Aug. 12, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
Chioma Nnamaka’s name does not hang from the Georgia Tech rafters, but it’s now on “the pole” in the locker room. In talking to her, it’s easy to tell that the autograph she left on campus after graduating last week left her sky high.
If you didn’t follow all that, read on and learn something about a world-traveling Swedish athlete who now that she’s kept her promise to her parents to graduate is considering leaving sport behind and moving into the world for real.
Nnamaka’s three-pointing shooting skills landed her in the school record book when she played for the Yellow Jackets from 2004-’08, and she started a then-Tech record 120 games in college.
Tours of professional basketball duty in the WNBA, France, Lithuania, Sweden and Poland have both jaded and rewarded her. Frankly, none of it measured up to the joy of participating in a Tech women’s basketball tradition of signing a certain pole upon graduation last Friday.
“We always have a party in the locker room for people who graduate. Now, the class of ’08 is complete; all four of us have graduated,” she said. “All players sign the pole with a message under the year you graduate. My classmates, they didn’t tease me but you know how we are . . . `When are you going to finish?’ “
Former teammates Janie and Daphne Mitchell and Jill Ingram, have graduated over time. Nnamaka took longer, and persistence – not only on her part, but that of her parents and coach MaChelle Joseph – pushed her across the finish line.
Soon after her eligibility expired in ’08, Nnamaka was drafted by the WNBA’s San Antonio Silver Spurs and quickly traded to the Atlanta Dream. She played a season here, and then went back to Europe.
All the while, former teammates, mom, dad, Joseph, and dad again kept bringing the heat: get that degree!
So imagine the feeling for Jonathan and Ann-Katrin Nnamaka last week when they watched the youngest of their four children graduate — on-line, via streaming video.
“My dad has always been very, very strict about education,” Nnamaka said. “He was, you know, `How about school?’ There were many conversations with [coach Joseph], even when I was playing overseas. We’ve had constant contact since I left.
“When she was recruiting me, she didn’t promise me a position. She didn’t promise a certain amount of minutes. But she did promise me I would get a good education, and she always made sure we studied.”
Pardon the word choice soon to be used, but Joseph can be a bulldog in several ways, and one distinct example is the way she looks after – and demands – that her student-athletes get after it in the classroom.
“When MaChelle recruits, she sells academics,” said Tech associate athletic director-senior women’s administrator Theresa Wenzel. “MaChelle is always pushing between two and four kids on Dean’s list. I tell people all the time that there is not another coach that challenges me more to step it up, step it up.”
Joseph’s request of Wenzel and the Athletic Association for more -not better, but more — access to academic assistance for her players paid off during Nnamaka’s career. Tech in that time began ramping up the presence of tutors on road trips and ramped up academic assistance in other ways as well.
Trying to time when Nnamaka’s new degree will pay off for her is more difficult. She has always harbored, and still does, the dream of being a police officer.
But she’s not sure if she will do that, nor if she wants to eventually settle in Atlanta or Sweden.
Nnamaka is not even sure how much longer she wants to play hoops for a living. It would not be wrong to characterize her as a basketball lifer. Her older brother played for and graduated from Marquette and plays professionally in Italy. Both older sisters played pro ball for years in Europe, and one now works in that country’s basketball federation.
Yet the time to utilize her degree in International Affairs could come soon. Or, if all goes well when she reports to Poland Sept. 4 for another season of pro hoops, that time may have to wait.
After all, life has been a year-to-year deal for a while.
“It’s been like that (tempo slows here) . . up . . until . . now,” she said with a sense for dramatic inflection. “I don’t know. I want to play this year for sure. Now that I have my degree . . . I think I will start a transition after this year, but you never know. This is the funny part . . .
“In Poland, it was probably the best basketball I played since college. Professional is so different. Playing professional, it’s a job now. It’s a lot about myself. You have to get certain stats, you know. I have to do this to survive, and get a better job, and I never had that mentality at Georgia Tech.
“In college, it was a true team sport and I liked that better. It’s not really in my nature to [ball hog]. It’s a total change from the way I played college basketball.
“I really don’t know. I’m fluent in Swedish and English, and I’m pretty good with French. I love Atlanta. I have thoughts of living here, but at the same time Sweden is my home. I think I love Sweden more. But my friends and my sisters are always saying, `There’s nothing here [in Sweden].’ I love Atlanta, and I may end up here.”
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