Early in the recruiting process, Michelle Nwokedi’s file was dismissed by Penn women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin — for being too good.
“I remember in high school, I was getting all these generic letters, going to people’s camps, and obviously the big schools are the ones where I was like ‘Oh my god! Texas A&M! Texas!’” Nwokedi said. “And then I got a University of Pennsylvania one, and I was like ‘what is this?’ you know?”
“Coach McLaughlin will tell you, but he said that he had put my folder away because I didn’t seem interested. And then after talking with my brother and talking with my parents, when we finally looked at the long term of going to school and using school in order to get a good education, we realized that Penn is a great opportunity. [We] opened up the other Ivy League [teams], and contacted coach McLaughlin again.”
“Coach McLaughlin always says, ‘I had to go back to my folder and be like who is this girl’ and from then on, visiting Philadelphia, visiting the team, seeing the team, seeing how his program was running, I loved Penn.”
That story tells you almost everything you need to know about Nwokedi.
One: she was talented enough to get looks from major programs in the power five conferences.
Two: family is hugely important to her — both in her hometown of Missouri City, Texas, right outside Houston — and on the court in Red and Blue.
But perhaps most notably, Nwokedi is a master storyteller.
When I asked her teammates for a classic story about Nwokedi that was emblematic of her personality in some way, they all drew a blank.
“There’s just too many,” Ashley Russell said.
The handful that kept popping up, retold by teammates and coaches alike, were told best by Nwokedi herself.
“I remember [McLaughlin] did a home visit before I came to Penn, and my dad’s like racking his brain: ‘What do we cook for them? Should we order takeout?’ Coach McLaughlin’s assistant [Chris Day] said [McLaughlin] was like, ‘I am so nervous,’ because my dad has the strongest accent.”
The Nwokedi family is Nigerian, and Michelle worried that McLaughlin would struggle to understand her dad’s accent.
“I was trying to kind of translate what my dad was saying,” she said. “It’s so funny now because coach McLaughlin and my dad know each other now, four years later, but at the time it was kind of like ‘What is this man saying?’ It’s a really heavy accent.”
Michelle’s position as an intermediary between strangers would become a recurring theme. In part because of her membership in Friars Senior Society, Nwokedi is the clear social butterfly of Penn women’s basketball. Senior guard Anna Ross used a different word: socialite.
“She’s our leader. She’s our socialite I would say. She gets people to do things and introduces us to people; a lot of people know her on campus. She’s very social. I think that’s just someone we need to take us places and do different things,” Ross said.
Nwokedi’s trend-setting power as the social leader of the team has led to opportunities that only fell through due to the pervasive threat of potential NCAA rules violations.
That story, the now famous (infamous?) Heely story is certainly worth re-telling.
“That was a weird time for us,” Ross began. “It was a group decision. It was like four of us: Ashley, Kristen [Daley], me and Michelle. And I don’t know how it started, it was just so random, but someone was like ‘remember when we used to wear Heelys?’ and then we all just went online like ‘Oh my god they’re only $15, let’s all get them!’”
“So we all got different teams — I think I had Alabama, and someone had Tennessee — it was so weird. And then we tweeted it, we tagged Heelys, and they wanted to make us a Penn one. We were so excited, but it never happened. NCAA rules or something like that, but it was in the works for a while. We were so excited: ‘We’re getting Heelys! Everyone on the team!’”
Bringing back old footwear trends is just one way Nwokedi wields her influence. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Nwokedi spearheaded a fundraising effort that raised over $3,500 towards the relief effort.
“I’m from Houston,” Nwokedi said at the time. “That’s something I’ve probably said a thousand times. It’s one of the very first things I say when meeting new people or describing myself. Houston is part of who I am, so I knew I had to help.”
Off-the-court-Michelle might be the “socialite” Ross describes her as. She could also be described as in academic or service terms — the senior was one of thirty student-athletes nationwide to be candidates for the Senior CLASS Award, awarded to the most outstanding senior Division I student-athlete in their sport.
On the court, Michelle is much more easily categorized: she’s a power forward. Surprisingly, even with what seems like an obvious fit with the position, Nwokedi saw herself as a guard coming out of high school.
“When I came into Penn, I was like the size of my pinky,” she said. “This is crazy to think about, but I was more of a guard in AAU and in high school. So when I came to Penn, this is why I struggled at the beginning, because I was going up against Kara Bonenberger [C‘15], Sydney [Stipanovich C’17], all these girls who had been in college for — what was it, two years, three years?”
