From Sparks to the Goon Squad: Nneka Ogwumike transforms for 'Space Jam: A New Legacy'

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Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike (30) talks to her teammates during a WNBA basketball.
Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike has gone from WNBA star and union president to social justice advocate and movie star in recent years. (Associated Press)

Nneka Ogwumike’s agent called with an offer a few years ago. The Sparks forward had never done anything like it before. It might be out of her comfort zone. But it could be huge.

Want to be in "Space Jam?"

“Say less,” Ogwumike responded immediately.

Already a star on the court for the Sparks and a vocal leader for the WNBA as its players association president, Ogwumike added actor to her résumé after working on the film “Space Jam: A New Legacy” that premieres Friday. Ogwumike teams with Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Diana Taurasi and Anthony Davis to form the Goon Squad that faces LeBron James and the Tune Squad in a remake of the 1996 film starring Michael Jordan.

The original movie once brought Ogwumike and her three younger sisters together in front of the TV. They obsessed over the soundtrack as much as the sight of Bugs Bunny holding a bottle of “Michael’s Secret Stuff" or Jordan’s arm stretching the length of the court for the final basket. The offer to participate in the adaptation for a new generation felt too good to be true.

Even after she accepted, Ogwumike fretted the opportunity would fall through. She half-joked to her younger sister and teammate Chiney that they might cut her character out.

It got real when Warner Bros. executives presented the sketch of Arachnneka, a black and red spider-like basketball player with six arms, two legs and braided hair. They were hoping Ogwumike would like it.

“I could have been a friggin' cup of water and I would have been OK,” Ogwumike said Friday after a private screening of the movie for kids with the Brotherhood Crusade. “I was just grateful for the opportunity.”

Standing in front of a theater with about 40 kids from the organization that serves low-income and disenfranchised individuals in Los Angeles, Ogwumike symbolized the movie’s tagline “a new legacy.” In addition to highlighting James' relationship with a son who is more interested in computer programming than basketball, the film celebrates men’s and women’s basketball stars as equals, mirroring the growth in the women’s game.

“We’re experiencing a time in which women’s basketball is catching fire,” Ogwumike said. “It’s really igniting, 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 Bros.’ awareness on what’s important. And having that representation is important.”

To the Sparks, there's no better person than Ogwumike to carry the torch for the WNBA in the blockbuster film.

“I feel like Nneka is in a class of her own in terms of her power and her impact and her grace on and off the court [and] how consistent and efficient she is in everything that she does,” Sparks coach Derek Fisher said.

A novice actor, Ogwumike said she felt nervous during her roughly seven days on set. She wore motion-capture suits that allowed her character to move its arms and legs just like the former most valuable player. Her favorite part was the voiceovers.

Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers star whose character's name, Chronos, is a nod to his nickname, “Dame Time,” was the most comfortable actor. He likely gets plenty of practice as a rapper, Ogwumike reasoned. Davis had a natural synergy with James, his Lakers teammate. The Phoenix Mercury's usually unflappable Taurasi, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer, was uncharacteristically nervous on set.

“It was just me and D like, ‘Yo, we can’t mess up our lines,’” Ogwumike said, chuckling.

Ogwumike appears in the film in her human form briefly before getting scanned into a video game where she is transformed into Arachnneka. Her lines are limited, but she steals the show while dunking on James more than a dozen times and bouncing the ball off the leading actor’s face.

Sparks guard Brittney Sykes marveled at Ogwumike’s ability to balance basketball, advocacy and her first movie role. Although Ogwumike hates it when her teammates call her a “movie star” the guard isn’t holding her applause.

“Emmy, Golden Globe, Oscar, whatever you want to do, just give her every award that you could possibly give her,” Sykes said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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