Notre Dame: Arike Ogunbowale’s new life as a national celebrity
This story appears in the Nov. 5, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
MGTO 30120 begins promptly at 11 a.m. on the second floor of DeBartolo Hall. Students pull notebooks out of backpacks as a bespectacled professor opens a PowerPoint presentation and reminds the class of next Tuesday’s exam. There are groans. An attendance sheet makes its way to the back row, where AO is signed on the list of alphabetized names, one of 36. Arike Ogunbowale—school hero, national celebrity, college senior—is here.
It’s early October in South Bend, group project day in Strategic Management class, and the Notre Dame star has her MacBook open to the slide that she’ll present. So far today nobody has asked her to pose for her picture, sign an autograph or watch the shot that made her an overnight star—no, not the miraculous buzzer beater she hit against UConn to send the Irish to the championship game. But rather the miraculous buzzer-beater she hit two days later, the one that beat Mississippi State to earn Notre Dame its second national title and Ogunbowale basketball immortality.
The 18-foot step-back jumper in the semis made her name trend on Twitter. The 23-foot heave in the final, which came nearly from her own bench as she fell sideways and out-of-bounds, catapulted Ogunbowale into another stratosphere of fame. Has any player, man or woman, hit two buzzer beaters in a single NCAA tournament? Ogunbowale did it in a single weekend.
Suddenly, Arike Ogunbowale (uh-REE-kay OH-gun-buh-WALL-ay) was hanging with Ellen and Kobe, meeting her favorite rappers, sharing an award show stage with Olympians and Super Bowl MVPs—even becoming a prime-time TV star. But here, she is simply a student again. In the middle of a new school year, on the cusp of a new season, she rarely thinks about those shots. This morning she woke up in her messy off-campus apartment, threw on a black hoodie and blue sweats, filled a Ziploc bag with green grapes and pineapple slices, and rode her scooter to her 9 a.m. theology class. Now Ogunbowale sits in her second class of the day, beside Marina Mabrey—point guard, roommate, best friend—and they pick at their fruit as fellow students begin to present.
When Ogunbowale was two, she would stand in the first row during her school’s holiday performances to make sure everyone could see her. Then she’d sing louder than all her classmates. “She always wanted to be on stage,” her mother, Yolanda, says. “She is a limelight girl.” Arike was known as a middle school basketball prodigy in Milwaukee, then a regional star at Divine Savior Holy Angels High. After her 55-point game in the Division 1 semifinals her senior year—which shattered a state record—the line of fans waiting for her flowed from the stands into the corridor. At Notre Dame, the 5’ 8″ shooting guard has proved to be one of the best offensive players in the nation; her 20.8 scoring average last season set a program record and earned her ACC Female Athlete of the Year honors. “She definitely is not new to the spotlight,” says her brother Dare. “She has been around it for a long time.”
Still, after the shot it was different. Yolanda, a teacher, heard from family members in Nigeria who reported seeing Arike on CNN. Her father, Gregory, a high school principal, got stopped at the gym that he had gone to for six years as strangers asked, “Wait, that was your daughter who hit that shot?” Dare, an NFL running back, met Adam Sandler, who, upon learning his last name, said, “Wait, that was your sister who hit that shot?” Yes, yes it was.
Ogunbowale stands at the front of the room and introduces herself. When her slide appears—header: broad differentiator—she talks about market presence, short-term debt and interest payments. In the back row, Mabrey takes out her cell and, like so many others over the last six months, furtively tries to snap a photo of her friend. But her flash is on and the room is briefly illuminated, forcing Mabrey to quickly hide her phone.
By now, Ogunbowale is used to it. She heads into the season not only looking to become a repeat champion—on a team that is undeniably more talented than last year’s—but also trying to live up to the impossibly high expectations that she has created for herself. She is the most famous women’s college player in the country, with a blue verified checkmark on Instagram and Kobe Bryant as a Twitter follower. The paragon of clutch. A role model for young girls. And, yes, a 21-year-old business major.
How does anyone handle that?
Notre Dame’s p.r. staff received more than 100 interview requests for Ogunbowale in the hours after the Final Four ended in Columbus, Ohio. Her phone beeped so incessantly that she turned her notifications off; six months later she has yet to put them back on. The women’s program had experienced sudden fame once before, when in 2011 the rapper Lil Wayne tweeted at sophomore guard Skylar Diggins and the school had to deploy a security detail on road trips. “It was Skylar times two,” says assistant coach Niele Ivey. “The microscope on Arike was much bigger.”