This is partially modest from Nwokedi, who despite her “struggles” appeared in all 30 games that season and went on to be named Ivy League Rookie of the Year.
“I didn’t really have much of a post skill set,” Nwokedi continued. “Coach Day, who was the post coach then, he really took my game to the next level, quick too. I always give him credit for the core of my post game, because without him I can’t even imagine what type of player I would be.”
“[Michelle] came to our elite camp, and this girl was just shooting threes; like she would not go underneath the three-point line. We [the coaches] were like, ‘Listen. You are 6-foot-3. This ain’t gonna work,” Day said, laughing. “It was funny. Her post ability was very … raw. She would make a post move and like skid the ball on the other side of the backboard. As far as a post move … It was interesting.”
According to Day, who is now the head coach at Vermont, Nwokedi’s lack of expertise playing with her back to the basket was due to the fact that she never had to learn that skill to be effective in high school or in AAU. Instead, she just dominated with pure athleticism.
Day, along with McLaughlin and the rest of the coaching staff, recognized that in the Ivy League, that athleticism, paired with a more refined technique, could result in the star Nwokedi is today.
“We took her pretty much from scratch with her back to the basket, but you know, her God-given athletic ability helped her pick up things quickly,” Day said. “It wasn’t that difficult, but you know, she’s not telling a story, that’s the truth!”
Day’s favorite Michelle story is one of two involving fast-food fried chicken.
“The biggest thing for us, with all the minorities hanging on the Penn team, is we all love Popeyes chicken. So, I’m up here this year, at Vermont, and Michelle texts me and goes, ‘Coach Day! Can you believe they didn’t put us at the hotel in front of Popeyes?!”
Day laughed when I told him Michelle had shared the same story with me.
“I’m telling you,” he said laughing, “I was peeing my pants. I’m like ‘Michelle, see what happens when they don’t have Black people on the staff? They don’t prioritize the right stuff!’ That was a big connective piece there. That was the biggest thing, just having fun with that type of stuff with Michelle.”
Michelle’s telling of the story was more passionate. The hotel in question is in New Haven, Conn., where the team stayed during the road trip to Yale in the three years before this season. Nwokedi said that she went to Christine McCollum, the team’s Director of Basketball Operations, and preemptively blamed the lack of pregame Popeyes for her performance. McCullom escaped too much blame however, as Michelle was a bucket short of a double-double and the Popeye-less Quakers left New Haven with a win.
The other chicken story revolves around a Chick-fil-A order Michelle made in high school, recently made known to her teammates at Penn thanks to Twitter. Here’s Michelle:
“In high school, we used to be able to go off campus for lunch. One time, I don’t really remember, but I think I thought that they had forgotten my spicy chicken sandwich. And that was huge for me because Chick-fil-A. I love Chick-fil-A, and so I was freaking out.”
Her teammates had a slightly different interpretation of the story.
“One of her friends from high school just tweeted out randomly @PennWBB [the team’s twitter handle], and we were all like, ‘Oh my god that’s such a Michelle thing, she was the same when she was in high school!’” Ross said. “She loves Chick-fil-A and she’s also so dramatic so if she doesn’t get her way, it’s like … ‘Why didn’t you get it right?!’ If we were there we would have been scared definitely but it was a high school friend who tweeted that and it was not surprising at all.”
Later, Ross would take back the description of Michelle as dramatic in favor of “very emotional”.
Michelle overheard Ross’ comment, and helpfully supplied the right word.
“I’m very passionate,” she said.
Michelle’s passion on the court, and her transition to the forward position under coach Day, who she credited with the biggest influence on her game, have propelled her to the top of the Ivy League. After winning Rookie of the Year, Nwokedi succeeded Stipanovich as Ivy League Player of the Year last season. Nwokedi is also the first player in conference history to have more than 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 300 blocks.
Along with Stipanovich and the newly named Ivy League Rookie of the Year, Eleah Parker, Nwokedi is in the middle of a great Penn forward pipeline. All three players were recognized as the Ancient Eight’s top freshman in their respective classes, and both Stipanovich and Nwokedi were Player of the Year in the junior seasons. If that pattern holds, Parker has a lot to look forward to.
The hardest part of writing about someone like Nwokedi is trying to figure out which of her stories to exclude. Among them: her feelings about Yale, the Bachelor, Friars, and pregame meals. Ultimately, I find myself in the same position as her teammates.
There’s just too many.