “My mom came here with my grandparents and uncles when she was young, while my dad came to America on a track scholarship to the University of Missouri,” she explained.
West African mindset
Onyenwere competed in athletics at school and was a relatively late convert to basketball. “When it came to narrowing down what I really wanted to stick with, I chose basketball because I loved the competitive nature of the sport. I also loved being able to do that in a team setting, where it wasn’t just about one individual, it was about competing for a goal together,” she said.
It didn’t take long for her to excel in the sport, leading her high school team to state championship glory before heading to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on a basketball scholarship. There she notched up a remarkable record, becoming her team’s top scorer for three straight seasons to finish her college career fourth on UCLA’s all-time scoring list.
Along the way, she was selected to represent the US at the Pan American Games in Peru in 2019.
Onyenwere credits her West African heritage and how she was raised for much of her success. “From when I was a young child to now, my parents have always instilled in me hard work and work ethic. They always preached to my brothers and I that those things will take you far, whether that’s in sports, school or life.
“Having that mindset that you have to work for everything you want, and that nothing comes easy makes West African culture so strong and successful. Because of this, I definitely think there is potential for more teams coming from Africa for sure. I have kept up with the success of the Nigerian national team, both women and men’s teams. I have also seen the progress of NBA Africa, so I think the future is very bright.”
Growing up a child of migrants in the US and celebrating a different culture isn’t always easy, but Onyenwere has come to believe she’s experienced the best of two worlds. “Living in the United States has given me a lot of opportunities, but my identity and heart lie with my Nigerian heritage. I like that I am able to have the best of both worlds, where I belong to two communities. I love that the Nigerian community seems so big, yet so small and intimate. I think that’s what makes being Nigerian so special and that pours into who I am in everything that I do. It’s why I approach both sports and life the way that I do,” said the 22-year-old.
Her grandmother’s online antics won Onyenwere many new fans in Nigeria. “After the draft I really felt the love and support from Nigerian and African people in general from abroad. I think when people saw my grandma in traditional Nigerian wear and dancing for me, it inspired a lot of people and I received hundreds of messages from Nigerian people and kids that were really heart-warming to hear.”
Now being part of the most prestigious women’s sports league in the world, Onyenwere has made a conscious decision to use the platform to speak out on important issues, particularly regarding race.
“I think being a Black woman in an industry that is primarily white male dominated, it can be hard. I think the way to deal with those hardships is to really speak up and use your voice.
“So often Black women are silenced. But speaking up confidently is so powerful and allows for conversations to be had surrounding things like societal barriers and discrimination. Although I am a part of an industry that is primarily dominated by white males, I’m really fortunate to be in a league that features 70+% Black women who continue to be at the forefront of issues when it comes to discrimination, racism, etc.
“When a league bands together to oppose these things, it is so powerful. And as athletes we have a platform to use, so I’m fortunate to be a part of a league that uses our platform in a positive way,” she said.
As basketball continues to grow in stature and in numbers, in the US and around the world, that voice will have an even further reach. This is something that fills Onyenwere with excitement as she embarks on her second pro season.
“It has been such an honour to be a part of that growth and I can’t wait to see how we continue to break barriers and push the envelope for women’s sports.”