Senior forward Michaela Onyenwere arrived in Westwood after winning a Colorado state basketball title, and being named a McDonald’s All-American, Ms. Colorado Basketball and the state’s three-time Gatorade player of the year.
Despite playing behind two of the best to ever hit the hardwood for UCLA, and a third player that was also drafted into the WNBA, Onyenwere showed a lot of promise and potential as a freshman. The following summer she trained numerous hours each day to improve her game, and it paid off in her sophomore year. She was the top scorer for the Bruins, averaging 18.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per outing, and she notched 13 double-doubles in guiding them back to the Sweet 16. She repeated that performance as a junior, putting up almost identical statistics while increasing her efficiency and passing the 1,000-point career mark.
Onyenwere has worked relentlessly to better her basketball skills and acumen. UCLA coach Cori Close has said she went from not knowing plays to explaining them to underclassmen; and that she was formerly a liability on defense. Last year Onyenwere was on track to be chosen to represent the U.S. at the Tokyo Olympics in 3X3 play before the COVID-19 pandemic shut all competition down.
This past summer Onyenwere joined with her teammates in creating a social justice advocacy group, This Is More Than A D.R.E.A.M., with the help of assistant coaches Shannon Perry-LeBeauf and Tasha Brown. Her father, Peter, competed in the Olympics in track and field for Nigeria more than 40 years ago.
Coming into this season, Onyenwere was named to the watch list for the Naismith Award, the Wade Trophy, the Wooden Award, and the Cheryl Miller Award. Yesterday, in the Bruin’s upset of Oregon, she put up a career-high 33 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Onyenwere has not yet decided whether she will enter the WNBA draft this spring or stay at UCLA for a fifth year, as is permitted by the NCAA due to the pandemic.
When is the first time you engaged in athletics, or picked up a piece of sports equipment?
Honestly, the very first time I was 10, and I played tennis for a little bit and I hated it, but my mom made me do it. But organized sports? It was middle school – seventh grade. I played volleyball, I played basketball and I ran track until I switched middle schools.
So you were kind of a late bloomer.
Yeah, I really didn’t start sports until I was about 12, like, really play sports.
You had all this latent talent you didn’t even know about.
Yeah. I tried out basketball for fun, honestly, because I went to a private Catholic school from kindergarten to sixth grade, and I ended up switching to a public school which had sports. So I thought I’d try it out, and I ended up really liking it and sticking with basketball and track through high school.
Do you feel like having four brothers made you tougher in sport?
I think so. My older two brothers are my half-brothers, so I didn’t grow up with them. But my older brother played football, basketball and baseball and my younger played basketball and football, and then my dad was in the Olympics, so I’ve always been around sports. I think that propelled me to do sports at some point, I think it was inevitable. I can also talk sports with my uncles; one went to college for wrestling. We’re a sport-heavy family.
I always get cute text messages (from family members), and my cousins watch my games and wear UCLA gear.
What events did you compete in, in track and field?
All of them. I did primarily the 100, the 200 and the 400. Sprinkled into my senior year I did long jump, the 4X100, the 4X400, the 4X200, the sprint medley. So I was kind of all over the place.
Of all of your time in various sports, including track, volleyball and basketball, what was your hardest or most challenging game or race, and why?
I would say for track, my freshman year was the state 100. I was pretty fast, but I didn’t have much technique. But there were (older) others for who, this was their sport. I was the fourth seed for my time, and I ended up finishing sixth. I tried, but some of those girls ended up going to college at LSU, Texas. At the time I was really disappointed, but I realized that those were grown people I was going against. I was a freshman and they were all seniors. Or, any 400, because as you know, the 400 is the hardest. It’s a full sprint.
In my junior year of high school in basketball, we lost in the state championships final four. We were 27-1 and that game was the only one we lost. It was rough to lose like that; we hadn’t lost all year. But I’m super glad we bounced back and won in my senior year. We won state in basketball and track in my senior year.
Wow, that’s a great way to go out!
(Laughs) Yeah, it really is.
‘When you look back on track and basketball, which you eventually chose, what was the difference?
To be completely honest, I didn’t really love track. I was good at it, and my dad ran track and all my basketball teammates ran track. So it was kind of just another thing I was going to do. I contemplated my sophomore year, “I’m not running track.” I really didn’t like it at all, but I was pretty decent at it. My heart wasn’t really in it; I did track as a hobby. But I knew basketball could take me where I really wanted to go. I didn’t know the severity of how much I liked basketball at that point, but I knew I didn’t like track.
I said my senior year I wasn’t going to run, and take this last summer before college to enjoy myself. But my coach was also my algebra teacher and my basketball teammates were all running track, and he told me we had a chance to win state that year. So it all ended up working out.
When you first got to UCLA, you had some great players to look up to – three of whom are now playing in the WNBA. What was that experience like, and what did you learn?
I’ve learned so much from everyone who’s come through this program, and I was super fortunate to be on a team with Jordin (Canada) and Kelli (Hayes) and Mo (Billings) and two of them ended up being in the WNBA. When I came here I was just happy to be here. “I’m in LA!” I was the happiest freshman you could ever meet. And I got to indulge in all this information – there was so much I didn’t know. Certain plays, screens, terminology, I didn’t know any of this. To have them to talk to was great. Jordin took us (freshmen) under her wing, and so did Kelli. We’d go to dinner with them, have fun with them, and you could tell they really cared about us even though we just got there. Today Jordin will come back and we’ll go out to dinner with her. That doesn’t happen unless you’ve fostered that relationship years ago.
I really did learn so much from them, and they really did take the freshmen in so well, not only on the court but off the court. I’m super grateful for that.
