It takes more than big names to win games in the W.N.B.A. The New York Times is talking to players across the league who are making an impact in their own way.
Kristine Anigwe has spent most of her career watching — and then getting better.
Born in London to Nigerian parents, Anigwe didn’t play basketball until she started middle school in the United States. She gave volleyball and track a shot before trying out for her high school’s basketball team in Phoenix.
“I was super raw, and I didn’t think I was very good,” said Anigwe, who was 6-foot-3 her freshman year. “I felt I was really just relying on my height. I wasn’t really that athletic.”
Unexpectedly, she made varsity and, although she didn’t play much that first year, her coach instilled in her the importance of watching, learning and growing from others.
Anigwe used her observations to dissect the game and, ultimately, to dominate. In 2019, she left the University of California, Berkeley, as the program’s career leader in points and rebounds. She was also second-team All-American, and drafted ninth over all by the Connecticut Sun in that year’s draft.
The forward (and sometime center) played 17 games for the Sun last season, averaging 7.1 minutes, 2.0 points and 1.8 rebounds a game, before being traded to the Dallas Wings for league veteran Theresa Plaisance. At Dallas, she averaged 12.9 minutes, 3.2 points and 3.8 rebounds in 10 games, before being scooped up by the Los Angeles Sparks in May for a second-round pick in the 2021 draft.
Anigwe entered a team that starts All-star forwards Candace Parker, a two-time M.V.P. and two-time Olympic gold medalist, and Nneka Ogwumike, the 2016 league M.V.P. Playing behind them this season, she has averaged 9.6 minutes per game, making the most of her role on a Sparks team vying for another championship run. Anigwe shot 4-for-4 in 16 minutes against the Mystics this month, following it up with a 2-for-4 performance in four minutes against Atlanta.
With limited stretches on the court, and the Sparks gaining ground in the Western Conference standings ahead of the playoffs, Anigwe is sticking to the lessons she learned in high school: watch, learn and be ready.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Q: What’s your secret? How do you train and stay so good?
Anigwe: I worked out a lot in Los Angeles this summer. With the pandemic and everything going on in the world right now, I just tried to do stay-at-home workouts and I ended up being in L.A. working out with my trainer.
In L.A., it was super convenient because the lifting and the basketball were all in one place, so I don’t have to leave and go elsewhere before I worked out, and I ended up doing my conditioning all in one.
How has the bubble changed your game? What are you going to take away from the bubble?
The bubble has been super interesting to learn where your weaknesses are because you’re isolated, and that kind of shows who you are on your own. I’ve been really focusing on who I am as a person without basketball. Who am I? What is my foundation? What are my morals? What do I stand by?
Being on this team, being behind so many great players and so many players who have really made their marks on this league, I’ve come to understand that sometimes I’m going to play, and sometimes I’m not. And the times I’m not, I can’t be so hard on myself. I have to keep learning and improving because I have to stay ready. Being in the bubble, I’m in that position where there’s just so many people in my position that have already proven themselves in the league, so “stay ready” has been my mantra. Our coach preaches that every single day: “stay ready, stay ready, stay ready.” I think I’ve done a good job with keeping myself in the best shape I could possibly be in.
It helps that I have super dope mentors, thinking about Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, in particular, also Tierra Ruffin-Pratt. They helped me get to that next level because sometimes I’m hard on myself. In the bubble, both being hard on myself and also being isolated is a recipe for disaster. I’ve been leaning on them a lot and I think that’s helped elevate my game, because you have to be on your toes all the time or somebody can take your position. Somebody is gaining a career game every night — that is how good our team is.
What is your favorite off-court time in the bubble?
After practice. Afternoon time where I get to relax, watch television, read a book or talk to my family. Especially being in the bubble right now, usually we practice from that 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. slot, and then we go have time to just recharge. Before that time right now we’re getting ready for some type of rehab. But after practice it’s like time for yourself, time to decompress and chill.
This season is dedicated to Breonna Taylor. What do you hope the season can do for social justice and how does it feel to play in her honor?
Before every game, we’re watching clips of her. I get really emotional. We take a moment of silence and I pray because I know that Black women in America, Black women in society, are so underappreciated. Deaths like this happen without any repercussions. That angers me. I play not only to honor her, but to honor so many other women that have been in situations where they are not heard, are not respected — and where people are not held accountable for hurting them, for killing them and for disrespecting them.
Having Breonna Taylor on the back of my jersey means so much more. I can’t take anything for granted. I have to go there and play like it’s my last game because she did not know that would be the last day she would live. She thought she was safe in her own home. And for her life to be taken in the safety of her own household — that gives me chills, even talking about it, because I know that to be Black in America is almost like a death sentence.
What are you most excited about for the rest of the season and your career?
I’m someone who absorbs so much information, so what I’ve been doing: observing my teammates who’ve been at the highest level. From being in a situation where I can just call Candace to ask her questions — questions I’ve been thinking about or even just all of a sudden. I can go ask Nneka or Seimone Augustus, these legendary players. Chelsea Gray has been someone that I ask her questions probably every day, even for something random. There’s so many great people, so many legends, and that’s something that has been motivating me; I have to be at my best so I can help them. They’re putting their bodies on the line every single time they get on the court.
I know we can win the championship, I know we’re that good.