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Nneka Ogwumike talks ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ and why representation matters

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For Nneka Ogwumike, part of joining the cast of “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was to challenge herself, but another goal was to make sure that every kid who watches the latest film in the series can see themselves on screen.

L.A. Sparks

It’s hard to imagine a situation that would make Nneka Ogwumike nervous.

This is the Nneka Ogwumike who led an opt out of the collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA and the players’ association to “bet on women”. The same president of the WNBPA who then helped to negotiate a landmark deal that set a new standard for what female athletes can and should expect, and then went on Good Morning America to break the news herself.

This the Nneka Ogwumike who had the ball in her hands with the Sparks down one in Game 5 of the 2016 WNBA Finals, facing the towering presence of Sylvia Fowles and finishing over her to deliver the franchise its third title and first in 14 years.

As her teammate Brittney Sykes put it, “Nneka shows you what balance and discipline looks like.... She walks with such grace, she walks with such discipline.”

And yet, to be part of “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” Ogwumike willingly put herself in a position that didn’t make just her — and the stone-cold Diana Taurasi — nervous; it made her uncomfortable. Ogwumike said that she and Taurasi, both members of the Goon Squad along with Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, and Damian Lillard, were constantly wary of messing up their lines and not appearing like neophytes among their counterparts, who were more familiar being in front of the camera.

So why would Ogwumike consent to be in such an unnatural environment?

For one, it’s “Space Jam.” Ogwumike grew up watching the movie with her sisters, listening back to the soundtrack, not even realizing the impact it was having on her in real time. When her agent told her she was going to be in the new version, her answer was simply, “Say less”.

It was also a matter of personal growth. Ogwumike says, “acting was not easy, but I loved the challenge”. Think about all the accolades Ogwumike has in her basketball career: she’s been a No. 1 pick, a rookie of the year, an All-Star, an MVP, a WNBA champion, and a two-time World Cup gold medalist. She sets goals, and she meets them. Finding a way to challenge herself off the court, even if that task was navigating her movements in CGI, is all part of the process of continuing to grow.

“Nothing grows in a comfort zone really, and acting in that movie was just kind of like a microcosm of that experience in my life,” Ogwumike said. “You can’t care about what other people are saying, do things to the best of your ability, leave people remembering how you treated them, walk in grace... That’s kind of everything that I felt when I was shooting the movie.”

But the main reason why it was important for Ogwumike to be a part of this project is because of what it means to have female representation in this specific movie.

The original “Space Jam” had five NBA players on the Monstars. The updated Goon Squad has two WNBA players and three NBA players, and the women are the only MVPs.

“It’s huge, especially in the time that we’re in, you know we’re experiencing a time in which women’s basketball is catching fire, it’s really igniting,” Ogwumike said. “And so for that representation to be in there, it’s a testament to the time that we’re in, it’s a testament to a new legacy, it’s a testament to I think LeBron, and Warner Brothers’ awareness on what’s important, and having that representation was important.

“Obviously to have 2 WNBA players shows you the growth in the game, it shows you the growth in films,” Sykes said. “It’s always male athletes in videos and movies, but now we’re starting to see more women... it will be dope to show little girls.”

Ogwumike hosted a screening of the new film for youth from Brotherhood Crusade, a charitable organization that describes itself as having “a vision of improving quality of life and meeting the unmet needs of low-income, underserved, under-represented, and disenfranchised individuals.”

And even though the kids had tons of questions about LeBron James afterwards, they were also excited to meet the star who — spoiler alert — gets to dunk on James in the film. Sure, it happens when she’s in her Arachnneka form, but it’s undeniably clear that Ogwumike is making the highlight. That matters.

Nneka Ogwumike took questions from kids from Brotherhood Crusade after an advance screening of “Space Jam: A New Legacy.”
L.A. Sparks

“It’s just amazing to be in the movie, not just for kids to be able to watch it and also me to interact with them, but also in the world that we’re in, I feel like that was a great experience, you know, it kind of signifies what we want to get back to,” Ogwumike said after the screening. “And then also hopefully jumpstarts their interest in basketball, sport, and women in sport too.

“I would hope that they were excited, as excited as I was to be in the movie,” Ogwumike added. “It’s just so meaningful. And I speak from experience growing up and like seeing people on the screen, seeing people on the court that look like you.... I say this all the time, you know, when people think about representation, especially in sport, they think about immediately what we see on the court. And no, it’s about GM, president, media, everyone, whether it’s advocacy or allyship, and so I felt that doing this movie, watching this movie, and I hope that the young kids feel it too.”

It seems like the acting bug has bit Ogwumike; while she doesn’t want to emulate The Rock in terms of being a crossover star, she’d like to try her hand at film again, especially in a role that doesn’t require her to play herself.

It’s all about the pushing her boundaries, so that what initially feels unnatural will feel ordinary. Whether that means she can play big in front of a camera without being embarrassed, or that a female basketball player in a big-time film is expected instead of revolutionary, Ogwumike is all about expanding possibilities. That’s her new legacy.

“Space Jam: A New Legacy” premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on July 16. You can follow Sabreena on Twitter at @sabreenajm.