You’ve continued to get exponentially better each year in college, both skill-wise and basketball knowledge-wise. How have you been able to do that?
Just knowing I have a lot to improve on. I have a lot of great coaches and support staff to really push me to tap into my potential. Sometimes you don’t know what you can do, but you have people who really believe in you. I’m grateful to have people who do that for me.
I’ve told this story so many times, but after my freshman year I had an exit meeting with coach Cori and she told me, “I need you to be the go-to player,” and I was 18 and was like what? I just got here. (laughs) I put a lot of pressure on myself – it was good pressure. And that summer I put in a lot of work, just really grinding, because I knew my team needed that from me. And it’s fun getting better. Three years ago I didn’t know how to do some things, and now I can. It’s fun to see that growth and how it can potentially help the team. It’s paid off, but there’s a lot more for me to improve on, and I’m excited to do that.
How do you approach goal-setting?
I don’t know if I ever make goals, honestly. Well, one goal I made when I came here was to win a Pac-12 championship. Once I’ve said it, that’s it. Every day is a process, but once I’ve said something, that’s it. I don’t put too much of a burden on myself, but I take every day as that day. I don’t really focus too much on super big goals.
You’ve grown tremendously as a person from your freshman to your senior year. If you could tell your freshman self anything, what would it be?
I would say, be confident 100 percent. Just be confident in who you are on the basketball court. A lot of good things happened my freshman year, but I feel like sometimes I held myself back like, I don’t know this, I don’t know that, this isn’t my place. So I’d say, be confident in who you are on the court, and off the court. Say what you want to say, ask the question you want to ask, don’t worry if you don’t know these things.
You’ve had a lot of loss this year, from the loss of the postseason to the loss of the chance to compete at the Olympics in the 3X3. How have you gone about processing it all? How do you keep yourself up, and keep going?
I think when our season was canceled, that was one of the more sad days for me in 2020. I didn’t think it would happen to us, and when it did, I was distraught. It was like wow, where do we go from here. It would be easy in that situation to think, I’m not going back so I’m just going to be sitting at home. But working out, going to the gym, lifting weights – I kept myself motivated in that way. I knew we were going to come back in some way, so I had to keep myself motivated, I had to be ready.
It was tough for me mentally at first, especially with everybody asking me questions about school, the season, stuff like that. But I kept motivated by telling myself we’d come back some way. And it was easy to stay connected to the team because we had meetings on Zoom every week.
The school schedule was the hardest transition, going all online. Doing stuff, keeping busy, and spending time with my family. Changing my perspective and thinking, I get to spend this time with my family – it was the longest I’ve been able to be home in college. After a while that became the new normal. Knowing that we’re not going back to how it was before – that was key for me, was accepting that.
Coach Shannon told me that she asked you during the planning of the Bruins’ This is More Than a D.R.E.A.M. group how outspoken you wanted to be. You said you were OK with being “unapologetically Black.” What does that mean to you?
For so many years Black voices, and especially Black women’s voices, have been so suppressed. And I feel really passionately about the constant systemic racism we see every day. It’s crazy to think how deeply-rooted systemic racism is in this country. It seems like we’re in a position where, no matter how hard we work, we’ll always be a step behind because of the systems in place. Being unapologetically Black means no longer adhering to white standards. Realizing that I deserve to be here just as much as anybody else, or any white person. And we’ve adhered to white standards for so long, but that’s over now. That’s not something I’m willing to keep doing.
So that’s what I mean by being unapologetically Black. That I’m going to say what I want to say. That there comes a point where we’ve been doing this for too long and it’s not that time to keep accepting what’s been put in front of us.
It was in the heat of the George Floyd protests, and I was really pissed. I was going to protests, I was tired. That whole period of time really made me sad. I found myself contemplating in my room, why is the world like this? I couldn’t even watch the George Floyd video. It shouldn’t be like this, we shouldn’t accept this as normal, and people like me shouldn’t have to fear for their lives.
So bottom line, you’re willing to speak up for yourself even if other people don’t like what you’re saying?
How do you stay appropriately agitated without letting the anger of awareness take over your consciousness?
It comes from being grounded in what I believe in. At the end of the day, there will be people who don’t agree with me, and people who think differently. And that’s OK because I know my foundation, and I know what I’m grounded in. They’re not going to take me out of my character. You want to be honest in how you feel, but you don’t want your character to be taken out of context. When you’re grounded in what you feel, believe and value, you can’t be taken out of that.
What kind of racism have you experienced as a dark-skinned woman?
Good question. I’ve gotten followed round the store. I was in Chipotle recently and there was a Black woman next to me who came in way after me, and when the cashier went to ring me up she asked if our order was together. You would never ask a white person if the person next to them was with them. I had to ground myself.
As a kid, it was the African jokes I’ve got before. With males you see different treatment towards a light-skinned Black woman as opposed to a dark-skinned Black woman. The undertones in what they say. When I was younger, it really bothered me. You can tell even as a kid that like, I was treated differently because I’m dark-skinned. And it was tough; you’d hope you wouldn’t have to think about that at a young age. It took me a while to really love who I was and how dark I was, and to love my (Nigerian) culture. In middle school I had to really reflect on that by myself. And it took me a while to realize that I really do love my dark skin and there’s nothing wrong with it, even though guys usually love light-skinned women. I feel like coming to that realization really helped me out and made me who I am right now.
Your bio says your major is still undecided.
They haven’t updated it yet. I’m a sociology major with a minor in African-American studies.
I understand you want to be a dentist after your basketball career is over.
I do! Those dentist dreams are something I still have. My aunt is a dentist and I was able to go shadow her at work a few summers ago and see what she does.