Behind the orange carpet: Personalities shine beyond fashion and Nneka Ogwumike uplifts Brittney Griner

CHICAGO — The reigning league MVP stepped off the orange carpet, around the crowd and spotted a mirror. Jonquel Jones smiled and pulled off a quick little dance move before stepping into the fray of print reporters, her final stop in a night of cameras and recorders. Her hoverboard unfortunately had to stay in Connecticut, but her artistic white, light and dark blue collared shirt was a hit.

On its face, the first day of WNBA All-Star weekend is about the fashion. A few players into the queue, a TV reporter yelled over the noise, "who are you wearing?" It transported everyone briefly to an Oscars red carpet rather than an orange ensemble with Wilson WNBA basketballs and candles leading the way to the space. Beyond that it's an opportunity for players to show their personalities, a chance too often left off the table for female athletes.

Candace Parker, who would not dance especially sans music, remembers her first All-Star game a decade ago and it "was nothing like this."

"I remember walking in and there was like one person clicking a picture," Parker said. "Now we're here and that's super special. Even the events surrounding it. Now it's multiple days. Before it's like, you arrived and there was practice and then [the game]."

Parker equates herself more to Kevin Durant with the sweatpants tunnel fits. She'll dress up when it's called for, but joked otherwise there might be spit-up on her shoulder from her infant son. But there are more than just her in the league and one tale isn't the full story.

"I think it's unique and it's able to show the personality," she said. "I think it's a unique opportunity to learn about the players and any time you're able to do that it's going to be more marketable and you're going to be able to see more faces on social media and it's going to bring more attention to the women's game."

Arike Ogunbowale wore an outfit designed by Kristine Anigwe, who briefly played for the Dallas Wings in 2019 and 2021. Dearica Hamby designs her fits, which have become popular on the Las Vegas Aces' social accounts, and has them made. Nneka Ogwumike focuses on Black-owned brands, women-owned brands and shirts with messages. Sue Bird is working with a stylist and would not have worn leather pants, but ended up enjoying them.

Players credited retired star Cappie Pondexter being an OG of the W's fashion game. They also shouted out Kahleah Copper, the reigning Finals MVP, for her style. It's another passing of the torch as legends leave the game in good, fashionable hands.

Nneka Ogwumike on uplifting Brittney Griner

Missing from the orange carpet festivities was Brittney Griner, who was named an honorary starter by WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and the league. Griner remains detained in Russia and pleaded guilty to drug charges in what was an expected move to help her come home sooner. More than 99 percent of cases in Russian courts reportedly end in conviction.

"If it's one of us, it's all of us," Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA Players Association, said. "For me, BG is — it's a little emotional for me. I've known BG since I was 16, I've been playing against her since I was 16. She's my dad's favorite player. She's a big teddy bear. And for her to be in that situation is not easy, but we need to continue to remind everyone that she's one of us. She is an American, she is one of the 144 [WNBA players]. She's a hero. We should see ourselves in her. We need to continue to uplift our voice, especially using this All-Star platform."

Ogwumike, Sue Bird and the WNBPA held a small press conference with the Rev. Al Sharpton and Griner's wife, Cherelle, before the orange carpet. Ogwumike said uplifting Griner's name and uplifting Cherelle "continue to be a priority."

"She supports BG so much," Ogwumike said. "And BG really shines a light on her in a way that's really inspiring. And i don't know, it's just crazy too for her to be studying for the bar in all of this. the timing of this is all just very unique."

Griner was in Russia reporting to UMMC Ekaterinburg out of the international break in February. Fellow Americans on the team left amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and have since signed with other clubs for the 2022-23 season. The powerhouse was kicked out of EuroLeague play after the invasion.

Chicago Sky center Emma Meesseman, a Belgian national who will play in Turkey, doesn't see the situation changing while there is still a war. But there's a downside to taking away a supportive market.

"I can only hope in the future Russia is going to be accepted again in the basketball competitions because basketball over there is really separated from politics and all those players deserve to show their talents because they have some great players," Meesseman said. "I can speak for Ekat, and I think they've done a wonderful job for women's basketball so it's kind of sad right now.

Sue Bird reflects on Megan Rapinoe's White House moment

Sue Bird is having a hectic week. The four-time WNBA champion was at the White House (again) on Friday to watch Megan Rapinoe, her fiance, accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was the first time Bird said she had been there for someone else, and outside of a sports accomplishment.

"There was a different air in the room, especially looking up at all the recipients," Bird said, adding "these are people who have literally changed the world."

Bird and Sylvia Fowles are serving as co-captains in honor of their final All-Star games. Both have announced their retirements. Bird said she's soaking in the weekend.

"What my experience tells me is there's no way to really capture it with a photograph, there's no way to capture it with a mental image," Bird said. "It's really just about being in the moment, being present, enjoying it. and those are the memories that last forever. We just took a 20-minute bus ride and chatted. I'll remember that more than any shot I'll take in the All-Star game. It's those memories, those moments that always last so I'm just trying to be present."

WNBA All-Star will feature new rules

The WNBA announced new rules for Sunday's All-Star game and they were a hit with the high-scorers in the league. There will be a four-point shot available with circles in each of the corners, 28 feet from the rim.

Will players be aiming for it?

"Absolutely. This was made for me," the Aces' Kelsey Plum said. For Ogunbowale the answer was a quick, "of course."

The shot clock will be decreased from 24 seconds to 20 seconds. And there will be no free throws until the last two minutes of the fourth quarter and a potential overtime. All fouls that would result in attempts will be two points.

"It's entertaining for fans," Plum said. "Because who wants to wait for us to take free throws?"