Muffet McGraw, the Irish’s coach of 31 years, sat down with her new celebrity shooting guard soon after after the team returned to South Bend, where 3,000 screaming supporters were waiting with signs celebrating Ogunbowale, some even modifying Drake lyrics. (“SHE SAY DO YOU LOVE ME? I SAY ONLY PARTLY. I ONLY LOVE MY BED AND OGUNBOWALE, I’M SORRY.”) The coach told her they would restrict media opportunities to one day a week to help her manage the load. “It didn’t really work,” McGraw says, “but that’s what we tried.”
One of the first requests came from DeGeneres, who invited Ogunbowale to Los Angeles. On her way to tape the show Ogunbowale was stopped by fans at O’Hare Airport, then on the plane, then at LAX and then on the streets outside her hotel. Backstage, she met Ice Cube and his son, the actor O’Shea Jackson Jr.—who both already knew who she was and had watched what she had done. Bryant, her favorite player, made a surprise visit on set, bringing signed jerseys for both Ogunbowale and her dog, a Goldendoodle named Kobi.
She hung out with Tee Grizzley, one of her favorite musicians, and threw out the first pitch at a Brewers game, where she got an ovation from both the home team and the visiting Cubs. (Ogunbowale had agreed to practice throwing baseballs off a mound with her mom, a college softball player, only after Yolanda showed her daughter embarrassing videos of other celebrities’ feeble attempts.)
Then Dancing with the Stars called. Producers had seen a video of Ogunbowale shimmying on the court after the championship game—a clip that, naturally, went viral. After extensive negotiations, the NCAA loosened their byzantine restrictions ever so slightly. They ruled, amazingly, that Ogunbowale was invited not for her athletic feats but for her dancing prowess, and she could participate on the show (and be paid) as long as she didn’t film promotional spots, including commercials, or appear on Good Morning America with the other contestants. Nor was she—or her coaches, or her university—allowed to post anything about the show on social media, even though success is predicated on fan support. The NCAA also prohibited her from spinning a basketball on her finger during her salsa routine, forcing her to use a disco ball instead.
Ogunbowale was still in school in April while the show filmed, so her dance partner, Gleb Savchenko, lived out of a hotel in South Bend for a month. Between classes, the duo trained for four hours a day. On the weekends they’d fly to L.A. to film. After the season premier on April 30, Ogunbowale drove directly to the airport and took a red-eye home; she had to give a presentation in Project Management at 9:30 the following morning. Still, she made it to the second week of the show before being voted out, despite receiving high scores from the judges. “She had rhythm, an amazing sense of music, great coordination,” Savchenko says. “But the schedule, the restrictions, everything was not in our favor.”
Now Ogunbowale was being recognized for both the shots and the show. She was stopped at a Denny’s and at an L.A. Sparks game, at the gym and the mall and a grocery store, walking the aisles at Walmart and working out on a hill overlooking the Milwaukee skyline, where someone tapped her on the shoulder in the middle of a set of pushups and asked to take a picture. On campus one night, she ordered Papa John’s and Mabrey opened the door. “I thought Arike was going to be here,” the deliveryman lamented.
Her family had warned her that things would be different. Every action, every comment, every interview will be dissected. Everything is for public consumption. “You now belong to the people,” Greg told her. “That’s the price of stardom.”
At the Microsoft Theater in L.A. on July 18, Hall of Fame receiver Terrell Owens looked down at the card in his hand and began to announce the ESPY winner for Best Play. “Arike. . .” he started, considering an attempt to pronounce Ogunbowale, before realizing it didn’t matter. “You know the name.”
Ogunbowale smiled and made her way to the stage. Her rhinestone dress glimmered under the lights, as the biggest names in the sports world applauded and nearly four million viewers watched. She thanked her teammates, then her coaching staff and ended her speech with a rallying cry: “Shout-out to women’s basketball as a whole,” Ogunbowale said. “A lot of people have their opinions but all I’m gonna say is, Come see us on the court.”
With another trophy in hand—this time for an award that encompasses all sports, professional and collegiate, female and male—Ogunbowale laughed, waved and walked off stage. That last line of her speech took less than 10 seconds, but it set off a firestorm. By virtue of hitting that championship-clinching shot, Ogunbowale had been thrust into the public battle for respect and equality, and now she was dealing with the ignorant social media shrapnel that came with that role. She was ready for it.
