November 19, 2021 

Sights and sounds from Michaela Onyenwere’s Rookie of the Year presentation

'I'm just having so much fun here'

BROOKLYN — Inside streetwear and sneaker store SNIPES on Wednesday night, those gathered to honor Michaela Onyenwere made it feel like WNBA season. Do a 360, and people in seafoam and black jerseys and sweatshirts and orange WNBA hoodies packed the medium-sized store on Flatbush Avenue across the street from Barclays Center. The store featured orange accents on the walls in addition to a bright WNBA-esque orange backdrop that carried the caps and lids that were on display for sale.

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Look closely and there was even someone in OG New York Liberty paraphernalia. That’s right, the circa 1997 orange, blue and seafoam Liberty crest was found on a fan perusing the store. In the window facing the street laid a giant life-size poster of New York Liberty rising sophomore Michaela Onyenwere in her black explorer jersey which read in bright seafoam green: 2021 Kia WNBA Rookie of the Year (ROY) Presentation.

“Thank you all for showing out today, thank y’all for showing out,” Onyenwere said when she addressed the sea of people in the store. “This is far better than I expected.”

But wait a minute, wasn’t Onyenwere announced as ROY in early October? She received 47 total votes out of 49 to become the first New York Liberty player in franchise history to win the award. Yes, that is true, but the Liberty were already knocked out of the playoffs by the time the award was announced and the league was in the middle of its semifinal rounds.

On Oct. 5, in classic pandemic form, Onyenwere accepted her award on Zoom. While she was thankful to receive such a high honor, she was a bit more subdued in her demeanor. The Liberty forward had just found out that she needed to have surgery on her right thumb to repair her radial collateral ligament (RCL). Her initial plans to play overseas in Spain for EuroLeague team Spar Girona would now be on hold and rehabbing her hand would be on her agenda for the next couple of months.

But she made lemonade out of lemons. If she was in Spain, Onyenwere might not have gotten her moment on Wednesday night and she wouldn’t have been afforded the opportunity to explore New York with teammates Betnijah Laney and DiDi Richards.

November 17, 2021 – Nike customized sneaker for Michaela Onyenwere of the New York Liberty at the 2021 Kia WNBA Rookie of the Year presentation at Snipes in Brooklyn, New York. Photo Credit: New York Liberty.

After six weeks had passed since she was announced as the ROY, Onyenwere was finally going to receive all of the pomp and circumstance that comes with winning one of the major WNBA season awards: a visit with Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, getting to hold up the award trophy and reflecting on a year of success with the people who mattered and supported her the most. Onyenwere even got her own customized pair of Nike Dunks that have a seafoam, white and black colorway; her name and the title rookie of the year ‘21 written in black cursive across the shoe’s tip; and her number 12 etched in black on the heel.

After Engelbert announced to the crowd the laundry list of leading statistics from Onyenwere’s first professional season, the ROY herself took the mic and thanked her family, including her mom, dad and brother, who were in attendance. She thanked her teammates and gestured toward Richards, the one who was there off to the side taking photos and videos of her friend’s big moment. And last but certainly not least, she thanked the fans, the people in the room that she hadn’t really interacted with yet, due to COVID-19 restrictions, but was about to.

“Thank you for supporting us especially with the ups and the downs of our season,” she said as she addressed the Liberty fans. “Watch out for next year because we’re gonna be real good …”

The audience roared.

“… We’re not just going to make it to the first round of the playoffs, we’re going to go even further.”

Moments later, Onyenwere sat down with Peloton instructor and New York Liberty in-arena host Jess Sims for a live Q&A. Together they chatted about Onyenwere’s favorite memory from the 2021 season––which was when Laney banked a shot in to beat the Seattle Storm at home–– along with how the ROY’s famous grandmother is doing and how Michaela has adjusted to living on the East coast after spending most of her life on the West.

It took a bit of getting used to for the 22-year-old. The crowds and the traffic felt very different in New York, noting that it’s worse than what she had experienced in LA. She didn’t love it at first. But the city’s food and culture got Onyenwere hooked on what New York has to offer.

When Sims asked her what her favorite activity is to do in New York and Brooklyn, her response was one word: eat. She mentioned her newfound love of Caribbean food in addition to having some go-to spots to enjoy Nigerian cuisine, something she cited as a must as a Nigerian-American.

Her Nigerian culture is part of what motivates her to continue achieving at the level she does. “I just get DMs from Nigerian children everywhere,” she told Sims. “And I think that that is so inspiring. And as part of the reason why I play. Just be able to have those kids have a representation and see that like, ‘oh, she’s a Nigerian girl who made it like I can do it as well.’”

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Following the Q&A, it was the moment the fans in the room had been waiting for: autograph time. Onyenwere migrated to the checkout counter where she got set up to sign posters, jerseys, shirts, and of course, take selfies. Richards followed her teammate and set herself up near the counter behind Onyenwere so she could continue photographing and videoing her friend’s night in the spotlight. Once fans got their meet and greet with Onyenwere, they then floated over to where Richards was. They chatted with her and asked for selfies. She, of course, obliged.

When Onyenwere was finished signing posters, she spoke to a couple of media members all about what the moment felt like — how it was to be in a room with fans in person, rather than on a screen, due to previous COVID protocols. Her favorite interaction of the evening came when a woman approached her asking if she could sign her poster on behalf of her four-year-old daughter.

Okay so this lady was like can you write it to this little girl, this four year old, this Nigerian girl. She sees you on TV and she’s just so excited. That was really cool. That’s what I was talking about with how representation is so important, like I mean she probably doesn’t know like, I mean she might not know who I am now, but she’s four. So just having little kids like that  just seeing those stories. You see you are doing something right to have people come up to you and say that.

Michaela Onyenwere

Reflecting on the night and the past six weeks, Onyenwere proclaimed that injuring her hand was such a blessing in disguise. In the past six weeks, she’s learned about NFTs at an NBA TopShot event, met rapper Quavo, has been able to get involved with local nonprofits, and much more.

“There’s just been so many different kind of opportunities that I’ve kind of had and who I’ve met,” she said. “I obviously don’t want to get hurt, but like it’s almost a blessing in disguise because I’ve been able to do so much and have so much fun and I love basketball and I miss it so much but it’s been so cool to have an outlet. Basketball isn’t my first priority right now.”

But on Wednesday night, a member of the trio that WNBA fans have seen running around New York was missing. 2021 All-Star Betnijah Laney was MIA. On Thursday we found out why. The team announced that Laney had a left knee arthroscopy done on Wednesday on the same knee she tore back in 2016 while on the Chicago Sky. She’ll do her rehab in New York and be ready for training camp in April.

As Onyenwere and Richards left SNIPES for Barclays Center to go take over YES Network’s Instagram account, Richards made sure the pair left the event with one of Onyenwere’s favorite food options in hand: Chick-fil-A. Richards then posted a selfie Instagram video where she told Onyenwere to smile and look at the camera. But, there was a special guest in the background, Onyenwere’s dad, who asked the pair if he could get in the frame.  

Moments later both Onyenwere and Richards posted videos and photos from their experience watching the Nets take on the Cavaliers. They shot t-shirts out of the cannon, and Onyenwere got honored on the Barclays big screen.

“I’ve been having so much fun like the season was like the best six months of my life, and I was like this is the best two months of my life,” Onyenwere said. “I’m just having so much fun here and I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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