After all, Ogunbowale had seen the photos and watched the videos that mothers sent to her on Twitter—of their daughters reading the Sports Illustrated story at bedtime, or calling out “Arike!” while shooting hoops in their driveways. Some kids approached her, overcome with emotion, while the shy ones begged their parents to ask Ogunbowale for a photo. She would ask the girls about their work ethic and, if it was good, say that one day they could be even better than her.
McGraw takes great pride in having an all-female coaching staff; Notre Dame’s was the only such one at the Final Four last year. She says that her job is to empower women, and how can she do that without giving them female role models to emulate? “I feel like this generation is going to change the world,” McGraw says. “And to see all these things that Arike was being asked to do, it was great for women’s sports.”
The entire Irish team has welcomed its trailblazing role; Ogunbowale is just the most prominent—the first female basketball player to be a guest on Ellen and the first to appear on Dancing with the Stars. Mabrey had already made her opinions clear in a tweet the day after the championship game: “To all the male women’s basketball haters. Y’all can get in the kitchen and make us a sandwich now, thanks.”
After the class presentation—and a much-needed nap—Ogunbowale heads to the court, still the place where she feels most comfortable. It’s Notre Dame’s first practice of the season and excitement is high. Teammates often joke with Ogunbowale that she is big-time now, introducing themselves as her sidekick. But there appears to be no jealousy, no animus. The team views Ogunbowale’s fame and success as its own, and the star attempts to downplay her role whenever possible. At the ESPYs she sat in the back row, behind all her teammates, until a desperate producer begged her to move up.
Her friends swear that fame has not affected Ogunbowale. Still the same ol’ goofy Arike, they say, always cracking jokes, always laughing. She hasn’t changed, her family says, because she expected something like this to happen. Her dad says that Arike has always known that she was special, extraordinary; it just took the rest of us until now to find out.
It’s an interesting twist on an old tale. There’s always a worry in sports that overnight celebrities will get an inflated ego, and that will harm both their careers and their teams. But when you’ve had that ego all along, this theory goes, you are already prepared.
The players line up and begin dynamic stretches. Some of them scan the baseline and are struck by how weird it looks to have a full roster. After losing four key players to torn ACLs last season, the eventual champs famously used a six-player rotation. This year’s team not only has four starters back but 6’ 3″ sophomore center Mikayla Vaughn and 6’ 3″ All-America center Brianna Turner, a graduate student, also return from their knee injuries. Add a star-laden freshman class—highlighted by 5’ 8″ point guard Jordan Nixon—and talk of a Warriors-esque superteam is tempting.
“Any given day we have five players on the court who could be the best player in the country,” says 6’ 4″ senior forward Jessica Shepard. She, along with Ogunbowale, Mabrey and Turner, are all certain WNBA picks next season, and could possibly become the first four teammates to be selected in the first round. Rounding out the starting five is 6-foot junior guard Jackie Young, whom McGraw has called the most talented player she has ever coached.
McGraw, however, sees a potential problem with the abundance of talent. She calls the one starter who graduated, guard Kathryn Westbeld, the “glue guy” who inbounded the ball, happily set screens and took charges. With a roster full of superstars—including one celebrity—who does that now? “That’s what I’m worried about,” McGraw says.
The Irish went on a foreign tour this summer, spending two weeks in Rome and Croatia. They played round after heated round of the card games Kemp and Speed, toured the old town of Dubrovnik, boarded a pirate ship for a dinner cruise and went island-hopping on a catamaran. That was good team building, they all say. But will it help when they are locked in a close game late—say against UConn on Dec. 2, a much-anticipated rematch of last year’s semifinal—and four of those superstars must sacrifice shot attempts and potential glory for the benefit of the team? That is yet to be seen.
Ogunbowale, for her part, is tired of talking about the shot and the fame. She is ready to move on. When asked what was the best part of the last six months, the adoring fans or the award shows or the celebrity friends, Ogunbowale answers immediately: “Winning the championship.” If that means scoring, she’ll do that. If it means passing or rebounding or locking in on defense, then she’ll do that. Winning another title, however it may come, is glory enough.
After practice ends, the players discuss their dinner plans. They often gather at Ogunbowale and Mabrey’s apartment—Shepard makes a mean stir-fry—but today was supposed to be Taco Day. When it comes time to go out, however, they can’t decide between two restaurants, Evil Czech or Hacienda. A stalemate ensues. Instead the group heads to Applebee’s, where they sit unbothered, eating wings and mozzarella sticks, and not once does anybody mention the shot.
Article written by Ben Baskin #SportsIllustrated
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